A former teen star, Dustin Diamond charmed as a child in "Big Top Pee-wee" (1988) and on "Good Morning, Miss Bliss" (The Disney Channel, 1988-89), which became the international teen smash "Saved by the Bell" (NBC, 1989-1993). Part of the original cast, Diamond played the ultra-nerdy Samuel "Screech" Powers, who provided most of the show's physical and over-the-top comedy. As the rest of the cast grew into adult beauties, the not-quite-as-photogenic Diamond was forced to work harder to squeak and mug for laughs, and he reportedly developed a resentment of his colleagues and for the double-edged sword of achieving fame as a joke character. Nominated for three Young Artist Awards, Diamond was a key element of every iteration of the franchise, helping anchor the spin-offs "Saved by the Bell: The College Years" (NBC, 1993-94) and "Saved by the Bell: The New Class" (NBC, 1993-2000). Reduced to a visual and pop culture punchline as an adult, Diamond responded by adopting an aggressive, hardened exterior, parodying himself in "Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star" (2003), starring in his own pornographic film "Screeched" (2006), and writing a supposedly scandalous "tell-all" Behind the Bell. Sincerely or not, Diamond seemed to relish the nearly universal negative attention, including his shunning by his main five "Bell" co-stars. Although his teen stardom earned him a place in pop cultural immortality, Dustin Diamond wore the mantle uneasily at best.
Born Jan. 7, 1977 in San Jose, CA, Dustin Neil Diamond notched early success as a child actor, appearing in such kid-friendly fare as the animated "Yogi's Great Escape" (syndicated, 1987), "Big Top Pee-wee" (1988) and "Purple People Eater" (1988) before he landed his biggest role to date on "Good Morning, Miss Bliss" (The Disney Channel, 1988-89), which morphed into the teen juggernaut "Saved by the Bell" (NBC, 1989-1993). Part of the original cast that also included Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) and Lisa Turtle (Lark Voorhies), Voorhies played the sweet but socially awkward Samuel "Screech" Powers, who served as the group's resident nerd, complete with bizarre clothing, over-the-top reactions and trademark pre-puberty squeaky voice. Set in an Indianapolis junior high school classroom presided over by the titular Miss Bliss (Hayley Mills), the series did not really catch fire until it was retooled as "Saved by the Bell," with Diamond, Voorhies, Gosselaar and principal Mr. Belding (Dennis Haskins) transplanted to Bayside High in sunny Southern California and new classmates Kelly Kapowski (Tiffani-Amber Thiessen), Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkley) and A.C. Slater (Mario Lopez) added to the mix. While never a critical darling, the cheesy-but-charming series became an international phenomenon, turning its young stars into teen idols and becoming a beloved, often-quoted pop cultural touchstone for certain generations.
On a show where so much attention derived from the attractiveness and glamour of its young cast of pin-ups, Diamond found himself in a difficult position as the show's cartoonish comic relief. Several years younger than his castmates, not as physically attractive, and with more childlike interests such as magic and mischief than in raging hormones, Diamond struggled to be accepted as an equal and not as an annoying little brother. This tension and schism only increased over time, as the cast grew up into gorgeous young adults and Diamond was forced to try harder and harder to sell the goofy, unflattering mannerisms of Screech that, as a child had seemed charming, but increasingly began to grate. Nominated for three Young Artist Awards, Diamond was a key character in the world of "Bell" who also appeared in the made-for-TV movies "Saved by the Bell Hawaiian Style" (NBC, 1992), "Saved by the Bell: Wedding in Las Vegas" (NBC, 1994) and earned series regular roles on "Saved by the Bell: The College Years" (NBC, 1993-94) and "Saved by the Bell: The New Class" (NBC, 1993-2000). Although he, too, became a teen star and went on to earn a steady paycheck as the franchise's anchor character, Diamond seemed to carry a chip on his shoulder about the double-edged sword of his fame as Screech as well as his relationship with his co-stars.
After the last "Bell" rang in 2000, Diamond kicked off a stand-up comedy career and appeared frequently at low-tier events with his fellow alum Dennis Haskins, who was also reduced to a pop culture punchline. Diamond wrote, directed, produced and starred in the video "Dustin Diamond Teaches Chess" (2001) and lined up a string of small roles that took advantage of his unique stardom and the subsequent instant visual joke ("It's Screech!") in such projects as "Big Fat Liar" (2002), "Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star" (2003) and the Vince Vaughn/Jon Favreau comedy "Made" (2001), which earned him an MTV Movie Award nomination for Best Cameo. Whether or not it was sincere, the actor began to publicly adopt an attitude of brash aggression and styled himself as a ladies man who reacted to a general lack of critical and audience respect with insults. Denying that he was frustrated by a dearth of job offers, Diamond made headlines with a series of bizarre moments that included him creating, starring and releasing his own pornographic video "Screeched" (2006), beating Ron Palillo bloody on "Celebrity Boxing 2" (Fox, 2002), competing on "Celebrity Fit Club" (VH1, 2005-2010) where he clashed with every other cast member and proudly admitting cheating, and a strange scam where he attempted to solicit donations from fans to prevent his house in Wisconsin from allegedly being foreclosed upon. His most notorious stunt, however, was writing 2009's Behind the Bell, which he claimed revealed the show's dark secrets and scandals. So completely had Diamond estranged all of his former castmates that when People magazine did a cover story on a "Bell" reunion, not only did all the actors agree only if Diamond were excluded, but he and Dennis Haskins were also cropped out of a 1989 group photo for the piece.
By Jonathan Riggs