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Not Just Acting Like an Adult

Most fans of “The Wonder Years” probably never thought of star Fred Savage as Jewish. His role as the adolescent Kevin Arnold on the acclaimed TV series was “definitely not Jewish,” he says, although Kevin did have an explicitly Jewish best friend.

Now, in “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” at El Portal Center, Savage plays Joe, a New York-raised Jew of Eastern European heritage who challenges extremely assimilated, quasi-Christian German American Jews in 1939 Atlanta.

So it seems appropriate that Savage--who is indeed Jewish--has suggested Nate ‘n Al’s, a famous Jewish deli in Beverly Hills, as an interview site. The place is also a neighborhood hangout for Savage. He lives in an apartment in what he jokingly calls “the slums” of Beverly Hills, near Olympic Boulevard.

Upon being told of a 20-minute wait at the crowded restaurant, however, Savage suggests going elsewhere, starting with a stroll through his neighborhood.

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He points out the toy store where he likes the pogo sticks for adults. He talks about riding his “dorky” bike--complete with basket and bell--around town to avoid the Beverly Hills parking crush. He discusses how much he enjoys the nearby Museum of Television & Radio and how he subsists on Chinese food delivered to his apartment. Finally he sits down at a sidewalk table outside a coffee joint for more concentrated talk.

The conversation is interrupted a couple of times by passers-by. Savage greets a man whom he identifies as the photographer at his bar mitzvah. Later, a couple of young women approach the table to ask for an autograph.

“She has loved you since she was 10,” says one of the women, referring to the other, who then relates how she grew up watching “The Wonder Years"--in Egypt. Savage signs an autograph and listens to the pair pitch spa treatments they are selling, considering whether he should buy one for his girlfriend. But he doesn’t have a credit card on him.

Famous since he was 12, Savage is still only 25.

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Savage says he has “a good mix” of Jewish ethnic strains in his family. His father’s parents were from Latvia and Ukraine, while his mother’s were from Germany and Poland via Brooklyn. He had a typical Reform Jewish upbringing, he says, including Hebrew school in suburban Chicago and a bar mitzvah at the Stephen Wise Temple on Mulholland Drive soon after his family moved to L.A. One of the producers of “The Wonder Years,” Kent Topolsky, was a rabbinical school dropout who tutored him for his bar mitzvah during breaks on the set.

Young Fred’s bar mitzvah was not lavish, he recalls. His father wanted his children to appreciate the event for its meaning, not as a chance to party. After it was over, Savage says, he felt “a sense of wanting to be more responsible” about Judaism. He prodded the family to attend services more often.

Yet Savage insists he doesn’t want to pose as “a super Jew.” Although he can read Hebrew well, “I can’t tell you what I’m saying.”

Likewise, in a question-and-answer session with the audience after a recent matinee of “Ballyhoo,” Savage told the crowd that he sometimes drives through the heart of the Orthodox Jewish district on Fairfax Avenue on Saturdays--when observant Orthodox Jews don’t drive--"and I feel so bad. I guess it’s Jewish guilt.”

“I identify with Judaism as a cultural heritage rather than as a theology,” Savage says during the interview. “So much of being Jewish is about Grandma’s matzo brei recipe and her brisket.”

At the same time, Savage says, he feels a responsibility “to keep the culture alive.” Is it important for him to marry within the faith? “It’s important to me to raise my kids Jewish,” he says. “I just hope that my wife is open to that. That would be most easily done by marrying a Jewish girl.”

His girlfriend for the last 21/2 years is the first Jew he ever dated, and their relationship is by far his longest commitment to one woman, he says. “I don’t know if there is a correlation there, but there might be.”

In “Ballyhoo,” Joe is away from home for the first time. Savage says he experienced a similar departure from “the safe haven of home” when, a year after “The Wonder Years” ended, he went to Stanford University, where he majored in English.

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For Savage, unlike most Stanford students, going to college meant less pressure--at least in comparison to starring in a TV series. “It was a chance to be with people my own age, to let myself go and enjoy life. I fell in with a pocket of students who weren’t all about studying.” Still, he studied a lot. “At most other college campuses, my group would have been considered big nerds,” he says.

He participated in some college theater, including a memorably excruciating production in which the director slaughtered a chicken during rehearsal, for reasons that eluded Savage.

“I knew I wanted to stay in the entertainment industry, but I didn’t want to study drama--I had been doing that,” he says. “Entertainment is largely about storytelling. I wanted to expose myself to the best stories by the best authors.”

While in college, Savage took time off to do another comedy series, “Working,” which lasted two seasons and delayed his graduation by a year.

Since then, he says, he has gone through “a palate-cleansing period” that young actors often go through as they enter adulthood: They reconsider their profession and decide whether to go on with it.

“I soured on acting for a while, but now I’ve fallen in love with it again,” he said. It’s different now, though. “When I was young, it was something fun, something that came easily to me. Now, I don’t want to get too heady, but I’m more self-aware. I’m trying to approach it from a more cerebral standpoint, as a craft.”

He hasn’t formally studied acting, and he continues to believe that on-the-job training is the best. “Plays are the acting school I crave,” he said. “The actors I admire have a lot of theater background.”

He professes a desire to work with the Glendale classical troupe A Noise Within, recalling how the English teacher who took him there in 1994 to see “All My Sons” recently saw “Ballyhoo” and wrote a note to him after the show.

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“L.A. has a tremendous theater community that’s almost underground,” Savage says, rattling off a long list of other L.A. theaters he attends. “People don’t know that much about it.”

One reason is that many L.A. productions are in small theaters where actors are paid only token fees. El Portal’s Circle Theatre, where “Ballyhoo” is playing, is one of those. Two weeks after opening night, Savage had just received his first paycheck: $98.

“I think I’ve spent more on parking tickets outside the theater,” he says.

But he doesn’t much care. “Nobody is going to get rich doing theater unless you’re a Broadway star. People do it because they’re passionate about it.”

Savage got the “Ballyhoo” gig by knowing the director, Hope Alexander, who met him when she directed his younger brother, Ben (also best known as a TV comedy star for “Boy Meets World”), in Israel Horovitz’s “Unexpected Tenderness” at the Lee Strasberg Center in 1998.

Alexander liked the way Fred played a very WASP role in A.R. Gurney’s “Ancestral Voices” in 2000 at the Falcon Theatre, she says.

“He carries with him a charm and affability,” she adds. “I knew the audience would immediately like him, and I felt he was a strong enough actor to get to the other side of the character, the more aggressive side. I spent some time with him getting him out of what I call his Fredisms.”

Times reviewer F. Kathleen Foley found that it worked. Savage “has successfully vaulted the gap between child-actor cuteness and maturity, emerging as a superb young actor, the spiritual center of the play,” she wrote.

Mariette Hartley, who is appearing in “Copenhagen” at the Wilshire Theater, was in “Ancestral Voices” with Savage and noticed his maturation within that play. “It’s a tough part,” she said. “The character has to be quite young and then gets older. Fred had to have an amazing balance, and he was wonderful.”

Outside theater, Savage will appear in Roger Avery’s film “Rules of Attraction,” scheduled for release in April, and he’ll soon go to Montreal to appear in “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” directed by George Clooney. Next spring, he’ll shoot “Austin Powers in Goldmember.”

And he’s the title character, in voice-over, of the Nickelodeon series “Oswald.” Also interested in directing, he has helmed episodes of “Even Stevens” for the Disney Channel.

He has a keen sense of being 25. “Now is a great time,” he says. “A pivotal moment. For people my age, this is when we figure out how we’ll spend our lives.”

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“THE LAST NIGHT OF BALLYHOO,” El Portal Center, Circle Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Date: Closing today, 2 p.m. Price: $25. Phone: (818) 508-4200.

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Don Shirley is The Times’ theater writer.


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