Fred Savage: A Child Star Makes Good, With Less Than Wholesome Comedies
Former Child Star Fatigue. Many of us have suffered it, given the drug problems, the meltdowns, the awful nude photos.
But then there's Fred Savage, who starred in the ABC show The Wonder Years from 1988 through 1993. Now he's a successful, slightly offbeat 35-five-year-old television producer and director. He works on wicked, slightly warped comedies including Party Down, It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia and as of today, Best Friends Forever. His first network sitcom premieres tonight on NBC.
"It kind of feeds and inspires and excites me in a way I never got as an actor," Savage says of life behind the camera.
Sitting in a worn-out temporary office at a Studio City lot in Los Angeles, where he's working on a pilot with Martin Lawrence, Savage recalls breaking into producing and directing, first on children's television.
Then he started producing and directing It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, a cheerful little comedy with a twisted little heart. It airs on the cable channel FX and it's syndicated on Comedy Central. Sunny revolves around a group of unbelievably amoral friends who run a bar together; Savage wanted to produce it because he saw his own worst qualities in the characters.
"My selfishness and my arrogance and hubris and ego and all those things that you're not supposed to exercise in public," he says.
Savage's connection to the next darkly funny sitcom he produced and directed was simply that it was about actors. More specifically, a group of L.A. actors unhappily employed at a catering company called Party Down. "It was a way station; it was purgatory," Savage says. "[At Party Down] you're not where you want to be ... or you're coming down from where you could have been."
Party Down lasted only two seasons on Starz, but it's enjoying a vigorous afterlife on streaming video and DVD, thanks in part to a brilliant cast that included Jane Lynch and Adam Scott.
Savage connected to his new NBC comedy because it reminded him of his wife's intense relationship with her best friend. Best Friends Forever was created by its stars, Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham, who fall squarely in The Wonder Years demographic. The two were startled when network executives suggested Savage as an executive producer.
"We were like, wait. Fred Savage from The Wonder Years?" St. Clair remembers at their L.A offices. Parham swiftly jumps in. "We had his poster from Teen Beat, Tiger Beat on our walls as children."
"Yes, please!" exults St. Clair. "He's not one of those child stars who, like, got ugly. He's cuter now. He looks the same. Only a man."
There were innumerable advantages to working with someone who's been in the business since childhood. St. Clair says that Savage made their relatively inexpensive sitcom look like a high-end indie film. "He knows the right people to hire, that's part of it," she says. But it was also that a lifetime on sets made managing their complex hierarchies and protocols second nature to Savage. From childhood, he's absorbed tastes and professional tricks.
"Whether or not I knew it then, I didn't think when I was 6, I was like, 'When I'm a producer, I'm gonna change that!' Or when I was 8, I was — 'Oh that's great, when I'm a producer, I'll keep that!' But you remember the things you felt worked really well and the things that don't work really well."
Fred Savage says he has absolutely no regrets about being a child star. He's firm on this point: In no way does the experience preordain people for a lifetime of addiction, sloppy bids for attention, or soft crime.
"You can still have a very productive, crime-free life when you're growing up in show business," he says wryly. "I'm sure there's a lot more kids who played Little League who've gone on to become murderers but no one says, 'Don't play Little League.'"
Savage has two kids of his own, aged 5 and 3. He's fine if they want to become child actors. It's even maybe OK if they want to play Little League.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Former child stars seem doomed for tabloid drama, drug problems, meltdowns, nude photos. But here's the story about a former child star who has turned into a success. Twenty years ago, Fred Savage was on the hit show "The Wonder Years." Now, he's a television producer and director who makes wicked, slightly warped comedies, including one that starts tonight on NBC.
Here's NPR's Neda Ulaby.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Right now, Fred Savage is in the thick of producing a new pilot. So just for the next few weeks, he's working in a worn-out temporary office at a Studio City lot in Los Angeles. It's got an old, gross, green carpet, battered cheap desk, not much else.
FRED SAVAGE: I'm in an out of here. So you see a lamp and a phone and my computer - actually, as I'm describing it, it sounds terrible. There's an open box of miso soup packets.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ULABY: Fred Savage is a happy man. He's hit his stride at age 35 as a successful, somewhat offbeat TV producer and director.
SAVAGE: It kind of feeds and inspires and excites me in a way that I never got, you know, as an actor.
ULABY: Savage acted for a while after attending Stanford University. He tried to break type from his puppyish "Wonder Years" days. So he played a rapist on "Law and Order, SVU," and a junkie in the movie "Rules of Attraction." Then he started producing and directing kids' shows. And in 2008, a grown-up comedy.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ULABY: "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia" has a cheerful name and a twisted little heart. It airs on the cable channel FX and Comedy Central. It's about three completely amoral friends who run a bar, where minors have no problems getting served.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "IT'S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA")
ROB MCELHENNEY: (as Mac) These kids are wasted, bro. I thought we were cutting them off.
GLENN HOWERTON: (as Dennis Reynolds) I am cutting them off. These kids haven't had more than three drinks each. Plus, there's so much water in them, they're probably more hydrated than they ever have been in their entire lives.
ULABY: Savage wanted to produce the show because he saw his own worst qualities in the characters.
SAVAGE: My selfishness and my arrogance and hubris and ego. And all these things that you're not supposed to exercise in public?
ULABY: He had a different connection to the next darkly funny sitcom he produced and directed. It was about actors unhappily employed at a catering company called "Party Down."
(SOUNDBITE OF SITCOM, "PARTY DOWN")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as Character) White wine, please.
ADAM SCOTT: (as Henry Pollard) Coming right up.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as Characgter) Hey, I know you. You look so familiar to me.
ULABY: The main character, played by Adam Scott, had a flicker of fame in a beer commercial, then he couldn't find more work. Everyone on the show hustled for stardom with varying degrees of ineptitude.
(SOUNDBITE OF SITCOM, "PARTY DOWN")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (as Character) When I auditioned for "Cannonball Run 2," do you know what I did to the girl that I was up against?
SCOTT: (as Henry Pollard) I don't know if I want to know.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (as Character) I hit her with my car.
SCOTT: (as Henry Pollard) Your car?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (as Character) And it felt right.
SAVAGE: It was purgatory. You're not where you want to be or you're coming down from where you could have been.
ULABY: "Party Down" lasted only two seasons on the Starz cable channel, but it's had a dedicated following on streaming and DVD.
Fred Savage also feels connected to his new comedy starting tonight on NBC. His wife's intense relationship with her best friend is just like the one on the show.
(SOUNDBITE OF SITCOM, "BEST FRIENDS FOREVER")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (as Character) What happened?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (as Character) Peter FedExed divorce papers.
ULABY: "Best Friends Forever" is about two female best friends, one with a live-in boyfriend and one who moves in while she's getting divorced. Awkward hijinks ensue, like when the boyfriend accidentally walks in naked.
(SOUNDBITE OF SITCOM, "BEST FRIENDS FOREVER")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (as Character) Get out of here. Oh, no. It's worse from behind. It's worse from behind.
ULABY: The show is created by Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham, who fell squarely in "The Wonder Years" demographic. They were startled when network executives suggested Savage to executive produce their show.
JESSICA ST. CLAIR: They were like, you have to meet with Fred Savage. And we're like, wait. Fred Savage of "The Wonder Years?" Like...
LENNON PARHAM: We had his poster from Teen Beat - Tiger Beat on our walls as children. Yes, please.
ULABY: And in case you were wondering...
PARHAM: He's not one of those child stars who, like, got ugly. He's only cuter.
CLAIR: He looks exactly the same.
PARHAM: He looks just the same, only as a man.
CLAIR: Only a man.
ULABY: There are real advantages to working with someone who's been in business since childhood, says Jessica St. Clair. Savage was able to make their relatively inexpensive sitcom look like a high-end Indie film.
CLAIR: He knows the right people to hire. That's part of it.
ULABY: It's also that you're smooth on sets, she says.
SAVAGE: You know, I've been on sets for a long time, you know, since I was a little kid.
ULABY: So, Savage knows how to manage the hierarchies and protocols, and he spent his entire childhood absorbing tastes and professional tricks.
SAVAGE: Whether or not I knew it then - I don't think, when I was six, I was like, oh, when I'm a producer, I'm going to change that or, oh, when I was eight, I'll say, oh, that's great. When I'm a producer, I'm going to keep that. But, you know, you remember the things that you felt worked really well and the things that you don't feel worked very well.
ULABY: Fred Savage says he has absolutely no regrets about being a child star. In no way, he says, does the experience preordain people for a lifetime of addictions, sloppy bids for attention or soft crime.
SAVAGE: I do bristle at the notion that it's this terrible thing.
ULABY: In fact, Savage protests the stereotypes of former child stars.
SAVAGE: You can still have a very productive, crime-free life when you're growing up in show business. I'm sure there's a lot more kids that have played Little League who've gone on to become murderers, but no one says, oh, don't play Little League.
ULABY: Savage has two kids of his own right now. They're five and three. He's fine if they want to become child actors. It's even OK if they want to play Little League.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIEGEL: This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.