Written by Mary Alice
Most of the time, I don’t find myself affected by celebrity deaths, though there are notable exceptions. One such exception was Isabel Sanford, who played TV’s Louise “Weezie” Jefferson on the 1970s-80s sitcom the Jeffersons, who passed away in 2004. Not being a particular fan of the show, I was struck by how saddened I was to hear of this. At the time, I think I was mourning the loss of a notable cultural icon from before my time and the knowledge that someday, they would all be dead. I was 25 at the time and think it marked the beginning of my truly understanding human mortality and indeed my own. This detached sense of sadness stands in stark contrast to how I feel about the passing of Dustin Diamond, known to most as Screech from Saved by the Bell.
I turned 41 this year and have changed a lot from the self-centered 25 year old who was a little sad when Weezie died. When I heard that Dustin Diamond had sage four cancer just a few short weeks ago, I was 100% aware that the colossal bummer that this death sentence laid upon a man just 3 years my senior is rooted almost completely in empathy for a person who had a pretty terrible life overall and never found peace in it.
Screech was a joke-character on a show that in its time tried to present an aspirational picture of the American teenage experience in the early 1990s, which eventually became a joke in itself. Screech became a joke within a joke. The tragedy of the Child Actor trope is a well-worn cliché at this point, but doesn’t stop it from being tragic. This place in pop culture history does not excuse his behavior post-Saved By the Bell, but does kind of explain it.
I don’t need to list all of the shitty things Dustin Diamond has done since Saved by the Bell. His stint in porn isn’t itself problematic except that it’s rooted in his attempts to repair an image rooted in fragile masculinity that never existed in the first place. Which at minimum makes it really, really gross. He scammed people out of money for various reasons related to his housing situation the details of which I don’t really remember. The one that hits closest to home to me is the lies he told in his trash memoir Beyond the Bell. Among other things, he claimed to have had an affair with NBC VP of Children’s Programming Linda Mancuso, who died in 2003 of breast cancer. I don’t think it was coincidence that she was not around to challenge these claims when he made them. That’s a sensitive issue for me for some reason. Making claims about things people did after they died when they’re not around to contradict them.
After Saved by the Bell, we watched Dustin Diamond try very hard to reinvent himself into the anti-Screech. Through it all, whether it was challenging the drill sergeant on that VH1 weight loss show to a fight or the public humiliation of listing his house for sale in 2020 as a “great rehab opportunity,” it’s very clear to me that he was a very unhappy person.
He felt ridiculed and left out during the pinnacle of his career. He spent a large part of the aftermath extremely angry and persistently making moves in an attempt to get “revenge” for wrongs that were never really committed. In doing so, he permanently alienated anyone who could come close to understanding. He experienced financial ruin, was sent to jail for stabbing a man in a barroom brawl and faded into obscurity. Then, when his child-star peers did the impossible and successfully revived the franchise that made them stars, Dustin Diamond is diagnosed with stage four long cancer and passes away three weeks later.
He was not a good person, but I’ve spent a lot of time with his Saved by the Bell character over the years. His character isn’t a particularly good person either. He’s like Urkel Light and seems to feel like he’s owed something by women for not being attractive—or something. But his illness and subsequent passing reminds me only that he is a person who lived a pretty tragic life. He never found peace and now he never will. I don’t think anyone deserves that.
Sleep easy, Screech. I wish better for you.