December 1989 v174 n2 p40(3).

Talking with Fred Savage: "My parents never push me."

By Lawrence Grobel

Full Text COPYRIGHT The Hearst Corp. 1989

He stands behind his mother, barely reaching her shoulder, politely considering the stranger who has come to interview him.  It's ten o'clock on a Saturday morning, and the boy peering out from behind tortoiseshell-frame glasses is looking forward to seeing some friends who are visiting at noon. But he's been told by his mother and an ABC publicist that talking to the press is good for his image.  Anyway, they remind him, it won't take long. He smiles when he shakes my hand, but his eyes tell me he'd rather be sorting baseball cards or playing Super Mario Brother 3, a Nintendo computer game that is among his chief passions.

Fred Savage does not give off the aura of a star.  He doesn't yet have an attitude or a Brat Packer pose.  Instead, this 13-year-old Wonder Years wunderkind is cute, cushy and respectful. He's not yet sure why anyone would want to spend time with him, asking him his opinion about this and that, but he's willing to sit still and answer as best he can, every once in a while breaking into one of the million-dollar expressions that have helped make the ABC series a hit.

Sitting at a glass patio table in the family's backyard, Fred's eyes light up when I bypass questions about fame and stardom and get right to the important stuff -like what kind of presents he got when he tumed thirteen the day before.  He describes a string of gifts: "A telescope, a new pair of binoculars, a Nintendo game, a really neat camera, a compact disc, an Etch A Sketch and every one of Gary Larson's The Far Side books.  I love his cartoons those are the ones that you have to think about to get." Fred is also fond of the offbeat humor of Calvin & Hobbes comics, and eagerly rattles off a few of his favorites.  One especially delights him: Calvin imagines a tornado tearing through the streets, just as his mother enters his room and shouts"Calvin, look at your room! It looks like it's been ..." Calvin finishes, "...  hit by a tornado.  I know, Mom."

Fred's own room isn't quite as bad as Calvin's.  He makes his own bed, he says, but goes wide-eyed when asked if he helps out in the kitchen.  "Are you kidding me?" he says.  He does, however, confess to taking out the garbage.  For this, and for not biting his nails and for being good, he receives a weekly allowance of $8.  The money he eams from The Wonder Years, other TV appearances, commercials and the five movies he's made, including The Wizard, which will be released this month, is handled by his parents. But money is not something that concerns Fred right now; he says he doesn't even know how much he makes.  It's nice to know the money is there, he says, but he's more interested in how to keep his Mom from taking away his Nintendo, which she has done in the past when he's mouthed off.

"Oy," he says, his face full of regret, "I got my Nintendo taken away for six months because I was so stupid.  When my Mom said, 'No Nintendo for a week,' I went, 'That's bad.' So she went, 'Okay, no Nintendo for a month!' And Mr.Genius said, 'Oooo, that's really bad.' And I kept doing that. I've got to learn not to do that."

Fred's not a bad kid, but, occasionally, he is impish.  Like the time he and his 11 -year-old sister Kala made their 9-year old brother Ben a home-brewed drink.  "We concocted this potion," Fred says, "and put everything from the kitchen in it-ketchup, margarine, salt, pepper, vinegar.  But we didn't put anything harmful in it.  Ben drank it-and he liked it!"

The three siblings say they all inspire each other, and the successes they've had at such young ages are, to say the least, remarkable.  Shortly after Fred broke into show business, both Ben and Kala followed.  Kala got a part on the afternoon soap Santa Barbara, and Ben was chosen to play Judd Hirsch's son in Dear John.  The Savage family, you might assume, has connections.  Surely, they must have an uncle in the business.

But no, they don't ha"in." Like lottery winners, this real-life family seems to have been chosen at random.  It all started back in Glencoe, Illinois, a suburb north of Chicago, when Joanne Savage heard about a casting call for a kid to appear in a hot-dog commercial.  Instead of going to the park with her son Fred, who was then five, Joanne and her friends, on a whim, took their kids to the audition.  Fred was tested, and passed over.

Six months later, when the director was casting a Pizza Hut commercial, he called Joanne.  He remembered Fred and wanted Joanne to bring the youngster by for another audition.  Fred once again went before the director, who thought Fred was cute, but still not quite right.  "We didn't hear from them," Fred recalls.  "So we forgot about it." But the director didn't forget about Fred. When a third commercial came along (for Pac-Man vitamins) he called Joanne.  "The rest is history!" says Fred.  He got the commercial, and, at age six, his career was under way.

By the time he was eight, Hollywood was beckoning.  In 1986, Fred made his first film, The Boy Who Could Fly, which, he says, was a bit overwhelming. But he admits that itwas a good learning experience; it erased any doubts he had about being able to act in something longer than a commercial.  "If you say, 'I can't, I can't,' then you won't," he says sagely.  "But if you say, 'I can, I can, I'm gonna, I will,' then you'll succeed."

Fred was cast next as Peter Falk's grandson in The Princess Bride and as Judge Reinhold's son in Vice Versa.  Fred remembers that Falk made him laugh, and he enjoyed Vice Versa because it was shot in Chicago and he didn't have to leave home.

But with this exposure, Fred began to sense that his life was changing.  His friends, he says, were still treating him as an equal, but some of his teachers became "starstruck.  I had this one teacher who was real easy on me -she kept giving me a lot of breaks.  I appreciated them, but I felt bad that the other kids weren't gening them, too."

The real downside of early stardom, Fred soon learned, was the sacrifices he had to make, such as canceling sleep-overs with friends or being unable to hang out on weekends.  "You have to dedicate yourself to acting," he says, comparing it to being an Olympic hopeful.  "You have to practice and you have to make sacrifices.  The biggest sacrifice I had to make was moving from Chicago to California."

That move came after Fred landed The Wonder Years, a series that takes a warmhearted look at the '60s, as seen through the eyes of 13-year-old Kevin Arnold.  The show has already won a Golden Globe for Best Comedy series, and this year, Fred himself was nominated for an Emmy.

Ever since the series debuted to critical acclaim in 1988, the Savages knew their lives would never be the same again.  The decision to move to Los Angeles was a tough one, Fred says, because his father couldn't quit his job as an industrial realestate broker and start over again in California.  Fred doesn't completely understand what it is Lew Savage does for a living, but he does know that "to be a good real-estate broker, you have to really know the area like the back of your hand, and my father knows Chicago really well."

So Lew stayed, while Joanne took her three children west, moving them into a nice suburban house in nice suburban Tarzana, not far from the studio where The Wonder Years is shot.  Joanne and Lew made a commitment to let their children blossom in show business, even though it means that Lew sees them only on weekends, when he flies in for a visit.  "It's awful," Joanne admits.  "Lew hates it." But he's already on record as saying that he'd be willing to travel by elephant to Timbuktu if Fred had an acting job there.

Despite his success and the success of his siblings, Fred says that his parents' attitude toward them hasn't changed.  "They're still Mom and Dad," he says with a smile.  His mother, he explains, is the disciplinarian, "even when my Dad's around.  My Dad's so funny-he doesn't care.  But my Mom doesn't treat me any differently-she yells at me and punishes me just like  any other mom." What gets his mother angry, Fred says, is when he talks back to her or is mean to Kala or Ben.  "It's hard being the oldest," Fred says, "because you get blamed for everything." As a case in point, Fred recalls a time when Ben fell and his mother, thinking that he had tripped his brother, sent Fred to his room.  And when Fred tries to convince his mother that his version of the story is right and hers is wrong, he fails-every time, "I never win," he says, as Joanne listens, "I always try to win, but I never can.  Parents are always right."

Not that that's such a bad thing, Fred readily admits.  Unlike his character on The Wonder Years, who, in one episode, was tempted to believe his sister's argument that "Mom and Dad are not the sun and the moon," Fred honestly believes his parents are.

"They're both very generous, kind, loving people who are fair and very supportive," he says. "They never push me.  They say, 'You don't have to do anything you don't want to do.  We'll love you even if you don't do it.  If you want to stop, you can."

At the moment, though, Fred has no intention of stopping.  Why should he, when acting seems more like play than work? "A job is what you do to make money to support yourself," he says, taking some grapes from the bowl of fruit his mother has placed on the table.  "But I'm not acting to support my family or myself.  I just do it for fun.  When it starts to become hard work and I'm not enjoying myself, then it's time to stop."

As far as he's concerned, being an actor is nothing special since "everybody acts.  Kids put on shows for their parents.  They do imitations of people, they're sarcastic, they're spontaneous. Everybody does it.  The only difference is that I do it on TV."

For the most part, it seems acting comes easily-and naturally-to him, He does, however, find it tough to cry or laugh on cue.  Kissing his on-screen girlfriend, Winnie, is no problem.  But he does get embarrassed if a scene calls for him to appear in nothing but his underwear, as he had to in an episode earlier this year.

Is he worried he might outgrow his role? "No," he says.  "The Wonder Years will grow as I grow. If my voice changes, there'll be a show about that.  If I get pimples or braces, there'll be shows about that."

Of course, as much as The WonderYears is a coming-of-age story in weekly installments, it's also a sugarcoated journey back to the '60s.  Fred, who was born in 1976, doesn't find the controversial era easy to discuss or understand.  "There were a lot of mixed emotions going on back then," he says.  "Maybe because I wasn't there, it's all confusing to me now." He does know it was an era filled with "weird hippies, good music, John F. Kennedy, the Beatles, protests and the Vietnam War." But when pressed, Fred admits to not knowing much about these varied topics, although he did become inspired to learn more about President John Kennedy after reading in school about "how his assassination caused such a big upheaval."

Fred then decides to tell me a joke, promising that it features a "swear word." When his father enters the room, he names his favorite movies instead - The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Rain Man and Weekend at Bernie's. He wasn't crazy about Honey, I Shrunk the Kids or Batman, though Jack Nicholson (along with Dustin Hoffman) is his favorite actor.

Another star Fred admires is Eddie Murphy.  The comic was sitting near Fred at the People's Choice Awards last year, at a table with nine bodyguards. Summoning his courage, Fred approached the table, trying to get near Murphy though he could see only the backs of heads.  When he thought he'd found
Murphy, Fred introduced himself.  "But it was one of his bodyguards," Fred says, "who was, like, seven feet tall and nine million pounds." "Maybe you
want that guy," the man said, pointing out Murphy, who then staffed to laugh his hee-haw donkey laugh.  "I was in awe of meeting him," says Fred.  "I
thought he'd have an attitude, but he didn't at all.  He was terrific."

Lew then encourages Fred to tell me about the time he met Clint Eastwood, who told him, in his Dirty Harry voice, how much he liked The Wonder Years.

Like Eastwood, Fred thinks that one day he would like to both act and direct.  But he hasn't confined his career ambitions to Hollywood.  He also dreams of being a defense lawyer and has even taken an introductory law course in summer school.

School, these days, is a completely different affair from what it was in Glencoe.  He and the other young teenagers who star in The Wonder Years attend classes on the studio lot whenever time permits.  "You have to get at least three hours of school in every day," he says.  "So whenever I'm on a break, I go to school.  It's really intense because I have to get a lot done in short periods.  And it's hard because if they need you back on the set, they pull you away every twenty minutes. If you're writing an essay and suddenly get inspired, you've got to stop and go back to work."

It's not all work and no play, however.  Fred does manage to stay in contact with friends, most of whom are chums from back home in Glencoe.  And many of
them, he says, smiling, are girls.  He doesn't write to them, he admits.  "Why write if you can call?" he asks, sounding very much like a child of the
instant-gratification era that he is.  And though he says "there's no one really special," a photo of one girlfriend hangs on his bedroom wall.

Also hanging on the wall is a leaer from First Lady Barbara Bush, who invited Fred to the White House to host an event for children.  But Fred had to decline, he says, because he was filming The Wonder Years.

I get the feeling that Fred's life is one big adventure for him, that the excitement of show business has not yet worn off and that he and his family are aware of just how fortunate they are. "If there's one thing I've learned from all this, it's how lucky I am," Fred says.  "Our lives have changed so much, and we've had so much fun doing things, meeting people, going to so many new places.  We're just very lucky."

What if he were even luckier- what if he won a million dollars? What would he buy? "Baseball cards!" Fred says without hesitation.  "I'd spend about a hundred thousand dollars on them-maybe more." He'd also buy himself a red Jaguar XJ-S convertible.  Then he'd buy his mother a Jaguar and his father a
Corvette.  For his sister Kala, he'd stock up on perfume and jewelry; for Ben, "every model car there is." But when asked what he'd wish for if given
three wishes, his priorities immediately change.

"I have this friend who has leukemia and I'd stop that," he says, growing thoughtful.  "Wish number two would be that my entire family-my aunts and uncles and grandparents and stuff -would always stay happy and healthy." He doesn't come up with a third; to his credit, he does not list never getting his Nintendo taken away again.

From the wisdom of his 13 years, does Fred have advice for other kids his age? "Always be yourself," he says.  "Don't feel pressured.  Stay out of trouble, And no matter how hard the audition is, or how hard the job is or whatever else you have to do, never let 'em see you sweat."

"Be yourself' is fight out of Shakespeare.  "Never let 'em see you sweat" is from a deodorant commercial.  For the star of a TV show with both mass appeal and a tender heart, the sources of his inspiration seem appropriately balanced.

Back to the Articles