September 8, 2005

Dazed by the Bell

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Things you didn’t know about Dennis Haskins: 1) He was not always Mr. Belding 2) He knows Nick Lachey. This past Tuesay, Daze got the chance of a lifetime – an interview with a figment of our youth. We obviously took our job seriously (as always) and prepared meticulously. Some thrown out questions: Do you maintain a close relationship with Screech after working with him on Saved By the Bell and Saved By the Bell: The New Class? Are Dennis Haskins and Richard Belding one? Haskins obliged all of our wonderings and was just like one might imagine – except with a sense of humor. Not only did he reference the episode when Jessie takes speed (and famously yells “I’m so excited – I’m so scared!”) but he was happy to do so – as long as we called him Belding.

Haskins, who played the beloved Principal Richard Belding on the NBC series Saved by the Bell from 1989-1993 was at Cornell for a lecture called “Back to School with Mr. Belding,” and was brought to Cornell by the Cornell University Program Board.

Haskins is originally from Chattanooga and began his career as the Entertainment Chairman of his alma mater the University of Tennessee Chattanooga. He only began taking acting classes after a basketball coach suggested they were “easy.” Eventually he began touring with musician Greg Allman in the late ’70s, which led him to his first acting job. He was, however, far from his carefully neat, principal self in terms of appearance. “I had long hair and a beard and my manager calls me up and says, you’d be perfect for this part on a new show,” said Haskins. After reading for the part, Haskins was hired for the show’s first episode. The show was The Dukes of Hazzard. “The script only referred to my character as ‘bad-ass’ and it was later changed to ‘Moss.’ I was the first guy that grabbed Daisy at the Hog’s Nest.”

So, what does he think of the film? Haskins prefers not to compare the old television show with the new movie version of the show, but said, “I haven’t seen the new Dukes of Hazzard, but to me it’s just a movie representation of the television show rather than a remake.” Plus he and Nick go way back. After his debut on network television with his stint on The Dukes of Hazzard, Haskins decided that he wanted to pursue a career in acting, and within the next year, he moved to Hollywood.

But what most students will undoubtedly first notice is how exciting it is for a character they grew up with to come alive onstage. “At every college I go to, I discover that all the students there grew up watching Saved by the Bell,” he said. “At the time, there was no other Saturday morning show to watch for kids your age.”

Haskins made Belding a voice of reason for a group of naughty-yet nice high schoolers while also making him a lovable fool. To hear him tell it is to understand the love that he holds for the show as he reminisces. “I think everyone always liked Mr. Belding because no matter what happened, he never got too silly and always did what was right for the kids.”

Now comes a bit of Saved by the Bell trivia. “It started out as Good Morning, Miss Bliss but the original version didn’t work because it focused on the adults. One thing led to another and they decided to take the characters of Zach, Screech, and Lisa and add in more characters to create Saved by the Bell. This time, the focus was on the kids, he said. “The show was always about things relevant to its audience” because unlike a majority of the shows aimed at adolescants, all the child actors on the show were actually the age they played.

Haskins was in the original Saved by the Bell, the first show of it’s kind in the Saturday morning slot, as well as later, less popular installments. “The original show was what made the success. The kids in ‘the new class’ came in wanting to be on Saved by the Bell but when they left, they had made the show their own,” he said. “With the college years, they tried to fit the show in a prime time format and it didn’t work.”

“Its amazing how many people all around the world have watched the show. It’s been aired in 87 countries worldwide.” Haskins remembered how while in South Africa to film a movie with Lou Diamond Philips and Coolio, no less, he was recognized as the principal he had made famous. “It’s unbelievable but that’s how this show has touched people,” he said. “The first show they aired in Romania after Ceausescu was Saved by the Bell because it wasn’t political.”

Haskin’s lecturing career has been no less exciting. On how his college lecturing started: “I was on a joint TNT, TBS, CNN program called Think About It being interviewed by a student from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and he just asked me ‘hey would you be able to come to my school and do this?'”

Haskins recalls his another example of Saved by the Bell’s longevity and endurance, “I was doing a talk at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and afterwards we decided to get dinner at a pizza place. But when we got there, they told us there was no more pizza left. I was wearing a hat so no one really knew who I was. But when people started recognizing me, they actually started offering me slices of their pizza. And when I left, a crowd had literally gathered outside the pizza place and they were chanting, ‘Belding, Belding!’ And the sea of people literally parted when I walked out,” he said. “It really showed me the impact of what it meant to be on the show. The show has left an amazing legacy.”

Archived article by Logan Bromer
Arts and Entertainment Associate Editor