Prime-Time Success Hasn't Spoiled the Savages

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fred and Ben Savage have grown up before viewers' eyes.

Fred came to fame playing Kevin Arnold in the classic ABC series "The Wonder Years." Now 22 and one term shy of getting a degree in English from Stanford University in Palo Alto, he is entering his second season on NBC's sitcom "Working," playing a young executive who wants to ascend the corporate ladder by virtue of his own hard work.

Ben, who'll turn 18 on Sunday, is about to start his sixth season on ABC's comedy "Boy Meets World." Though his TV character, Cory Matthews, will be attending college in the fall, Ben has deferred his entrance into Stanford for a year.

Over several iced teas at Chin-Chin in Encino, the two brothers are bright and fun. Though they are mostly unrecognized at the restaurant, one young girl shyly walks over for an autograph from them both.

"Ben always sells me out, because all kids recognize him a lot more than they recognize me," Fred says with a laugh.

This summer, the Savage siblings toiled in the theater. Ben received good reviews here for the Israel Horovitz play "Unexpected Tenderness," at the Lee Strasberg Institute, while Fred went to Cape Cod and Connecticut to star with his "Wonder Years" father, Dan Lauria, in the play "Wendell and Ben."

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Question: How did you like your life in the theater this summer?

Ben: It was such a nice change from what I'm used to on the show. It was a really nice contrast. A lot of people I work with on the show have been telling me, "You've got to open yourself up." [Fellow "Boy Meets World" actor] Bill Daniels was always one of the people who encouraged me to do theater.

Fred: Mine came about through a play reading. I read it [last year] with Dan Lauria, the guy who played my father on "The Wonder Years." The audience really responded to it. We both said we have some time this summer and let's put it together.

I love being at the theater. The moment I got to the theater, the moment I left--I loved it. I loved performing. I loved preparing.

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Q: Do you both discuss each other's performances?

Fred: We see each other's stuff.

Ben: But we really don't talk about each other's work. We do support each other.

Fred: Especially because we are on the same lot, so I always go over and see him. We look out for each other. When I first came to do "Working" on the lot last year, it was my first year doing a sitcom. Ben was, like, a five-year veteran at that point in the sitcom world. He would always come over to our stage and stick his head in and see how I was doing. That was the first time Ben was kind of the pioneer. He was kind of the guy who ventured into this first.

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Q: Has it been strange to spend your youth on television?

Ben: I think there are certain advantages and disadvantages. I could never try out for the basketball team or participate in some sports teams because I had other commitments. But at the same time, you are forced to grow up really quickly because you are working with adults. That helped me incredibly because you are sort of forced to grow up in a matter of years. Most kids slowly mature.

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Q: Is there any sibling rivalry over your career or just normal stuff between brothers?

Ben: I don't think there has been anything except what most brothers fight over--trivial things. . . .

Fred: Annoying stuff, certainly not professional stuff at all. We haven't competed with each other, but that may change when I'm 34 and Ben's 30 and we're going out for the same roles.

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Q: Fred, when Ben started "Boy Meets World," did you offer him advice on what life would be like as star of a series?

Fred: I think the times that we would talk wouldn't be as much professionally as personally--like Ben deferring his freshman year in college. We talked a lot about that because he was going to Stanford and I was at Stanford. We talked a lot about high school and what it was like to go to school on the set and how to handle school, especially during his junior and senior year, when academics became really important and college was an issue.

Ben: I went to a regular high school. I think the difference between "Boy Meets World" and "The Wonder Years" is that "The Wonder Years" would film for months at a time and he would rarely get to go back to school until March or April. With a a sitcom, you do two or three episodes and you get a week off. During that week off I'd be at school for a week. I didn't get the full high school experience, but I got enough.

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Q: It sounds like you have great parents.

Ben: Our parents never wanted us to become lost in the limelight of Hollywood. That's why I think they emphasized the importance of school for us.

Fred: They were really careful to make sure we had a life outside the entertainment industry and that we went to a regular school and had friends who weren't involved in the business. I don't identify myself as an actor, or a TV star. I identify myself as "this is what I do." I live with two of my friends. One guy goes to work--he's an assistant at New Line--and the other guy goes to a bank downtown, and I go to the studio. We come back and we're just fine. We do our work. My parents didn't let that become what defined us. We had lives outside of that which were equally fulfilling and rich.

Ben: I think a lot of times parents become fans of their kids instead of their parents.

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Q: You guys seem to have avoided the problems plaguing so many child stars, like the kids from "Diff'rent Strokes."

Fred: What upsets me the most is you see all of these cases gone wrong, and it's not a function of being a child actor. It really isn't. If you look at these kids, their home is where everything starts. If these kids played Little League baseball all of their lives, they still would have run into trouble. Maybe they wouldn't have had the money to have bought drugs, but they still would have gotten in trouble. The point is, it's not indicative of being a child actor. It doesn't go hand in hand.

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Q: How did acting happen? Was it something your parents wanted for you both?

Fred: When did you get started?

Ben: I don't know. Fred was doing it and then I did it.

Fred: I was doing commercials. We grew up in this little town about 25 miles north of Chicago. I was like 5 years old and there were auditions being held at the local community center for a hot dog commercial. So, my mom and all my friends and their moms, we all went to the community center, just for something fun to do. I don't really remember it that well. I ate a hot dog and I was happy about that. Nothing came of it but this director remembered me and called me back a couple of times. They called us back for a third audition and my mom asked me if I wanted to go [to downtown Chicago] again and I was, like, "What is it for?" It was for Pac Man vitamins. Of course, I was, like, "Of course, of course." I got it and I started getting more and more commercials.

Chicago now is like L.A., but when I was getting started it was a lot smaller, particularly for young actors. The market wasn't flooded, so there was a need for child actors.

Ben: I just started to go out on auditions for commercials. I really don't remember how I got started. I guess I saw Fred doing it and it looked like fun.

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Q: Where do you see your careers heading?

Ben: When we are older, he's going to be a famous director.

Fred: And he's going to be a famous writer.

Ben: I don't know. I have this dream that he's going to direct a movie and he's going to be in it. I always thought that he would be the perfect director. One time we did a play reading together. He directed the play reading and I was in it. It wasn't the best script, but it was a really cool for me because I always wanted him to direct.

Fred: You're still kind of into writing though?

Ben: I don't know if I want to write any more. That was a thing when I was 11 because I liked writing poetry.

If acting doesn't work out in television or movies, I would be perfectly happy going to New York or Boston and doing theater.

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"Working" begins its new season Sept. 22, airing Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. on NBC (Channel 4). "Boy Meets World" launches its new season Sept. 25, airing Fridays at 8:30 p.m. on ABC (Channel 7).

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