Dennis Haskins is synonymous with the principal Mr. Belding from NBC's late-'80s/early-'90s cult hit Saved by the Bell, but it's a little-known fact that the playful actor actually has roots in theater. Many would be surprised to learn that the jocular actor had performed onstage with Tony Roberts, Joyce Van Patten, and John Astin before rising to fame in the many incarnations of the Bell series (Good Morning, Miss Bliss; Saved by the Bell, and Saved by the Bell: The New Class). Haskins good-naturedly embraces Mr. Belding's impact on pop culture, so much that on February 7 and 8 he will be hosting three performances of another cult-hit: off-off-Broadway's Bayside! The Musical!, the Saved by the Bell musical parody now playing at Theatre 80. TheaterMania spoke with Haskins about his joy in experiencing Bayside at its new home in New York, as well as his hope to hit the Broadway stage in the near future.
What were your first thoughts upon hearing about Bayside! The Musical!?
I heard about this show through meeting someone out in California whose brother was in the show. We sent a little video message back to her brother. Then I saw all kinds of good reviews, and the next thing I know the producers are reaching out to me. So I'm going to come out and see the show with [the audience] and say hi at the beginning and at the end, and stick around to sign autographs.
Why do you think Saved by the Bell has maintained popularity for all of these years?
When our show came on the air there was nothing like it. We had done Good Morning, Miss Bliss and it didn't really work, so NBC bought the rights to four characters and created a new show specifically for kids on Saturday mornings called Saved by the Bell. I was very lucky that I was the principal because every school needs one, so I got to be there as kind of the wheel and everything happened around me. I've been called the glue once or twice, which is kind of funny. It reached the younger kids and kids in high school, and would show them (in a comedic way) basic rights and wrongs. I think the relationship between Mr. Belding and the students has held up to this day. I can't tell you how many people have said, "My parents wouldn't let me watch any show but yours." The show is still on MTV2, Netflix, and E! And a brand new DVD collection just came out. It's unbelievable.
People might be surprised to learn that your heart is in theater. In which productions might people have seen you?
Theater is my main thing, I love it. I started doing drama in the mid-'70s in the Louisiana Outdoor Drama Association production of Paul Green's Louisiana Cavalier.
And then you tackled Shakespeare!
I had a role in Alliance Theatre Company's production of The Taming of the Shrew with Tony Roberts. The director was a guy named Malcolm Black. He asked which role I was there to audition for, and I said, "Loo-sen-tee-oh," and he goes, "You mean Looch-en-tee-oh." Oh. No. In my mind I'm thinking I already screwed up. (laughs) But the son of a gun put me in some of the smaller roles. Then I went back to [my home state] of Tennessee where I was in and out of the music business for about ten years. I was doing Equity theater when they found me for Good Morning, Miss Bliss.
In what type of show would you like to see yourself if you were to take to the New York stage?
I see myself being a part of an ensemble. I'd be happy to be a part of a Tennessee Williams play, or part of any musical that's worthy of Broadway.
What is the trajectory on which you would like to see your career from this point forward?
I look at Tom Wopat, who is known for television, and he is great in theater. Bryan Cranston, a wonderful actor, went from a really broad, extreme character in Malcolm in the Middle to the intense role of his life that he's just finished in Breaking Bad. People accepted him going that way. I also look at Ed O'Neill, who went from Married...With Children to Modern Family and all the moves he's made. So now I think people are ready to accept me making a move out of Mr. Belding [and] into something else. I look forward to whatever that is…but hopefully it's with theater. Whether it's a silly romp or something heavy, theater is a fantastic place to be.