Raised by the Bell

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Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Mario Lopez, Dustin Diamond and Tiffani-Amber Thiessen are friends who go way back — just like their Saved by the Bell: The College Years characters

Talk about growing up together. On The College Years, "Zack," "Slater," "Screech" and "Kelly" have supposedly been together as friend and classmates since first grade. And if you're caught any episodes of the original Saved by the Bell, you know their real-life counterparts go back a ways, too.

When SBTB first started airing in 1989, Mark-Paul, who's now 19, Mario, who's 20, Dustin, who's 17 and Tiff, who's 19, were four relatively unknown young actors who had little idea how much their lives were about to change.

In fact, the very first night the cast taped a show, Mark-Paul and Mario were absolutely shocked to hear girls screaming for them afterwards. And when SBTB's producer, Peter Engel, took Mark-Paul out to the gate of the studio to meet some of his admirers, the up-and-coming actor was a bit overwhelmed, since this was something he had never experienced before.

"I remember Mark-Paul yelling, 'Don't leave me! Don't leave me!'" Peter, who's now producer of The College Years, told us.

Since that first night, Mark-Paul, Mario, Dustin, and Tiffani-Amber — who definitely receive their share of fan enthusiasm, too — have all become much more comfortable as well-known TV stars. That common experience is part of what makes their bond so strong today.

But that's not the only thing that's made them close.

Because the four were completely devoted to SBTB and, these days, The College Years, they've spent a ton of time together. In a way, they have become a lot like a family. They were all tutored on the NBC set together, their proud parents have become friends and they've shared everyday joys and letdowns.

"We had heartbreak, there were cliques, and we had nights when [the cast members] lamented unrequited love," Mr. Engel has said of the early SBTB days. "One night after rehearsal, the kids started coming in and crying, and we worked out problems for about four hours. One girl [he wouldn't name names, darn it!] didn't go out with a certain guy anymore, and everyone took sides. We went through it - all the things a family goes through — and it ended up fine."

Because of this closeness, the whole gang found it "very emotional and very sad," according to Tiff, when SBTB stopped taping last year. "We had spent almost every day together...for years — and we weren't going to see each other all the time anymore," she said then. Little did Tiffani-Amber know that this parting of ways would only be temporary and that she'd be joining Dustin, M-P and Mario for The College Years.

They undoubtedly would have stayed friends anyway, of course, but now it's just a whole lot easier for Tiff and Mario to keep confiding in one another (Mario recently told us Tiff is his number-one bud in the cast), for Mario and Mark-Paul to keep playing basketball together, for Dustin to make them all laugh and for the four of them do your basic everyday palling around on the set.

Aren't you glad?