Just Your Normal Star Wonder Kid : Television: At 13, show business pro Fred Savage can hold his own with Jay Leno, headline a hit TV series, and, now, he’s starring in his fifth film.
Fred Savage, the star of the hit TV series “The Wonder Years,” is on the set posing for photographs. Savage, who just turned 13, is already a grizzled veteran with the press. He just finished an exhausting 12-hour work day and, after the photo session, will sit down for an interview to publicize his new movie “The Wizard.”
In “The Wizard,” Savage’s younger, emotionally disturbed half-brother has an uncanny knack for Nintendo video games. The two set off on a cross-country road trip, chased by their parents and a marauding bounty hunter of lost children, to a national video game championship in California.
Savage rests his chin in his hands, smiling at the camera like an old friend. Then he stands and pokes his head out from behind a wooden post as if he is playing peek-a-boo. The child actor isn’t trying to be cute for the camera; he’s trying to find a pose that will hide a pimple on his left cheek.
“How’s this, can you see it now?” he asks.
The concern is that this isn’t a normal blemish. This pimple is puffed up the size of a miniature marshmallow. It clings to his smooth milky face like a gob of Silly Putty. Oxy 1,000 couldn’t conquer this snowcapped peak.
“Turn your head a little to the left,” the photographer says. The camera’s shutter whirs and the flash bulb pops.
“You know, that’s not really his pimple,” says Savage’s mother, Joanne, surveying the photo session from the sidelines.
In fact, the blemish is a rubbery prosthetic device that was applied by a makeup man for a recent episode of “The Wonder Years.” Every Tuesday night, Savage becomes, through his TV character Kevin Arnold, a pre-adolescent tour guide for adult TV audiences, leading them through the nostalgic joys and pains of growing up as a child in the 1960s.
In real life, it would be more difficult for Savage to endure a glaring pimple than his TV alter ego. The young actor, who was nominated for an Emmy this year for “The Wonder Years,” already has five feature films under his belt and is the star of the season’s No. 7-rated TV show. Sunday night he accepted a Golden Apple Award for Male Discovery of the Year from the Hollywood Women’s Press Club. Wednesday night, he traded one-liners with Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show.”
And now, another interview at the end of a long work day. Does it all get to be too much for a kid of such tender years?
“Heck no. This is fun!” Savage says, his voice squeaking. “I love interviews!” Then, shifting smoothly from a child’s enthusiasm to a broader adult perspective, he continues, “Taking a picture, doing interviews, signing an autograph, shaking hands--it all comes with acting. It’s just something you do. It means that people want to know about me, or they like my work, and that makes me feel good.”
Savage is sitting in a small, stuffy dressing room with his mother. Whenever he works, California law requires that a guardian be present at all times. But watching mother and son together, the brooding image of stage mother living vicariously through her child never crops up. Instead, the two play off each other like schoolyard buddies.
At one point, when Joanne Savage’s stomach growls from across the room, her son abruptly interrupts the interview and turns to her. “Gee, you hungry, Mom?” he says loudly.
Later, when the subject of dating comes up, Joanne Savage bursts out laughing, leaving her son’s face bright red. “Dating? He’s only 13! They don’t date. How’s he going to date? How’s he going to get there?”
A problem common for many childhood actors is adults assuming too many older qualities in them, a subject the 13-year-old Savage knows well. On one hand, Savage carries himself with poise and dignity, working the cast and crew on the crowded TV set like a seasoned comedian. On the other hand, he’s a kid who operates on an $8-a-week allowance and gets sent to his room when he bites his fingernails.
Savage says there’s an unwritten set of iron-cast kid-actor questions that always seems to pop up in interviews. “You know, I may answer the same questions a lot, but it’s the first time for the interviewer,” he says dutifully. “So you have to treat the first one the same way you treat the 20-billionth one.”
What are the five questions he dreads the most?
“All right. Here’s the first, do my friends treat me differently?” Savage says.
“How did you get started in acting?” his mother adds.
“What do I do for school?” Savage says.
“How do we stop you from getting a big head?” his mother says.
“Is that five? One more. Oh, do I ever miss my childhood?” Savage says.
“In other words, is he normal?” adds Joanne Savage. They both laugh.
By all indications, Savage is an exceedingly normal kid whose early occupation in life demands that he acquire some advanced skills, professionally and socially. Off the set, he spends time collecting baseball cards, listening to compact discs, playing home video games--"Normal kid things,” he says. Savage knows that childhood actors are described variously as precocious, bratty and spoiled, and he fights that image all the time.
“I think the biggest pressure for Fred is having to deal with adults in the body of a child,” says his on-set teacher, David Combs. “He is, for all intents and purposes, an adult. When people react to him as an adult, it works very well for him. But when they react to him as an authority figure, as a child of his age, it makes him feel strange.”
Savage grew up in a small Chicago suburb. At 6, he auditioned for and won a role in a Pac-man vitamin commercial. He has done 75 commercials since then, and before he was ever seen arching his high eyebrows and mugging for the camera on “The Wonder Years,” he had already completed three feature films.
He made his film debut in 1985 in “The Boy Who Could Fly,” was Peter Falk’s bedridden nephew in “The Princess Bride” and played opposite Judge Reinhold--in perhaps his most fitting role--as an adult trapped in a child’s body in the comedy “Vice Versa.” Earlier this year, he explored the dark regions under his bed at night with a gruesome Howie Mandel in “Little Monsters.”
“He’s still a kid deep down underneath,” said Ken Topolsky, who has worked with Savage as producer of both “The Wizard” and “The Wonder Years.” “A lot of times you work with young actors and think, ‘Oh God, they’re going to be divorced twice by the time they’re 16.’ Fred still has his innocence, his genuineness and his child’s sense of wonder.”
Joanne Savage tells of one of her son’s first trips, when he was about 8, to shoot a TV commercial in Grand Rapids, Mich. “We stayed at a Ramada Inn overnight,” she says. “That was something new to him. So we got all dressed up and had dinner at the hotel dining room, just Fred and me. After the waitress took our order and left, he turned to me and said, ‘Mom, do you know who that is? That’s the employee of the week!’ He had seen a plaque somewhere, and he told her after dinner how proud he was to be served by her.”
Savage now lives in Tarzana, where acting is a family affair. His brother Ben, 9, has a recurring role on the just-renewed TV series “Dear John,” and his sister Kala, 11, has been on the soap “Santa Barbara.” Savage’s father, a real estate broker and developer who supports the family with his own salary, moved the family to California two years ago to make acting easier for the kids. As a result, he now commutes to Chicago and is only able to spend weekends at home. (“He has enough frequent flier miles for a first-class, round-trip ticket to Pluto,” Savage says.)
Toward the end of the interview, a mobile phone in the dressing room rings. Savage picks it up.
“Hello, Johnny? What are you doing this weekend. . . . Uh huh. Yeah. . . . Do you want to, like, come over? . . . What size shoe do I wear? . . . Oh, you have Roller Blades! I can fit in a 7, no problem. . . . Oh-you-have-to-bring-them! And bring your tennis racket. And bring a bathing suit. OK? I’ll-talk-to-you-later-bye.”
He hangs up the phone, reaches forward for the interviewer’s microphone and speaks softly into it.
“That was me being a real kid.”