Sabrina the Teenage Witch was a classic TGIF comedy, and it has a lasting legacy: Melissa Joan Hart is famous and lots of women in their thirties wish they could magically switch their outfit with a twitch of the hand. But there’s a lot that fans might not remember, or might never have known in the first place. From story inspiration to casting decisions to network deals, here is the untold truth of one of the coolest adolescent sorcerers (no shade to Hermione Granger).
The source material may seem familiar
Many may not realize this, but Sabrina the Teenage Witch is based on a character from Archie Comics. Yes — Archie, Jughead, Betty, Veronica, and Sabrina Spellman are all from the same universe. And that means that contemporary CW hit Riverdale, the dark reimagining of the classic Archie Comics characters, is sort of the cousin of the popular 90s family sitcom (which has a reboot in the works, by the way. More on that down below).
If you didn’t know these two shows had any connection, it’s kind of like finding out two celebrities who you’ve never associated together are actually related. Like Lily Allen and the dude who plays Theon Greyjoy on Game of Thrones.
The show was a family affair
Melissa Joan Hart didn’t have to nervously audition for the producer of Sabrina to nail the starring role, because the entire project was conceived by a power player who already had her in mind for the part: her mom. Paula Hart, mama of Melissa Joan, came up with the idea to adapt the Sabrina comic for television. She found the comic, made it into a TV movie, and then developed it into a TV show.
MJH told Marie Claire that the whole enterprise would be nowhere without her mama, explaining that she "doesn’t get nearly enough credit for her job as the woman spearheading the show. She is the one who was handed the Archie Comic book on a playground at my sister’s school in Manhattan and sold it to Viacom as a Showtime movie." So she basically found the perfect vehicle for her firstborn child, in addition to carrying her in the womb for nine months. Above and beyond.
Sabrina’s original crush is a familiar face
In the original TV movie version of Sabrina, heartthrob Seth was played by none other than Ryan Reynolds. And Hart told Giuliana Rancic on her E! talk show that even though she had a serious boyfriend at the time, she still went for it with Reynolds. She admitted that after Reynolds gifted her a Bulova watch (which is kind of a weird gift for a teenage boy to give, but probably pleasantly expensive), she took action.
She told Rancic, "I chased him down, got in front of his car and just kissed him and then made out with him all night. Then I had to call my boyfriend the next day and explain it." Ultimately she decided to stay with her boyfriend, who apparently forgave and forgot. Reynolds then decided to marry Scarlett Johansson, and then Blake Lively. And they all lived happily ever after.
Pitched the show to four networks in one day, and she got how many offers?!
Executive producer and witch-actress mother Paula Hart pitched her idea for a Sabrina the Teenage Witch TV show to four networks in one day. By the end of the day, she had three offers. Not bad! Hart and Hart (mom and daughter) made their decision based on a promised juicy timeslot. The younger Hart told Marie Claire, "She got three offers in the room for the series and we decided ABC was the right home because we were fans of the TGIF lineup and felt it was the right place for our show."
Sabrina’s forgettable teacher is now a Hollywood power player
Remember Mr. Pool? It’s highly forgivable if you don’t. Sabrina’s brainy, broke biology teacher was not exactly the star of the show, though Sabrina was fairly fond of him. But if you watch this clip on YouTube, you might recognize the actor. It’s filmmaker Paul Feig, creator of Freaks and Geeks, and director of Bridesmaids and the new female-lead Ghostbusters.
In a SiriusXM Town Hall for EW Radio, Feig explained that after the first season of the show, producers called him and said, "We’re going to write your character out of the show cause we don’t know how to write for him." Feig had already spent all his income from the show on making an independent feature film, and while touring the country trying (unsuccessfully) to promote it, he wrote the pilot for Freaks and Geeks.
Salem’s voice was under the producers’ noses from day one
The wry punchlines of Salem the cat, who was actually a witch who had tried to take over the world and, as punishment, was forced into feline form, was one of the signature elements of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. So how did they find the perfect voice to capture this snarky, tortured soul? The producers ended up going with Nick Bakay, one of the show’s writers.
For Entertainment Weekly‘s cast reunion, executive producer Nell Scovell recounted that Bakay used to do the voice in the writer’s room while they were crafting the series. She explained, "He always used to do the part in the room, and he’s hilarious, so when we started seeing people for that part we were always judging them against how Nick sounded, and they always came up short."
As for the cat itself, the process was a little bumpy. In the same EW special, Caroline Rhea, who played Aunt Hilda, said the cat puppet for season one didn’t look like a cat, but rather "looked a bit like an alcoholic rabbit wearing a hairpiece." And she had to act opposite the puppet, while Bakay stood to the side and did the voice. But you know what? The process worked.
How did a show about dark supernatural forces get so funny?
To adapt the sentimental Showtime TV movie version of Sabrina into a joke-filled sitcom, ABC hired comedy writer Nell Scovell. She wrote for many classic comedies including The Simpsons and Murphy Brown, and wanted to make something that she would have watched as a teenage girl. That’s why, she told The Guardian, "Sabrina never hung out at the mall or went shopping. She cared about being a good friend, making good choices, and doing well in school. The magic was a metaphor for a young girl learning to control her desires and emotions, as well as an excuse to showcase a 6ft flan."
One aspect of Sabrina’s magic almost gave the actors a seizure
In the show, Sabrina and her aunts travel through a closet door into "the other realm" of the witches. In reality, the three women had to run inside a tiny closet and shut their eyes while the crew filmed the lightning flashes that signified their interdimensional travel. It adds a whole other layer to the show to imagine actors Melissa Joan Hart, Caroline Rhea, and Beth Broderick stuffed into a little room while pretending they’re traveling to a magical world. Hart explained on an EW cast reunion panel, "You had to try to hide and duck and cover your eyes, because you walk out of there, just feeling like, you know, you just had a seizure."
How does Melissa Joan Hart feel about the Netflix reboot of her show?
Sabrina the Teenage Witch is currently being developed into a new series for Netflix, and the updated series will have a much darker tone. Sabrina will be played by Mad Men‘s Kiernan Shipka, and teen show heavy-hitter Greg Berlanti will produce along with Riverdale‘s Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa.
So how does Melissa Joan Hart feel about all this? "Indifferent, really," she told Entertainment Weekly. Perhaps she’s being political, but Hart very diplomatically said she would be open to appearing on the show or directing an episode, depending on the circumstances. She reflected, "Never say never, but it would depend on the character they wrote. I just don’t know where I would fit in. I would definitely take a look at the material if they sent it along."