To Bell and Back

updated 10/12/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/12/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Between takes while filming his recent comedy Dead Man on Campus, director Alan Cohn noticed an actor in overdrive. "He was getting very tensed up," he recalls. "He was walking around, writing notes on his arm, acting and overdoing it." So Cohn grabbed the fervent thespian and pointed out one of the film's stars, Mark-Paul Gosselaar. "I said, 'See that man over there? Look at what he's doing.' And Mark-Paul is reading Car & Driver magazine. When he's off the set, he can totally turn it off."

Maybe that's because when you get right down to it, Gosselaar would rather be boating. Or horseback riding. Or especially car racing. "If I could be doing that every day, I'd be happy," he says while playing with his dog at his four-bedroom house in Valencia, a sprawling suburb of L.A. Not that he isn't glad to be working. After gaining fame as smooth-talking class clown Zack Morris on the NBC teeny-bopper series Saved by the Bell, Gosselaar found himself in a rut when he left the show in 1994. "I was struggling to get a job," he recalls. Today, Gosselaar, 24, is resurfacing both in Dead Man on Campus and the new WB Network television drama Hyperion Bay, in which he plays a former nerd who comes home to start his own computer company. Meanwhile, in his own life, the former teen heartthrob is asserting his adulthood—marrying former Revlon model Lisa Ann Russell in 1996 and, more dramatically, cutting off contact with his Dutch-émigré parents after disagreements over his career and his money.

Though Gosselaar speaks fondly of his childhood, problems arose when he began demanding more control over his career. The youngest of four children born in Panorama City, Calif., to Paula, then a hostess for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, and Hans, then a plant supervisor for Anheuser-Busch, Gosselaar began modeling at 5 and landed acting spots on a variety of TV shows before hitting it big on Bell in 1989. Recalls his costar Tiffani-Amber Thiessen: "We would go to mall appearances to promote the show, and 10,000 kids would show up." The cash started coming in (how much Gosselaar won't say), and near the end of the show's run, he began to have serious differences with his mother, who managed his career. He severed ties two years ago, just after marrying Russell. "It really puts a big strain on families with a child in the industry, when the child is making more than the man of the house," says Gosselaar. "Parents get just as greedy as anybody else. We came from a very poor family and then, after making money, we got a little sidetracked."

Mom Paula, 59, who lives five miles from her son (she and Hans are separated), claims to be mystified. "Mark-Paul kicked me out of his life. I really don't know why," she says sadly. "Maybe through the years we will come together."

For now, Gosselaar is focusing on his marriage. (Children are not currently in the picture, he says.) He met Russell, 27, in 1993 when she had a small role on Bell. Because she is from a close clan, Russell struggles with her husband's family feud. "I try not to judge his parents because I have a wonderful man," she says. "They raised him and did a wonderful job." Russell, who gave up modeling to pursue acting in 1992, volunteers at an L.A. zoo and manages the couple's finances and her husband's schedule.

Keeping track of him is no easy job. When he's not on the set, Gosselaar enjoys hockey, car racing (he competed in the Barber Dodge Pro Series in Ohio last year) and boating on nearby Castaic Lake. "If I work half a day, you can bet I'm on the lake the other half," he says. Gosselaar also loved jumping out of planes until two of his friends died in separate skydiving accidents. "I just couldn't get over that," he says.

He claims to have gotten over the split with his parents just fine, though. "It's for the better because Lisa and I are our own family, and we're happy that way," he says. "And it's less Christmas presents to buy."

•Sophronia Scott-Gregory
•Monica Rizzo in Valencia

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