The morning after WrestleMania 32 I found myself discussing Roman Reigns’ much-ballyhooed WWE world heavyweight title match with Mr. Belding from Saved by the Bell.
“About two years ago they tried to elevate Roman Reigns quickly to the championship and the fans didn’t like it. So last night was a big deal for the WWE, because he went over and not necessarily as a babyface,” noted Dennis Haskins, who brought Bayside High’s Mr. Belding to life over four seasons of Saved by the Bell and two spin-off series.
“He’s a great wrestler,” Haskins added with the same warm enthusiasm in his voice as that one time AC Slater gave Bayside’s wrestling team their first championship trophy. “And a good guy.”
Haskins will, for better or worse, forever be known as the quintessential high school principal of the ‘90s. He spent eleven years in his career-making role as the beleaguered foil to pranksters like Zack Morris, administering his “Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey” catchphrase wisdom to the mischievous teens who came and went through the hallowed halls of Bayside High.
These days he’s still acting, still gets recognized on the street as Mr. Belding, and is occasionally seen out in Los Angeles, where he lives, haunting the karaoke bars north of the 101. While various cast members moved on to varying degrees of fame and/or notoriety (see: Saved by the Bell: The Unauthorized Lifetime Movie) Haskins embraced his nostalgia-fueled popularity.
This week Haskins returned to his hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee for the opening of the first-ever Dennis Haskins Exhibit at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, his alma mater. Saved by the Bell scholars may recall that it’s also where Mr. Belding took a dean’s post after the last crop of Bayside High seniors doffed their graduation caps and moved on to college/cancellation.
Here, on the fourth floor of the university’s immaculate campus library, Bayside historians have a new resource at their fingertips: Haskins’ own personal collection of show artifacts, including hundreds of scripts and memorabilia from his time on Saved by the Bell and its predecessor Good Morning, Miss Bliss.
“It was easy to say I’d like to donate this, but then letting go of it was like letting go of a piece of me. It took me a year just to put them in the mail!” Haskins laughed. “But here I am now in Chattanooga for this thing, and I’m driving across a bridge looking at the Tennessee River because they’re opening an exhibit in my name—how can you not be grateful for that?”
Students and members of the public will be able to make appointments to access and study the vast archive of Haskins’ Saved by the Bell scripts, many of them inked with handwritten notes and changes from the writers.
“I’m hoping this is a vehicle for people to see that if I can do this, being from Chattanooga, Tennessee, with dreams and ambitions and not a lot of knowledge but willing to learn and with everybody that helped me along the way, anything’s possible,” he said.
Carolyn Runyon, director of Special Collections for the university, remounted and catalogued hundreds of scripts for the collection, ultimately choosing to display pages from Season Four, Episode 16—“Graduation.”
Another highly sought after selection was Season Two, Episode Nine—“Jessie’s Song,” also known as the one where Jessie Spano (Elizabeth Berkley) gets so hopped up on No-Doz studying for midterms that she breaks down singing “I’m So Excited.”
“People definitely remember that one,” said Runyon. “But maybe the coolest piece we have is the suit that he wore as Mr. Belding. You can really tell that he wore it.”
Visitors to the exhibit will also learn more about Haskins, a Chattanooga native who graduated high school in 1968 and played hoops for the University of Tennessee, and once helped organize a Freaks vs. Fuzz charity game on campus to raise money for local fallen officers and heal strained relations with the police in an era marked by Vietnam protests and youthful unrest.
Young Haskins wore his hair long, sported a mustache, and dabbled in music management, signing acts like Ike and Tina Turner to play on campus. “I booked one of the first concerts Rufus ever did with Chaka Khan—for $750!” he exclaimed. “It was a great experience.”
Haskins left school to pursue acting, but returned last winter to finally receive his diploma three decades later. He recalled how Saved By the Bell—or rather, its initial iteration, the Hayley Mills-led Good Morning, Miss Bliss—fell in his lap and changed the course of his career.
“Originally when they were casting the role of the principal they were looking for an African-American actor in his fifties,” he said. “Through a very long story of my manager telling me I wasn’t black enough or fifty, seven auditions later I got the job.”
Haskins could’ve fled from the Saved by the Bell association. Instead he chose to lean into the fact that audiences across the globe saw him as Mr. Belding for years after the show ended. He was one of the last cast members to stand by their troubled Screech, Dustin Diamond, and continued to embrace the Belding everywhere from Jimmy Fallon to Twitter, where his handle is—of course—@mrbelding.
“If I had run away from being Mr. Belding or said, “No, I don’t want to talk about it,’ it would have been wrong,” he said. “I just know what courage it takes to walk up to somebody that you’ve looked up to or watched and say hi, and I’m not going to negate that for somebody. I’m going to say, ‘Thank you.’”
His Belding fame has also afforded Haskins the opportunity to record albums, including a karaoke LP and a Record Store Day mash-up release he teamed with pal Shooter Jennings on last year. A few years ago wrestling fans lobbied to get him hired as the general manager of WWE’s RAW, but that, sadly, did not work out (“I mean, it was unbelievable,” he laughed. “And WWE were gracious to me.”)
He says the serendipitous flirtation with the WWE at least sparked unlikely friendships with some of wrestling’s biggest names, like Dolph Ziggler and The Miz. “I knew the Bellas before, when they were out of work and not in WWE,” he marveled, praising Brie Bella’s ten-women tag team triumph at WrestleMania.
Most of all, Haskins was elated to see another Zack in his life graduate to the big time: Not Zack Morris, but Zack Ryder, who won a ladder match on Sunday night to claim his first Intercontinental Title.
“He’s had over a million followers, he was hot for a while, and then he was dropped,” Haskins explained. “He created his spot and then he worked and he worked, he did main events and house shows, he did NXT, and he earned his way back.”
“Last night he won the title, and I’m so happy for him,” Haskins said, delighted. “Isn’t that cool?”