By Susan Schindehette David Hutchings
April 17, 1989 12:00 PM

While a strong Santa Ana is blow-torching the valley, inside on the set it’s a sweltering 90°F. A Burbank high school gymnasium has been 1968-retrofitted: Prop student-council signs flack an upcoming Limbo Dance (How Low Can You Go?), teenage girls in gym outfits crack their gum. The director, in a tangle of cameras and lights, is presiding over a horde of unwieldy extras for a square-dancing scene. Filming is grinding along at the speed of a giant land tortoise. And now the set social worker is making ominous rumblings. “It’s too hot in here,” he mutters. “I’ll close down the set if they don’t follow the rules.”

In sum, the fatigue factor on this successful television show is running as high as its ratings. The star, however, never crumbles. During a break, he exuberantly bounds over to a bystander with a colleague in tow. “Listen to him, Mom!” blurts the ebullient Fred Savage. “He can do a whole sentence in one belch!”

No question about it: Hollywood’s caprices are rolling right off the back of The Wonder Years’ sweet Savage. Although if he wanted to, he’d have plenty of cause to crow. Aided by brown saucer-sized eyes, chipmunk cheeks and a smile that’s wider than the San Andreas fault, Savage’s almost unthinkable adorability has recently helped pull The Wonder Years, ABC’s Tuesday night revisit to the ’60s, firmly into the Nielsen Top 10. Okay, the kid in question is a little fuzzy on the details of the era (“It would be fun to go back to the ’60s. I bet there’d be lots of hippies and stuff. And malt shops and places that say, ‘Shave and a haircut, two bits’ “). But for that, he can be forgiven. He wasn’t born, after all, until 1976.

His acting skills, however, are far in advance of his 12 years. And it should come as good news to Savage fans that Fred’s talent seems to be a family affair. His other siblings, 10-year-old Kala and 8-year-old Ben, have followed him into the business, raising the specter of a Savage family minidynasty. Kala has a recurring role on the NBC soap Santa Barbara. Ben plays Judd Hirsch’s son in the NBC series Dear John and will be co-starring with Howie Mandel—and brother Fred—in Little Monsters, a film due in August.

All the budding young acting careers under one roof have wreaked the familial havoc that one might expect. “Sometimes I feel like a female Clark Kent, a mild-mannered housewife who all of a sudden became a Hollywood participant,” says mother Joanne. “I was planning to work with Lew [her husband] in his business, retire someday in Florida and play bridge and tennis. At home I drove car pools and made dinner at night. Then this showbiz thing expanded and just took over more and more of our lives.”

She’s not complaining. And, despite what skeptics might think, the Savage family circus is what it appears to be—a comparatively happy, relatively well-adjusted and reassuringly feet-on-the-ground nuclear unit. Dad, a real estate broker and developer, still brings home a paycheck. Mom, an easygoing Midwestern type, is no closet Joan Crawford. And none of their offspring are trundling off to kiddie psychiatrists.

Which is pretty remarkable, considering the changes the Savage clan has undergone since that day seven years ago when 5-year-old Fred, on a lark with his mom, auditioned for his first commercial. (That was no sweat, says Fred: “I had to eat a hot dog and smile. I love hot dogs. I asked if I could keep it.”) For one thing, the family has moved from Glencoe, Ill., to a five-bedroom house in Tarzana to accommodate the kids’ burgeoning careers. A swimming pool has been installed. Joanne now carries a portable phone to keep track of all the kids. And Lew, an articulate, cheery guy who still works in Glencoe during the week, now religiously takes a Friday flight to California to be with the family for the weekend. “Years ago a neighbor said that my life looked like a Hollywood movie—my wife and three kids on their bikes waiting in the driveway for me,” he says. “Well, now it is Hollywood. I keep expecting to be asked to be on the Oprah Winfrey Show, for ‘Husbands Who Live Apart from Their Wives.’ ”

Even so, “if Fred worked in Timbuktu we’d be there,” says Lew. “I’d probably come by elephant on weekends. A parent just does that by instinct for his kids. Things have changed for us, of course. But the family is the most important thing.”

“I’m always questioning if I am doing the right thing,” adds Joanne. “But it’s okay. The kids are funny. When they do interviews and are asked where their father is, they say, ‘He’s in Chicago.’ And then they blurt out, ‘But my parents aren’t divorced!’ ”

With all the shuttling and scheduling, pot roast at the dining room table is now a distant memory. “It’s fish sticks and fast food these days,” says Joanne. “I used to always have these hot meals, but you can’t do everything. Last night was a good dinner. I got a meat loaf, which was all prepared in aluminum foil, and put on some Noodle-roni. Once not long ago I actually boiled some potatoes and mashed them for my kids, and they thought that was a home-cooked meal. Isn’t that sad?”

Yes, but there are perks. Fred, for one, is enjoying stardom’s fringes, even if he does have to take them in short stride. In the past year alone he attended the Golden Globe awards, served as one of the grand marshals at a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, got invited by Barbara Bush to attend the Inauguration (he had to take a rain check because of a conflicting shooting schedule), presented a People’s Choice award and narrated a film at Comic Relief III.

Then there’s the shoulder rubbing. After winning Best Director award at the Golden Globes, for instance, Clint Eastwood passed Savage’s table. Lowering his register to a tolerable Dirty Harry, Fred recalls Clint saying, “Hey, I like your show, kid. It’s good.” Fred also has a fond memory of congratulating a colleague at the People’s Choice awards. “I was too embarrassed to introduce myself to Dustin Hoffman, but I went up to Eddie Murphy and said, ‘Hello, Mr. Murphy.’ I called him that because you can’t be too careful. He was at this table with nine other people, these 7′, 500-lb. bodyguards. I told him he was really funny. And he told me I was really funny.”

Celebrity’s benefits aren’t lost on the other little Savages. “People ask me in school if I’m Fred’s brother, and I say I am,” says Ben. “Boys ask me if he is nice. Girls ask me where I live.”

Still, lest this latter-day Freddie Bartholomew get lost in fame’s thrall, there is still a mother around who keeps him in line, a mother who calls out (within earshot of a member of the press): “Fred, don’t forget to put up the toilet seat when you’re going to the bathroom!” According to Fred, his mom is most effective when “she threatens to take my CD player away or take my baseball cards away. That always works. Sometimes I’m nasty to Mom, but I’ve gotten much better. I’ve matured.”

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that this 12-year-old whiz is just a kid. “Ever since he was a baby he’s been able to walk into a situation and know what it’s all about,” says his father. This is, after all, a character who describes his current height as “4-10ish,” grouses about his allowance (“If I bite my nails, I don’t get any money. Doesn’t that stink?”) and displays a nice sense of himself (“On a scale from 1 to 10, 1 being Beaver and 10 being Dennis the Menace, I’d say I’m a 5”).

Even Wonder years’ on-set tutor, who teaches Fred three hours a day, gets a little taken aback at his charge’s precocity. “He’s almost like a channeler,” says David Combs. “I know this sounds very touchy-feely, but it’s as if he is an adult living in a child. I feel like I’m hearing his grandfather, or some other adult, coming out of this little boy’s mouth.”

In the year since stardom, Fred has remained “good friends” with a former girlfriend back in Glencoe (“She’s really nice and pretty and stuff, but you know how difficult it is keeping those long-distance relationships going”), but admits that his heart now belongs to Holly, the daughter of family friends in L.A. “She’s real smart and nice and she’s funny.” She also has one overridingly seductive talent, says Fred: “She can burp on cue.”

Despite their common acting pursuits, the Savage kids are hardly peas in a pod. “Fred is insightful and charismatic and observant,” says his mother. “My one worry is his social life, that he’s not in school with other kids. I don’t have too many worries with Ben. You could throw him against a wall, and he’d just bounce off and keep going. He’s bright, social and winsome. Kala, she’s the sweetest of the sweet. She’s quieter than the boys, which used to worry me. It’s hard being sandwiched between two live wires like Fred and Ben.”

That becomes obvious on a typical evening chez Savage, West Coast branch. “We don’t have fights too much except over what’s on TV and who gets to hold the remote control,” says Kala. “I steal Fred’s shampoo and that gets him mad.”

Ben’s trying to tell about a story he wrote in class. “A spaceship told me I had to go to Jupiter, and when I landed I saw a real comet so I did a cartwheel…”

“You’re putting us to sleep here, Ben,” injects Fred.

“I was sick today. I have a fever,” says Kala, seizing her chance. “I made a collage and I read a Nancy Drew book.”

“I remember a long time ago,” says Ben, jumping back in, “when I was 7.”

“Me and Fred get really frustrated with Ben and his karate,” Kala reports.

“Ben got a yellow belt and he thinks he’s Bruce Lee ninja,” says Fred.

“I do not!”

“He doesn’t know the first thing about karate,” adds Kala.

Mortified, Ben runs from the room.

“We’re not the Brady Bunch,” Fred explains.

In fact, they could pass. “Everything that has happened has been fun for us,” Lew says of the whirlwind that has lately overtaken his family. “When Fred did his first print commercial for Froot Loops, we left this party and ran to the 7-Eleven and tore open the paper at midnight to see him in the Chicago Tribune. It has always been exciting for us. The look on Fred’s face when he gets something new is so amazing, like he’s just won the Super Bowl and World Series together. I love that look, and I’ll never forget it.”

There are worries, however, Lew admits. “Fred has had the joy of being the pioneer. Everything was unexplored. I just hope the other two can enjoy themselves as much as he did, instead of looking for the next mountain to conquer. When Ben got his first commercial, I saw it was different. I said, ‘Oh gosh, Ben, you’re on TV.’ He looked at me and said, ‘When will I be on a movie?”

The Savages know there are other risks to consider. Fred, for example, spends a five-day, 48-hour week on The Wonder Years’ set, so he doesn’t get much chance to grow with kids his own age. Then there’s the concern about what will happen when and if his career starts to fade. Lew, however, believes the family’s love and sense of happiness will prevail. “If a parent is crazy for his kids, as we are,” he says, “then those kids hear it loud and clear. I think a parent’s joy is infinite. And if you don’t enjoy the journey, it really isn’t worth it.”

—Susan Schindehette, David Hutchings in Los Angeles