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Challenge of being a child star when the camera’s off: Dustin Diamond on life after “Saved by the Bell”

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MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- Actor/comedian Dustin Diamond has been in the news lately after an incident at a Port Washington bar. He says he and his girlfriend were being harassed and physically threatened. The allegations have cast a cloud over him, but around every cloud, as they say, there’s a silver lining.

It took two months of letters and emails to convince Dustin to sit down with FOX6 News and talk about his career, his personal life, his struggles and his regrets.

His comfort with comedy began when he was quite young.  Dustin disclosed that his brother had Down Syndrome and other serious health issues.

“A lot of people don't know that. I've never really mentioned it.  So he couldn't go out like I could when I was a young kid and wanted to play with toys and everything and so I would put on costumes and put on little character skits and sketches to make him laugh," Dustin said.

One day when he was eight, a department store in the San Francisco Bay Area  -- where he grew up -- spotted him clowning around, and thought he’d be great for their catalog. A year later, that led to commercials.  Famed acting agent Mary Grady saw his work and brought Dustin to Hollywood. She felt he had what it takes to be a star.  After some small movie parts, Dustin landed the role as Screech on what would become “Saved by the Bell.”

“Everything happened like in a year. It wasn't like this long planned thing. My parents didn't push me into it.  I wasn't a young kid saying, 'this is what I want to be,'" Dustin said.

Screech was the brunt of the joke on the show, and looking back, the character was basically bullied.  At times, it hit close to home for Dustin.

“Everyone went through their awkward stages as a kid. I went through all my awkward stages in front of millions. So when Screech pops out next to the muscular guys, especially if they had me wearing shorts or didn't have a shirt on and I knew I was pale and scrawny and stuff and gangly, and it's kind of embarrassing like, aw man, I get that they're making fun of me, but I'm an actor. This is my job," Dustin said.

Each episode took a week of preparation, followed by three weeks in the studio with a set teacher looking out for them, then one week back at his regular school -- nine months a year. He was on Saved by the Bell for 10 years.

When it was finally over, Dustin says he was confused as to what to do with his life.  He considered pursuing his passion for chess, computer programming or music, but in the end comedy kept calling him. The transition was tough.

“There were a lot of naysayers. There were a lot of people saying 'you've already peaked. You're never going to get that again,'" Dustin said.

Most of the money he’d made from the show was gone.  His father had spent it. The Jackie Coogan Law in California protected 25% for him when he turned 18, so he had a few hundred thousand dollars in the bank, but he was not set for life.

“It's a shame. My parents wasted so much of my hard work. A lot of my youth," Dustin said.

And with 10 years of Screech scorched into TV sets across the country, the road to other acting jobs ran into dead ends. He would audition for parts and kept hearing, “You did a good job, but we just keep seeing Screech in you.”

He took a couple years off, did some celebrity stunts, and started exploring standup comedy, which is how he makes his living now. But paying the bills hasn’t been easy. Dustin says he’s not unlike a lot of actors, most actors really, who barely get by.

The need to make money led to a series of bad decisions. In 2006, he held a T-shirt sale to spare his Port Washington home from foreclosure. It brought in enough to save the house, but some people never received their shirts. Dustin says they sold more than 20,000 in a matter of days, and when some came back as “address doesn’t exist” there wasn’t much he could do.

His biggest regret is a sex tape he released in 2006. He says it was “an opportunistic moment when I was young and dumb” to make money. He insists the graphic parts were a stunt double.

In 2009, to further separate himself from the shadow of Screech, he agreed to play the bad guy on the reality show “Celebrity Fit Club." He agreed to be the bad guy because it paid more, and because he felt it would be a chance to show he could portray darker characters, kind of the anti-Screech. That proved to be his second biggest regret. He says viewers didn’t understand that while it’s “reality TV,” it’s acting, and many people came to conclude that what they saw must be what he’s really like. He insists he’s nothing like that in person.

Soon after "Celebrity Fit Club," a tell-all book came out about Saved by the Bell. Dustin had contracted to do the book, but says a ghostwriter took their conversation out of context, and contorted it into stories that are not true.

“I wanted to do a book on my life -- all the stuff I've gone through, like my brother, a lot of things people didn't know about, and nobody was interested in it. No one wanted to hear it. Everybody just wanted gossip," Dustin said.

The publisher went out of business, and after an initial payment, Dustin says he hasn’t seen a dime. The damage, however, was done. When Jimmy Fallon did a Saved by the Bell skit this month, Dustin wasn’t invited. He found out a couple days before, when a friend of his girlfriend’s texted her.

“It would have been fun, but I don’t see it as a personal insult," Dustin said.

Dustin admits he’s made mistakes, and he says he is learning from them.

“Here's the way I look at it. I walk a very honest and humble path, and I know what kind of person I am. I’m very comfortable where I fit in life. I want to have a family. I want to have kids and I want to raise them right. I’m playing comedy clubs. I'm not rich, but I make a living. I’ve  tripped and fallen many times in my life. If you don't, how do you learn?" Dustin said.

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