HEY IT’S A HARD-KNOCK LIFE BEING A child actor. You’ve got all those totally boring hours on the set, all that retardo homework, all that awesome money your parents won’t let you spend. And it’s really lame-o if you’ve got some wise-guy big brother who’s been there first, right?
Turns out all this is no problem for Ben Savage, 13, younger brother of Fred (The Wonder Years) Savage, now 17. With the demise of that series last spring, Fred is a full-time high school senior. Now it’s Ben who is in the prime-time spotlight in ABC’s new Friday-night sitcom Boy Meets World. He plays 11-year-old Cory Matthews, a ’90s-model Dennis the Menace constantly at daggers drawn with authority figures—especially his fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Feeny (William Daniels). Says Ben: “I’d never talk to my teachers like Cory talks to Mr. Feeny. I mean, they’re the ones who give you the grades.”
David Combs, Ben’s real-life teacher on the Disney Studios lot, appreciates his eighth-grade pupil’s attitude. “Ben’s a bright kid, very sparkly,” he says. “He should be very proud of himself, because he went right into algebra with the ninth graders.” Ben also gets high marks for his showbiz résumé, which already includes another sitcom, Dear John, a forthcoming film, Clifford, and last season’s bizarre ABC miniseries Wild Palms (in which he played the devilish Coty Wyckoff). World’s executive producer, Michael Jacobs, says, “I think he has every bit as big a future in television as Fred.”
None of this surprises the boys’ mother, Joanne, who says Fred is more like her and Ben is more like his father, Lew, an industrial real estate developer. “Ben is a more driven person,” she says. “He’s a perfectionist. Ben comes home from school, gets a snack and immediately goes upstairs to do his homework. Fred’s more of a procrastinator.”
Good pals now that both are teenagers, the Savage brothers occupy each other by whacking tennis balls back and forth, Rollerblading and hip-hopping around the L.A. area to Ben’s friends’ bar mitzvahs. (Ben’s own bar mitzvah is coming later this year.) Says Ben: “It’s sort of become a tradition. We put our favorite CD on—the soundtrack from So I Married an Axe Murderer—and he drives me to the bar mitzvah.” There, Ben adds, “I eat. I dance. I meet girls.”
If Ben and his brother seem right out of an old-fashioned family sitcom, that’s likely because they spent their earliest years back in mainstream Glencoe, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. Fred got his start in show business when he landed a PacMan Vitamin commercial back in 1982—a move that prefigured Ben’s first job, in a TV ad for a drugstore chain, three years later. “All I had to do was sit in a pool and smile,” says Ben. Today, the family (which also includes sister Kala, 15) still has ties in the Chicago area, where Lew maintains his business—and where Ben says he’d like to settle. “It’s safer there,” he explains, “and cleaner than Los Angeles.”
Meantime, he’s looking forward to some wonder years of his own. “I want to go to UCLA,” he says, “live in a fraternity house—and party.”
JOYCE WAGNER in Los Angeles