Dustin Diamond, ‘Saved by the Bell’ actor often embroiled in scandal, dies at 44
Dustin Diamond, the former child star who most notably played curly-haired geek Samuel “Screech” Powers on NBC’s wholesome 1990s sitcom “Saved by the Bell” and then became infamous for a number of post-show scandals, has died. He was 44.
Diamond, who revealed on Jan. 14 that he had Stage 4 cancer, died in a Florida hospital Monday morning as arrangements were being made to move him to hospice care, his talent agent, Roger Paul, told The Times. Diamond had small-cell carcinoma that metastasized in his lungs after originating elsewhere in his body.
“He was diagnosed with this brutal, relentless form of malignant cancer only three weeks ago,” Paul added in a statement. “In that time, it managed to spread rapidly throughout his system; the only mercy it exhibited was its sharp and swift execution. Dustin did not suffer. He did not have to lie submerged in pain. For that, we are grateful.”
As Screech, Diamond embodied the ultimate yes-man sidekick who executed preppy Zack Morris’ most harebrained ideas. Each week, the oddball character would improve or subvert Zack’s schemes with his scientific know-how, all while pining over the friend group’s wealthy fashionista, Lisa Turtle, played by Lark Voorhies. (He never did win her heart, but came close a few times.)
The San Jose native was a fifth-grader when he was cast and debuted on the series when it was still airing as “Good Morning, Miss Bliss,” a precursor to the high-school comedy that aired on the Disney Channel after NBC passed on the series. It starred Hayley Mills as the titular Miss Bliss and “Saved by the Bell’s” Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Dennis Haskins and Voorhies. Nineties’ TV stars Jaleel White of “Family Matters” and Brian Austin Green of “Beverly Hills, 90210” also appeared in some of the show’s 14 episodes.
After sagging ratings, NBC relaunched the Indiana-set show in 1989 as the multicamera teen sitcom “Saved by the Bell,” shifting the focus from Mills’ middle-school teacher to a group of six archetypal students at California’s fictional Bayside High. Mario Lopez’s sensitive jock A.C. Slater, Elizabeth Berkley‘s bright feminist Jessie Spano and Tiffani-Amber Thiessen‘s girl-next-door cheerleader Kelly Kapowski joined Diamond’s Screech, Gosselaar’s Zack and Voorhies’ Lisa.
The comedy aired Saturday mornings on NBC through 1993. It was poorly received by critics but grew a devoted millennial fan base and ultimately spawned the prime-time sequels “Saved by the Bell: The College Years” and “Saved by the Bell: The New Class” (along with two TV movies and various stunt reunions, to the delight of its cult following). Diamond continued for a year with “The College Years” before moving on to “The New Class,” which debuted in 1993 and ran through 2000.
In 2020, NBC again revived the cultural touchstone as a postmodernist, self-aware series for its fledgling streaming service Peacock. The principal actors returned in substantial roles — except for Diamond. (Screech was briefly mentioned in the series, and Voorhies made only a cameo).
On Monday, some of Diamond’s “Saved by the Bell” classmates paid tribute to the late star.
Thiessen was “deeply saddened” by his death, and Gosselaar described him as “a true comedic genius,” fondly recalling “those raw, brilliant sparks that only he was able to produce.”
“Dustin, you will be missed my man,” Lopez tweeted. “The fragility of this life is something never to be taken for granted. Prayers for your family will continue on...”
After the show’s original run and sequels went off the air, Diamond quickly shook off his character’s squeaky-clean image and began making headlines for more lurid escapades, including a 2006 sex tape titled “Screeched” and a Wisconsin bar fight for which he was jailed.
“The hardest thing about being a child star is giving up your childhood,” the actor said in 2013 on “Oprah: Where Are They Now?” “You don’t get a childhood, really. You’re a professional and you got to know your lines and rehearse and practice. It was making sure that you were the funniest and the best that you can be because if you weren’t funny, you could be replaced.”
Born on Jan. 7, 1977, Diamond was 23 when the series ended and said he had been working every week for 10 years.
“I felt lost. As I mature, I realize, wow, I was kind of going through my rebellious teens in my 20s,” he told Oprah Winfrey.
He also said the sex tape he made when he was 29 was one of the things he was “most embarrassed about.” He said he agreed to do it only when he learned that hotel heiress Paris Hilton reportedly made $14 million from her illicit video. He noted that it was only his face in the video and not his body. He claimed he used a stunt person for it.
“Looking back now in my 30s, I realize that was really dumb,” he said, explaining that although he made some money from the tape, it “wasn’t worth what the fallout was.”
“People to this day look down on me. There’s a lot of people [who think] ‘how disgusting of you’ — and I didn’t really do it,” he said.
Also in 2006, the actor embarked on a viral campaign to save his Port Washington, Wisc., home from foreclosure. To supplement his meager income as a stand-up comic, Diamond tried selling some 30,000 autographed T-shirts that read “I paid $15.00 to save Screeech’s house.” (The additional “e” in the character’s name was to work around copyright laws).
Another fallout ensued when he released the 2009 tell-all book “Behind the Bell,” recounting his experiences working on the beloved show. It was another disappointment for the actor. The first-time author used a ghostwriter, whom he believed used his throwaway stories for more scandalous narratives, including allegations of a cast orgy that he later had to dispel.
The series was also dragged through the mud in a 2014 Lifetime movie, “The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story,” whose teleplay was based in part on Diamond’s memoir and didn’t involve any other original cast members. It received a similarly negative reception on social media and a public lashing from Gosselaar, who continued to find TV success, among others.
Diamond was arrested in 2014 and faced felony and misdemeanor charges for stabbing a man. Though he pleaded not guilty and testified that he never intended to stab anyone in the Christmas Day brawl, he was convicted for the two misdemeanors and sentenced to four months in jail in 2015. Diamond said he was trying to scare bar patrons in Port Washington after his girlfriend was punched in the face.
“We are aware that Dustin is not considered reputable by most,” his agent said Monday. “He’s had a history of mishaps, of unfortunate events. We want the public to understand that he was not intentionally malevolent. He — much like the rest of those who act out and behave poorly — had undergone a great deal of turmoil and heartache. His actions ... stemmed from loss and the lack of knowledge on how to process that pain properly.”
Paul said Diamond was “a humorous and high-spirited individual whose greatest passion was to make others laugh. He was able to sense and feel other people’s emotions to such a length that he was able to feel them too — a strength and a flaw, all in one.
“Dustin Diamond was a character in and of himself: an unpredictable spitfire who always left us shocked, but never left us bored. We are thankful he trusted us enough to share his genuine, authentic self with our team. We wish you knew him in the way that we did.”
The stand-up comic made a later career of playing himself or his “Bell” persona in numerous projects. Some of his eclectic titles included the instructional 2001 documentary “Dustin Diamond Teaches Chess,” a cameo in the 98 Degrees music video for “I Do (Cherish You)” and several TV movies. He also appeared as himself in the contentious 2007-08 season of “Celebrity Fit Club” and a 2013 run of “Celebrity Big Brother.”
Diamond was a professional wrestling fan, avid gamer and played bass in the alternative metal band Salty the Pocketknife.
“I’ve been involved with music for about 22 years, I just never pushed it,” he said in a 2004 Chaos Control interview. “I started learning classical guitar from my dad and moved to electric guitar. In 1994, I picked up the bass and never turned back. … I’m a performer, and I’m most comfortable on stage.”
Any hard feelings between him and a few of his former classmates were seemingly put to rest when the actor was hospitalized for Stage 4 cancer and was receiving chemotherapy. Lopez and Thiessen wished him well on social media after news of his diagnosis.
Diamond is survived by his mother, girlfriend and “very loving friends,” his agent said.
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