Q: Sir, in the past 11 months you have become the star of a hit TV series that won the Emmy as the year’s best comedy series. You, your mother, your sister and your brother have moved from Illinois to Tarzana, Calif., and you now live in a spanking white ranch house with a pool. Since you’ve been out here your brother, Ben, has landed a TV series and a movie, and last week your own acclaimed show started its second season. Tell us, how has all this changed you?
A: I’m probably taller.
Actually, Fred Savage, 12, star of The Wonder Years, is still only about 4’10”, but if his acting skill grows along with him, he could be destined to become a Hollywood giant. On the show, rushed in as a last-minute replacement in January, Fred plays 12-year-old Kevin Arnold, whose growing pains in a quiet suburb in the year 1968 are recalled through his bittersweet reminiscences 20 years later. With its combination of ’60s music, sharp period detail and fine writing, the series is that rarity, a critical and popular hit, and Savage is Wonder’s bread and butter. His face is mushy and winsome. His voice is low and raspy—”I have nodules on my vocal cords,” Fred explains. “There’s nothing wrong. I just can’t yell too loud at football games.” And his smile could melt a polar ice cap. In other words, as one of those Wonder Years junior high school tests might put it, cute is to Savage as downy is to duck.
Yet all this heady attention seems to have rolled off both Fred and his family, who insist that while their circumstances have changed dramatically, they have not. Fred grew up in the Chicago suburb—TV sometimes is true to life—of Glencoe, where his father, Lew, is a real estate broker and developer. Fred and his mother, Joanne, sister Kala, 10, and Ben, 8, moved to L.A. last summer, and Lew flies in from Glencoe on weekends. Recently, Ben was invited to act as Fred’s brother in the forthcoming film Little Monsters (“Being with my brother was fun because I know him a lot,” Ben says). He now plays Judd Hirsch’s son on NBC’s Dear John, and will soon start shooting the movie Fifty with Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason. Such precocious successes strongly suggest a willful, driving stage mother, but so much for strong suggestion. Joanne Savage still can’t believe she is mother to two pint-size celebs. “It amazes me how all this happened,” she says. “We are not an acting family, we just went to auditions. We are just so normal.”
“Fred is your typical kid,” insists his dad. “Whenever he comes home from a project, he fits in pretty well. He has his buddies over, and they run around like regular kids.” Fred sees the family as nuclear-typical. “My dad’s the dominant one, and Mom is the quiet one,” he says, “but Mom’s the one who’ll send me to my room. I spend plenty of time there for fighting with my sister and mouthing off to my parents. But we kids aren’t competitive—we’re just regular brothers and sisters.”
And to think that, as Fred says, “It all started with a hot dog.” When he was 5, Fred and his schoolmates were told of auditions for a frankfurter commercial at a local community center. “It wasn’t like we were starting a career for him or anything,” says Joanne. “It’s just a lot of mothers, instead of going to the park after school that day, took the kids to the center. If it had been down in Chicago, I wouldn’t have gone.” Fred didn’t get the part, but at 6 he won a Pac-Man vitamin commercial. He auditioned because he loves video games. “If it were for something like Hanes underwear,” he says, “I probably wouldn’t be here today.”
Since then Fred has made roughly 70 TV and radio commercials and three movies. In 1987 he was read to by grandfather Peter Falk in The Princess Bride, and last spring he appeared in the hit Vice Versa, switching identities with his father, Judge Reinhold.
Naturally, life on the wild coast has had a certain effect on Fred’s life-style. For starters there is his relationship with Abra Dresher, with whom he has been linked since both were, well, children. Their idea of a hot date used to be to walk into a shopping mall and follow around a married couple “like we were their children,” says Fred, “so the store people didn’t think we were trying to steal anything.” He and Abra don’t go mailing much these days, but they are still an item, and this month Fred will fly to Glencoe for her 13th-birthday party. Says the star: “She’s really nice and pretty and stuff.”
His sister, Kala, is taking her sibs’ fame in stride. “I think Fred’s cute and a real good actor,” Kala says. “I think the expressions on his face are real good—when he’s not talking.” As for Fred, fame has brought one perk he finds especially gratifying. “Finally,” he says, “I have my own room. It’s really coo I.”
—By Joanne Kaufman, and David Hutchings in Los Angeles