I don't watch baseball, so I had no idea that baseball beards were a thing. They are grotesque-looking good-luck charms, or so I've been told by Mark-Paul Gosselaar. MP knows what he's talking abou:. He plays a veteran catcher for the San Diego Padres in upcoming fictional television series Pitch. He also currently has a beard. A big, burly, gross beard.
And it is weird. I write for the internet, which means I've crafted my fair share of "Former Disney Star Is Nearly Unrecognizable As A Grown-Ass Woman" headlines. But trust me when I say that here, sitting at a table in a freezing hotel restaurant in Austin, Texas, Gosselaar is truly unrecognizable. His facial mane is unreal. He looks like he just deserted the Wall on Game of Thrones. No — scratch that. The man sitting before me is a Wildling, not quite a Giantsbane but close enough.
Of course, this is the first thing that comes out of my mouth during our interview. Lucky for me, Gosselaar watches Game of Thrones. That could have been awkward. (Not to mention highly embarrassing for Gosselaar, whom I would have had to publicly shame, in my finest Septa rags, for not getting this spot-on reference.)
"Dan Fogelman told me to gain some weight and grow a beard," Gosselaar tells me at the ATX TV Festival, referring to the executive producer of his new series. "He didn't want anyone to recognize me."
What MP means to say is that Fogelman didn't want anyone to recognize him as '80s heartthrob Zack Morris, his career-defining role on Saved by the Bell. In that case, job well done, fellas.
"For me especially, when I watch things, I have a hard time not putting that label on somebody that I've seen in their past work," he adds. "Dan had a right to do this to me."
He says this as if he's been personally victimized by Fogelman, and looking at the hair that is currently obscuring his face, I think maybe he has.
"It's horrible," he says. "I'm not a beard guy. I'm not a clean-shaven guy. I'm kinda right in between. I let it go for a week or two at the most, but this is obnoxious. My wife and I have four kids, and this is keeping us from having a fifth." I think for a second that this is intended as a joke, but looking at the desperation in Gosselaar's eyes, I can tell that he's serious.
But Gosselaar is nothing if not committed to his craft. As MLB player Mike Lawson on Fox's Pitch, the 42-year-old actor grew this obnoxiously big, Duck Dynasty beard because it's what the major leaguers do. (A quick Google search confirms this.) "Honestly, it was just to make my character more authentic," he says.
Of course, the beard does have its benefits, aside from being a natural form of birth control. For the first time in 20 years, Gosselaar has complete anonymity. "It's amazing," he says. "I've never been in this position in my career, where I can walk into a room without anyone recognizing me. People at my kids' school don't recognize me. Old friends who I haven't seen in a while don't know it's me." (In case you're wondering, one of those old friends is Superstore actor Ben Feldman.)
There's a certain freedom in being unrecognizable, one that I'll never understand. It's impossible to look at Gosselaar now and picture Zack Morris's boyish good looks. That guy just doesn't exist anymore. Zack Morris is dead -- and the beard is doing the Slater Dance on his grave.
"I've always played characters who have a very distinct look," Gosselaar says. "It's a plus to be more of myself."