If you’re like me, Dennis Haskins came into your living room every Saturday morning as the loveable Mr. Belding.
He played the role that made him an icon to kids everywhere for 11 years and he’s not done yet. I talked to him as he was in rainy San Francisco researching a role in the musical, Wicked.
He’s got some great stories, fantastic advice and tells us what he’s up to next.
So, when I told people I was going to interview you, everyone just completely, automatically smiled, and you just –
Isn’t that nice?
Yeah, you just seem to be so loved for your character, Mr. Belding. You bring back these –
Warm fuzzy feelings (laughter).
Exactly. You bring back these happy memories from childhood. That’s gotta be great for you.
Well, you know it’s funny because I was just glad to have a job when I got the job. I mean, I fought for it. I went through seven auditions, went to the network and did not get it. Called the executive producer and said, “How’d I do?” And he said, “You did great.” He later told he that’s why he decided to bring me back. So I broke the cardinal rule. I won’t go into the details. Everybody else told me not to call him. But I called him because I thought I just wanted one more shot at it. I thought I did pretty good, but I thought I could do a little better. And eventually I ended up getting the job, so sometimes you just have that feeling that you know? You know you’re on the right track, so that was great. And then we were cancelled by Disney. And then a miracle happened, and Brandon Tartikoff decided to buy the rights to four characters, me being one of them, and create Saved By the Bell with Peter Engle because he wanted a show his daughter could watch. So, we did 20 episodes. And that was it. We had another wrap party. So that’s two wrap parties. And we did 23 episodes. And we had another wrap party. Then they did some episodes and they went to the beach, and I was out. And then next thing you know, I was back in. And it was, it never felt like we had a long-running show, and then I looked up after starting in 1988 on Good Morning Miss Bliss on Disney and finishing in 1998 on Saved By the Bell: The New Class having done the show and the character for 11 years. So, that was a pretty good run. I mean, it was Saturday morning, but to me and to everybody else, it’s prime time.
And did you have any idea when you auditioned for the show or anything that it would run this long?
I was so excited that I was going to get to act and work with Hayley Mills, someone I had grown up looking up to and liking with all her Disney work that I was excited about that. I was doing a musical called, Angry Housewives at the Cat Theatre with a wonderful cast. I want to mention this, and I’d like it if you would mention this also. An actress named Joan Ryan was playing my wife in the show and I was playing her husband, she came to the theatre one day and said, “Hey, I just saw auditioned for this show, they’re looking for a principle. You’d be good for the part. They were looking for a guy, black and in his 50s, but they broadened their search, so tell your people.” And if Joan Ryan had not told me that, I would not have had the opportunity. If I wasn’t doing the musical at the Cat Theatre, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity. If David Galligan (cell phone cuts out) might be right for, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity. So, there’s a lot of people along the way that helped me get to where I am.
And I’m not done. I’m in San Francisco right now because I have an audition Thursday for Wicked, the musical. I wanted to give myself every opportunity to do the best job possible. I’ve been rehearsing. I’m up here to see the show. I took a quick trip up to see the show. I’m going to back to remind myself about – I’m auditioning for the wizard. I don’t know if I’ll get it, but I’m going to give it every shot I’ve got. Every ounce I’ve got.
I’ve seen that show. You’d be great for that part.
Hopefully, it’ll work out, but the point is I’m not gonna leave anything on the sidewalk, you know what I mean? I’m not gonna leave anything in the dugout. (Cell phone cuts out) and I don’t mean to name drop, but I was talking to Jason Biggs last night, who is a wonderful guy, and I said to him, you know, I have to this shot, and it’s a really great shot, and I love theatre and I haven’t done it in so long. I just love to act. And he let out this audible noise, like he felt it. He does, too. We love to act. All the actors that you have that are reading this, we’re in it because we love, you know? I’ve talked to some young kids that say they want to become stars, and I’ve said, you can’t, you know, you might become a star. That might work out. But you better do it because you love it and you hope that it works out because if you don’t, you might be miserable doing whatever you’re doing, you know? I just love it. It’s my passion. I can’t imagine doing anything else. Through the good times and the bad.
You know, listen, we’re not making any money off of Saved by the Bell anymore. But a lot of people love the show. It looks like we are. But that’s okay because I have a wonderful fan base. It’s just amazing to me. Like you said, the smiles. This warm, wonderful smile at me because they love this show that we did that they grew up with. We were the first. We were the first on Saturday morning on NBC. We were before Nickelodeon, before Zack and Cody on Disney, which are all great shows. You know, Amanda and all that stuff. We kind of, our show, not us. And Brandon Tartikoff and Peter Engle, paved the way. So, you know, it’s pretty cool to be in that position. And that’s why, I think, people remember us. When you’re first people remember that.
Are you ever allowed to be in a bad mood in public?
Uh, no, you know, when I am in a bad mood, I feel bad about it because… I truly do. Because I don’t want to let people down. Some people, frankly, can be rude. And that’s the exception.
People are actually rude to you?
Rarely, rarely. But I still try to walk away. I still try to handle it. But you don’t handle it all the time. And you think, you know, that’s that one person that’s gonna go away and say you were a jerk or a creep or whatever. But you can’t make everybody happy, you just gotta do your very best. And I do my best, so I feel some obligation having played the guy for 11 years, responsibility, really, not obligation, to say thank you to people that come up. If they weren’t saying hello to me, excited to meet me, I would not have had a job for 11 years. So, you know, thanks to them, and I’m gonna say thanks and say hi as much as I can. I’m also doing other things though, you know. I’ve got a lead role on this thing called Acting School Academy.
I saw part of it. It looked really good.
It’s a little webisode that these guys did. Mo and Ian that have launched this thing, and in the first week 300,000 hits. I did another web series called Private Eye Musical that Taryn Southern created, acted in, produced, wrote the music for, got everybody to work, and it’s got 750,000 hits. I mean, I think that the pilots of the future are on the Internet.
So I’m trying to do whatever I can as much as I can. Whether it’s a feature film or it’s a web series, I’m out here trying to act. And I’m still out here going around the country. I was just in Canada outside of the country doing a personal appearance because of Saved by the Bell. I’ve got another one coming up in a couple of weeks in Indiana and in New York and in Detroit. So still going around the country because of Saved by the Bell.
But my main focus and the focus of everybody that’s reading this or that is an actor is to act. That’s why I’m out here and that’s why I’m doing this. So, you know, I hear about It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia a lot. I love that show. It was a great part for me. And I continue to seek good roles and do my work.
Now how does that work since you’re so identified as Mr. Belding? Is it, does that hurt you when you go to casting?
Initially it hurts. The point is, you play the role as best you can. And if people come to identify you as the character I guess that means you did a pretty good job.
You did a great job.
You know? So, well yeah, I don’t want to be the one to say that. Yeah, I did my best. So a lot of people love the character, so yeah, probably for the rest of my life, people are going to think of me as Mr. Belding, but then they also, and I’m not comparing myself to Tom Hanks, and they also think of Tom Hanks as Forest Gump. And they also think of Ed O’Neill as Al Bundy. But that’s because you did a good job in a role. Well, I you know, I like to think I did a good job on The Practice, West Wing, and on It’s Always Sunny, and on everything else I do. I love playing Marty in this Acting School Academy. That was a lot of fun. I just had a guy last night who’s seen Private Eye Musical, told me how much he liked that. So, listen, my joy is in performing it and if other people like it that means you did a good job. And hopefully we get to pass on the message or whatever the author has to say about what they want people to get from what you’re doing.
Now going back to Acting School Academy, I honestly would have never clicked on to watch it, but the only reason I did was because I saw your name and I was like oh that might be interesting.
Well, now see, that’s where the plus comes from having played a character. They hired me because I had the reputation and because I had some kind of quote celebrity or whatever if it was going to help people come to their site and see it. And they focused the whole thing around me, so that’s a good thing, you know? That’s a real good thing. I’m having the opportunity to audition for Wicked because, first, I’m right for the part. As other people are, but you know what I mean when I say that, I don’t mean that egotistically. I mean, I’m the right age, the right look, the right whatever. You know, I can say all those things. But also because I bring a history of experience and knowledge and some quote celebrity and they have had many wonderful people play the part from John Rubenstein to Joel Gray to David Garrison’s playing it up here to maybe I’ll get to play it somewhere.
Yeah, again I could totally see you playing that part. I think you’d be great in that.
But if I don’t get it, I still will go on to whatever’s next, you know? I don’t want to think that way. I just, I feel the same way I did about this, as when I went after Saved by the Bell a long time ago. I just had blinders on. Just totally focused on it. So, we’ll see. Maybe we’ll look back on this interview and say, hey, remember when we were talking?
Can I go back? How did you get your start in the business? I saw your first job was on The Dukes of Hazzard?
I wanted to act. I always wanted to be an actor, but it scared me to try it. Because you try your dreams and it doesn’t work out, then what do you do? Well, I eventually got everything else out of the way I wanted to try. I was in the music business – road-managed Greg Allman for a tour, booked some concerts with some major acts, made and lost a lot of money.
I finally put myself in the position where the only thing left for me to do was to act. I ended up in Louisiana in an outdoor drama called Louisiana Cavalier. It was a premiere year for us, it was back in 1976. So, ’76, ’77. They wanted a guy to play the lead in the show who was Equity. And he would not come to Louisiana to do the show unless they made company Equity. I was not Equity. So, the producer came to me and said, “Look, we want this guy, but he’s not coming unless we make this an Equity production. I’ll put you in the lead, and I’ll play your part, or I’ll turn you Equity.” And I said, gimme my Equity cards, you know because once I got my Equity card, I was able to buy my Screen Actors’ Guild card because I had a lead role in a show. Back then you could buy while shooting. I don’t know if you can still do that or not. But I was on the – I had my SAG card as a result of that. Back on the road in the music business. I’m on the road with Greg Allman. I had long hair. I had a moustache. I had hair back then. It wasn’t Mr. Balding back then. I had moustache. I lost my razor, so I had a straggly beard in addition to the moustache. I walked into my agent’s office in Atlanta to say hello. Always keeping it out there. And she said oh my God, you’ve got to run to this audition in Conyers, Georgia. Here are the directions, go. So, I went straight to the audition, and I got a role on this TV show as their “badass,” badass boss. I had a couple lines. It was about cars going through the air and girls in short shorts that they now call Daisy Dukes. I’m the first guy to grab Daisy in the bar, and it’s just – John Schneider even talks about on the Dukes of Hazzard DVDs that I was on the early show that I got my first network show that gave me the courage to go to California and the rest is history as they say.
How long after you got to L.A. did you start booking jobs?
Oh heck no. Heck no. I got out here with a little bit of money. And a strike happened, so I ran out of money. I slept on the floor in a sleeping bag that I brought for two years. I was just determined that I wasn’t going to do something that kept me from acting opportunities. I was going to do my best to pursue my acting and not have anything get in the way. So, I didn’t make a lot of money, but I stayed available (laughs). I eventually, I got a job here, Greatest American Hero, Hardcastle and McCormick and little by little and some Equity waiver productions, I was always out there doing that.
I got in an acting class with Joan Darlin where there was terrific actors. And what she had to say made sense to me. You know, different teachers speak to different actors, but she made sense to me. She had two rules back then, she goes, you can’t hurt the other actor or the furniture and especially the furniture. And those are the rules. She goes if you don’t want to be in class, don’t come. Because why be there if you don’t want to be there? You’ve got to motivate yourself. Other people can’t motivate you. Well, I’d go in and do 2-3 scenes in a class. You know, I just ate it up. I’m kind of back in that zone to tell you the truth. I’m kind of excited about going after this.
Now, I see you’re on Facebook and Twitter, and I just started following you on Twitter (@dennis_haskins). And I got 3 questions from somebody on Twitter. The first one –
(Cell phone cuts out). Let me tell you first of all, I added Facebook and Twitter, that stuff, because I have a karaoke CD that’s out and I was told that these are ways to reach out and talk to fans and let them know what you’re doing. And there’s a lady named Cassie Petri with crowdsurf.net who’s a social networker who is really, I mean, my Twitter and my Facebook stuff has quadrupled in the last month. So, I do my best to check in, but I can’t talk to everybody. So go ahead and ask what you like.
Okay, it’s from @wonderfulcow, and the first question he’d like to know is, “What words of wisdom do you have for aspiring actors?”
Try it. All your dreams. Do everything you can to make it happen. I hope it works. Find the person that speaks to you, not necessarily the person that yells at you. Okay? I that’s really the best advice I can give. You go into some classes and nobody’s working and you don’t like the work. Okay, so don’t stay. See, you gotta shop around, you know? You may go to another class or there are good working actors in there, but it doesn’t make sense to you. And you do your best to have it make sense, but it just doesn’t make sense. So then you go into another class, and they’re not only working actors, but it makes sense. So, maybe that’s the class for you. So, shop around because there’s everything from Meisner to Conrad to Stanislavsky – there’s all these different methods but there’s all these different people. We’re all unique and find what works for you. And don’t give up. Don’t set a time limit. Stay here until you drop.
If you could time travel is there anything that you would do differently that would have an impact on your career?
Well, I gotta tell you something, my dad, he’s a pretty wise man. He’s 82 years old. He said to me many years ago, he said, “If you like who you are now, you can’t regret what you did to get you here.” Yeah, there might be things I would have done differently or choices I would have made differently. I’m sure there’re times when I could have been nicer to people or treated people differently or done a better job of that, but overall I am where I am because of the choices I’ve made. It’s kind of, you can’t change it anyway, so why even go there.
And finally, and I think this is probably a great question to go out on, what keeps you going?
Sometimes I wonder what keeps me going, I’ll be really honest with you, because it’s not easy. It’s not easy. But nobody said it was easy, and nobody gave me a ticket and said come to California. I made this choice on my own. And what keeps me going is when you get on something and you get a job or you’ll have conversation like I had with Jason the other night when you relate on a level that you both love to act. Or what’s next? Maybe you get a shot at what’s next. Or you get somebody like Jay Schachter who was my manager, agent who believes in me and I believe in him. You find a partner who helps you go after work. Frankly, nobody’s going to work as hard for you as yourself. But you might find somebody that’ll work pretty darn hard for you and also. I mean, I met a manager last night who works real hard for some people that I like a lot. And there’s some people that are going to help you with your career. But you’ve got to motivate yourself. And you’ve got to be in a position to do whatever opportunities come to you. So, I guess, I just don’t know what else I would do. I love this so much that there’s really not anything else that I would go to that I better get to the business of doing this. I want to act as much as possible and do as much as I can. And work with as many wonderfully talented people, whether it’s a Taryn Southern or way back when I got to work with Albert Finney many, many years ago.
Let me tell you a quick Albert Finney story and then we’ll go out on that. I took a job, it had one speech on a movie of the week called The Image. It was also a young man that it was his first movie by the name of Brad Pitt in that film. He had a little bigger part than I did. But I took this part because I got to have one speech with Albert Finney. So it was done in Santa Paula, a little sleepy train town North of Magic Mountain. And I went up for the day. And I go to act in my scene, and I’m doing this with Albert Finney. And Albert goes, “Hi Dennis, nice to meet you. Watch out for this one, he’s a scene stealer.” And he goes. Well, the person that was the scene stealer was John Mahoney, who ended up being the dad on Frasier and a lot of other wonderful roles. So, I had a scene with John Mahoney. So, the director after the scene said, you know what we want you to stay. We’re gonna put you in a couple more scenes. So, I had to stay that night. I had only the clothes on my back. I was just gonna go back, you know, the next day. Wardrobe gave me shirts to wear the next day. So, I’m in this sleepy little train stop hotel. I’m going down to eat dinner with whatever money I’ve got in my pocket, which wasn’t much by the way. And down the stairs comes Albert Finney. Albert looks at me, remembered my name from many hours before, says, “Dennis, mind if I join you?” And I said, “Please!” And two hours later, I had the most wonderful evening that I can remember as an actor listening to Albert Finney tell me stories of all the wonderful actors in England and different things he’d done. And the next night it happened again with him and a couple of other people. And I got to work with him during the day, the next day and the day after. So, for taking a one line part, Judith Holstra, I want to mention her, too. She gave me an opportunity to take something that turned into an experience of a lifetime. And I got to work with Albert Finney and not only work with him but listen to him tell these wonderful stories and share his life experiences.
So, then we go to the wrap party for the image, and Mr. Finney is there. And I walk up to him, and I said, “Albert, I just want to thank you for making me feel so welcome.” And he got serious, and he said, “I see myself as the host of the party, and if you’re having fun at my party, we’re going to have a pretty good party.” Meaning… making the film. And I took that with me. And that’s how I treated every actor that came on the set of Saved by the Bell. I wanted to make sure that they were glad to be there. I wanted to make sure that they were comfortable being there, that they weren’t nervous, that they were welcome at our party. That they were only going to make it better. And you know, that’s pretty cool.