Inside the Curious and Cautionary Celebrity of Dustin Diamond

With Dustin Diamond's death at 44, the Saved by the Bell star leaves behind a complicated legacy.

By Billy Nilles Feb 02, 2021 4:00 PMTags
Watch: Dustin Diamond Dead at 44 From Lung Cancer

Dustin Diamond was not your typical celebrity.

To wit, there's a high likelihood that, unless you're a member of a particular generation who spent their Saturday mornings in the '90s watching a certain teen sitcom, you might've never even heard of him. That's how synonymous his fame was with one single role: Samuel "Screech" Powers from Saved by the Bell.

And yet, Diamond's story is not so dissimilar from so many in Hollywood. It's one of a star that burns white hot, but for only a moment, before the ensuing absence of attention leads them to publicly buckle at the knees as they seek out fame down increasingly impulsive avenues. It's a cautionary tale, and a curious one. It's a tale as old as time. 

And it's a story we're only telling now, of course, because Diamond has made headlines one final time with his death at 44 on Feb. 1, shortly after revealing a devastating diagnosis of stage 4 small cell carcinoma

Though it may seem unfair to flash a light back on those darker pockets of time in Diamond's life as he plummeted back down to Earth post-TV stardom, it's not as though he was unaware of the life he'd lived and the things he'd done once the studio audience was no longer watching. A statement released to E! News from rep Roger Paul announcing his passing confirmed as much.

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"We are aware that Dustin is not considered reputable by most," it reads, in part. "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, though rebukeable, stemmed from loss and the lack of knowledge on how to process that pain properly. In actuality, Dustin was a humorous and high-spirited individual whose greatest passion was to make others laugh. He was able to sense and feel other peoples' emotions to such a length that he was able to feel them too—a strength and a flaw, all in one."

To understand what Paul means, we have to go back to the start.

NBC

Diamond was only 11 years old when he landed the role that would come to define his entire life. A fifth grader at the time, the San Jose, Calif. native's lengthy tenure as Screech began when he beat out 5,000 other pre-teens for the gig on the 1988 Disney Channel original series Good Morning, Miss Bliss. The series, which starred Hayley Mills as the titular teacher, didn't last long on the burgeoning cable network, but was quickly re-tooled as Saved by the Bell. With only Diamond and his co-stars Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Lark Voorhies kept around for the revamp, the new series debuted on NBC in the summer of 1989.

As it ran for four seasons through 1993, launching spin-offs and careers, Diamond grew up before fans' very eyes. "The thing is, I was 11 when we started, and [my castmates] were 14, 15 years old," he said during a 2013 appearance on OWN's Where Are They Now? "I was kind of like the tag-along brother; when they were going into college, I was just going into high school. And at that age, it's a huge difference. I was wacky and I was wild and real hyper."

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The age difference certainly didn't help endear him to his otherwise closely-knit co-stars, which also included Mario Lopez, Elizabeth Berkley and Tiffani Thiessen. "They can't say they really know me," he told the Associated Press in 2014. 

The same could likely be said about both SBTB fans and Hollywood at large. To them, Diamond and the clueless genius Screech were one in the same.

"I'm proud of the work that I've done when I've done it. It's just, how do you come off such a phenom role of this Screech character and break out of that mold and do something different?" he asked Lopez during a 2016 interview on Extra. "I'd audition, and every single time they'd say, 'Hey, we loved it, but we saw too much Screech in it.' Well, I can't change my bone structure, what do you want me to do?"

So, while his co-stars went on to more adult fare like NYPD Blue (Gosselaar), Showgirls (Berkley) or Beverly Hills, 90210 (Thiessen), Diamond stuck around the halls of Bayside High. In 1994, he joined the cast of Saved by the Bell: The New Class, then in its second season, and remained until it went off the air in 2000. At 23 when he finally hung up Screech's suspenders, he'd spent 12 years of his life playing that one single character. It clearly took a toll.

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"The hardest thing about being a child star is giving up your childhood. You don't get a childhood, really," Diamond said in 2013. "You're a performer, you have to know your lines and rehearse and practice, making sure you are the funniest and the best you can be. Because if you weren't funny, you could be replaced."

Though his time as Screech was finally over, there was a widespread refusal to see him as anything but. So in the early '00s, Diamond attempted a severe rebrand in the hopes of distancing himself from the gawky character. Informed as he was by an adolescence that conditioned him to do whatever it took to keep the attention on him, Diamond spent the next few years exploring some increasingly desperate corners of the industry. 

He participated in the somewhat demoralizing Celebrity Boxing 2, beating up a much older Ron Palillo of Welcome Back, Kotter fame. He played the villain on a season of Celebrity Fit Club. He competed alongside Dennis Rodman and Frank Stallone on Hulk Hogan's Celebrity Championship Wrestling. And then he released a sex tape.

Screeched—Saved by the Smell was released in 2006, featuring Diamond and two women. Initially, he claimed the tape had been leaked by someone connected to a friend circle of his that held "monthly gatherings" exchanging sex tapes to earn points based on the contents. "We do it almost like poker. [The tape] could have been left out in anybody's home, machine, computer," Diamond said at the time. 

However, during his Where Are They Now? interview in 2013, he admitted that the entire thing was orchestrated to make money and that the naked man in the video was actually a stunt double. "It's the thing I'm most embarrassed about," he added. "The rumor that I think had been put on TV was that Paris Hilton had made $14 million off [her] sex tape. My buddy said, 'Fourteen million? Holy smokes! Where's the Screech sex tape? You've got to be worth at least a million.' I thought, 'Yeah, maybe'...I got some money off of it, but it wasn't worth the fallout."

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Three years after the porn, Diamond would make waves again with the release of a tell-all book, Behind the Bell. Alleged to be an inside look at the show from his point of view, the memoir painted almost everybody involved in a remarkably unflattering light, with allegations of teen sex and drug use. "It's no hold barred," he told People ahead of its release in 2009. "But the embarrassing parts are embarrassing for all of us, myself included."

With his recollections swiftly disavowed by his castmates, Diamond would eventually follow suit, claiming in 2013 that the book was ghost written by an author who'd merely interviewed him and turned his responses, however off-the-cuff, into high drama. Of course, that didn't stop him from executive-producing The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story with Lifetime in 2014, using the book as source material.

Jeffrey Phelps/Getty Images

That year, he'd tell the AP that the reality TV villainy, the porn and the book were "really the one-two-three punch of being the bad boy, not the squeaky-clean Screech you remember, which, on one hand, helped because it did break that image."

He wasn't without his regrets, however. "In retrospect, I kind of wish I hadn't gone exactly that route," he added. "But there's no instruction book for any this. You don't know what's going to work. You have to take a gamble. I wanted to rattle the cage, but I didn't think that it would rattle it so much."

Later that year, he'd shake those bars once again when he was arrested in Ozaukee County, Wisconsin, for allegedly stabbing a man in a bar. Charged with second-degree recklessly endangering public safety, carrying a concealed weapon and disorderly conduct, Diamond claimed self-defense, alleging it was other bar patrons who first got physical with his then-fiancée Amanda Schutz. He was ultimately convicted of the two latter charges, with the more serious former dismissed. After being sentenced to four months in jail, he served three before being released on probation. 

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"It's pretty daunting, it's pretty scary going into that environment," he told Lopez during that 2016 Extra interview, taped in May, shortly after his release. "I found that as long as you follow the rules and stay with the system, it works. You can get in and out unscathed." Shortly thereafter, he was found to have violated the terms of his probation and was sent back to jail for a few days.

That November, Diamond appeared on The Dr. Oz Show, delivering a public apology that, though directed toward at his former co-stars, could've just as easily been meant for his fans, as well. "This is my best weapon for repairing the damage that was caused by things that were done by people who took advantage of me and the situation I was in at the time," he said, referring to the interview. "I will say, guys, I think you're fantastic, working with you has been just one of the icons of my life and I'm sorry that this has taken advantage of me—the book and other situations I'm sure we'll talk about here. But I'm sure that you've experienced downfalls, as well, in your time and I'm still loving you guys."

Following that interview, Diamond would largely remain out of the headlines, save for some comments about his exclusion from Peacock's hit Saved by the Bell revival in 2020. Until, that is, the shocking cancer diagnosis in January.

It's hard to guess whether Hollywood would've ever given Diamond another chance. Stranger comebacks have happened, of course. And he wasn't without a dogged determination to shake the Screech specter once and for all.

"Think of it like a wrestling match: You'd never leave the ring because then you'd lose the match," he told the AP in 2014. "This thing is on top of you, trying to pin you down. And you're wriggling and wriggling, flailing and tossing, to get this thing off of you. But when you do, you don't walk away from it. You mount it, right? I'm mounting it."

We'd be lying if we said we thought he'd successfully shaken his albatross off. He might even have agreed.

As his rep's statement read, "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 tragedy is that so do we.

(E!, NBC and Peacock are all part of the NBCUniversal family.)

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