If you grew up in the ’90s, you should give Don Lewis Barnhart a hug. Now 77, he likely played a major part in your childhood without you knowing. A television director since the 1970s, Barnhart reached his peak in the ’90s, directing the bulk of Saved by the Bell. The gang from Bayside still holds a special place in his heart, as does Robin Williams, whom Barnhart directed on Mork & Mindy. We caught up with the Vegas-based radio host to delve into his past behind the camera and his thoughts on the onscreen present.
Vulture.com ranked every episode of Saved by the Bell. “Jessie’s Song,” where the character gets hooked on caffeine pills, was No. 1. What do you remember about making that episode? Some of the other cast members made fun of [Elizabeth Berkley], because it was dealing with caffeine. They were joking about heroin. She was caught between her peers and what the director, me, wanted. She wanted to go 100 percent. I had to keep pulling her back. I would go to her and I would look her in the eye and say, “Don’t let it out yet. I’ll get you there.” When we got to Friday on shooting day, I looked at her and said, “Okay, now’s the time.” She was so thankful, because she had saved up this energy and she wasn’t afraid anymore. We did it and she kicked it loose.
One of my favorite episodes is “Rockumentary,” about the band Zack Attack. One of the best shows we ever did. I dealt with it like a film. The actors dug into it. They didn’t have to worry about the audience, just themselves. They were not tapped out.
You worked as an assistant director on musical variety shows in the ’70s. That seems like the golden age of that type of programming. I worked on the Donny & Marie show. We were in rehearsal one day, and they couldn’t figure out a blow-off line for the sketch. Donny was being kind of a jerk in the sketch. I was sitting there next to the director, Art Fisher, and I said, “Why doesn’t she say to him, ‘Cute, Donny. Real cute.’” Everybody laughed. And they took the line. And for 13 weeks that was always the blow-off line for their sketches. I never got a dime or a thank you for it.
Any bad ones? I did The Sonny Bono Comedy Revue. This was after he and Cher split. It was Sonny and everybody who was on the old Sonny & Cher show. No Cher. It was like the Last Supper without Christ.
How did you end up directing Mork & Mindy? I started as a second assistant director. It is the worst position on the set. One day, here comes Garry Marshall with his entourage. He was the executive producer on Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Who’s Watching the Kids?, Mork & Mindy. ... I said to Garry, “I would really like to be a director. Do you think you can help me do that?” Everybody thought, what balls I had. Garry said, “I can’t do it. But I tell you what I will do. You go out and get yourself a director’s job and come back to me and we’ll talk.”
Where did you go? I went over to Benson with Robert Guillaume. Tony Thomas told me I could A.D. five shows, and the last one of 1980 I could direct. ... First day on my first big network television show on ABC, Bob stopped rehearsal and said, “Excuse me, what are you going to do with your cameras?” He was testing me. This is where it gets dicey. I could have been fired like that. I said, “Bob, f*ck the cameras.” Everybody just stopped. I said, “I’m only interested in the story.”
Did Garry Marshall keep his word? He was one of the very few people I met in my whole career who did what he said he was going to do. ... They hired me back on as a second [for Mork & Mindy]. After a month, I moved up to first and [ran] the set. I ended up directing three or four episodes.
What was it like working with Robin Williams? He went out and performed all over the place, and he would drink and come in the next morning with one or two hours sleep. He was a genius. He would come in and his eyes were slanted and his hair was askew and he would go right to Mindy’s couch and go to sleep. We worked out a deal with the stand-in so when we blocked the show, the stand-in would go over and wake him up, kindly, and say, “Okay, here’s what we’re doing.” He would walk the areas so that Robin could hit his mark. Robin hit every mark, knew all his lines. It was amazing.
How do you feel about the way Williams died? It was a big shock when he died. But as time progressed and they mentioned how and why and what reasons, I came to understand it, because I have the same feelings. I told my sister if I get Alzheimer’s or some kind of thing with my memory shady, what would I do? ... I kind of respected him. He taught me a lot.
What was the most valuable thing he taught you? To not be afraid.
What are your goals now? I spent years in the radio business. I didn’t make the big time. Now I’m back in radio and it’s like full circle. My show is on Fridays at noon—Bring It on With Barnhart—on Internet radio station VANR. It’s organized chaos.
What do you like that’s on TV today? Not much.