Fred Savage's Never-Ending Wonder Years as TV's Hot Comedy Director
"I'd like to direct." Fred Savage was among the most famous child actors in Hollywood when he said those words. At 13, the breakout star of ABC's hit dramedy The Wonder Years already had garnered his first Emmy nomination. But when he sat down with the Associated Press in 1989 to promote another project, the adventure flick The Wizard, Savage revealed that his true passion lay elsewhere. "On the set, they call me 'Little Opie' because Ron Howard started as a child actor and grew up to direct," noted the young actor who played Kevin Arnold. "He could be a role model for me. I'm always looking through the camera and checking angles. I want to learn all that I can."
More than two decades later, Savage, now 35, married and raising two children of his own in Hollywood, is doing precisely as he hoped, a result of spending the better part of his 20s inviting himself to hang out on other directors' sets. On this day in early February, the low-key Savage sits in his sparsely decorated Silver Lake-area office, where he is helming NBC's now-short-lived comedy Best Friends Forever, stunned by the words he doesn't recall uttering. "It's just amazing to hear my 13-year-old self articulate it that way and then to be doing it? Come on," he says after the comments are read to him, his eyes growing moist as he makes sense of his career. "How many kids say they want to be firefighters or astronauts when they grow up? This is what I always wanted to do."
The trajectory from child star to successful director is particularly impressive considering that many of his peers, from the two Coreys (Haim and Feldman) to Full House's Jodie Sweetin, have provided little more than cautionary tales of the dangers of peaking early. Savage's status as a go-to comedy director has generated a resume lined with such credits as Modern Family, Happy Endings, Party Down and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. "People want Fred on their set. He's smart, and more importantly, he knows where the jokes are," says famed director and Savage mentor James Burrows, who accepted the actor's request years ago to shadow him on the set of Will & Grace.
Others in the industry have taken notice, with showrunners including 2 Broke Girls' Michael Patrick King and Modern Family's Steve Levitan putting the Chicago native on their shortlist of must-hire helmers. "There's a very limited list of young, energized, talented, clever, versatile comedy directors because you have to know more than just cameras, you have to know comedy," notes King. This year, Savage, who often benefits from being both a peer and an icon to a generation of thirtysomething actors and writers, was nominated for the craft's highest honor, a Directors Guild Award, for his work on Family (he oversaw the November episode in which the family organizes a community drive after a neighbor's house burns down); a month or so later, he signed to direct Martin Lawrence's untitled cop-comedy pilot for CBS as part of an overall deal he inked in late 2011 with the network's sister studio.
In an industry where those on either side of success find reasons to be jaded, Savage exhibits enthusiasm more typical of its fans. In fact, a cocktail of dedication, relationships and good fortune has produced a spirit that could easily be confused as naive. "He utterly lacks cynicism. It's disgusting," quips Levitan.
Savage, who has maintained the boyish look that won over fans many years ago, credits his parents for instilling in him -- and, perhaps more surprisingly, enabling him to maintain -- that sense of optimism about an industry he broke into in the mid-'80s as a 6-year-old starring in a Pac-Man vitamin commercial. The two of them shielded a young Savage, along with his actor brother and sister, from the potential pitfalls of the industry as his profile rose first with The Princess Bride then with six seasons on the awards darling Wonder Years.
"They bore the brunt of everything and never vented to me, so I had no feelings of, 'This industry sucks,' or, 'They'll eat you alive,' " he says, acknowledging that he was aware of the many examples of what could go wrong. (His parents have remained close to those of Wonder Years' other young stars.) "All of these kids were kind of going off the rails a bit," adds Savage, noting that he searched for positive role models, a shorter list that included Jodie Foster and Brooke Shields.