Fred Savage on acting vs. directing, Rob Lowe’s good looks and advice to child actors

Fred Savage, who's been busy as a director, says he wasn't looking to return to acting when he was offered the Fox series "The Grinder." He stars with Rob Lowe as brothers.

Fred Savage, who’s been busy as a director, says he wasn’t looking to return to acting when he was offered the Fox series “The Grinder.” He stars with Rob Lowe as brothers.

(Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

He was the child star who made coming-of-age against that backdrop of the late ‘60s feel all too relatable, regardless of the time. Now Fred Savage is playing the dad in a new Fox sitcom.

Up until now, the “Wonder Years” alum has spent much of his adult life sitting in the director’s chair on such comedies as “Modern Family” and “Two Broke Girls.” Now 39, he returns to his mark in front of the camera in Fox’s “The Grinder” playing a lawyer and father of two who must contend with an annoying older brother (played by fellow ‘80s star Rob Lowe).

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I’m sure you’ve had some offers to make your return to the small screen — what was it about this project?

Honestly, it was never really something I was considering. I was really enjoying directing — that career was going very well. It just had a lot of momentum, so I was never considering going back to acting. And still wasn’t this past pilot season. I was looking for pilots to shoot, rather than acting.

But Nick Stoller is a friend of mine and he was an executive producer on the pilot. He gave me the script and I just really liked it. It really made me laugh, and I really liked the character. And I was like, “I’d love to shoot this.” And he was like, “No, no, no. What do you think of Stewart?” I was like, “Oh, he’s great. But it’s nothing I’m interested in. Thank you, but no.” But I thought I’d just meet the guys. I know Nick well. Our kids are in school together, so I didn’t want it to be awkward if I just pass on the show without giving it a try.

After spending the past decade or so being really calculated about every career move — what if I do that, it might lead to that, and this might lead to that door, this whole kind of hopscotch of navigating a career — it was so fun and freeing to just jump into something with no real plan.

What was it like shooting the pilot? Was it hard to get back into actor mode?

It was surprisingly comfortable. I settled in pretty quickly. I attribute that to all the directing I had been doing. I was on a lot of sets, around a lot of actors, working on so many forms of comedy, that I felt more comfortable than ever before on set. As far as turning off the director in me — I was thrilled. I was so happy that all I had to do was know my lines and hit my mark and be on time and that was the sum total of my responsibilities.

Because when 5:30 p.m. would come around and I was directing I would get this tightness around my stomach and thinking, “Ugh, we’re behind and we have to get the day done. We have two more shoots and three hours to do it.”


What do you think of all the shifts happening in television right now?

I feel like what’s going on in TV right now, there’s never been more ways and places to watch better material. There’s so much good stuff because so many people are doing it at such a high level. It’s just an incredibly exciting time to be a part of television. I think the people who are decrying the death of television — they’ve been saying TV’s dead back since when I was first on it. There’s too much good stuff. That’s the problem. And that’s an exciting thing.

It’s also an era of television when reboots and remakes are all the rage. Would you ever consider doing a “Wonder Years” reboot?

I feel like the whole concept of that show was that it was focused on a time of your life that had a very clear beginning and a very clear end. It’s something you can never go back to, you can never really revisit. That’s what makes our adolescence so special. And so I don’t think there’s a way to go back to that. That’s true for a moment in your life and that’s true for “Wonder Years,” and just leave it as it is. But as a viewer of television and a consumer of media, the fact that you do get to revisit some of your old favorites, it’s exciting. I enjoy it just as much as anybody else.

You come back to television with another take on a brother dynamics.

Yeah, at the core of “The Grinder” is this relationship with me and Rob. I think the thing I love about these characters is yes, there’s conflict. At the core of it, they both really want what the other person has. I think that they both envy what the other person has. My character is someone who has done everything by the book, has done everything right. And he looks at Rob and sees that everything comes so easy for him. People appreciate him, they adore him, they respect him. All these things that I don’t have. Rob, on the other hand, looks at me and sees someone who is rooted and grounded and has a family and people who love him in a real way. And that’s something he’s never had in his own way.

You play the father of two kids — was that surreal? Did you offer them any child actor-y advice?

I am no Jack Arnold, believe me. But, yeah, I play the father to two kids played by Connor Kalopsis and Hana Hayes, who are just fantastic and have great parents. They don’t need any advice from me. I’d probably tell them to live it up at the craft service table.

Would you direct an episode of this show?

Whenever I’ve done that, I feel I’ve done a poor job at both. I really want to just focus on just being an actor on this show. I want to focus on doing a good job with that. That’s going to consume my time for now.

And what it’s like working with Rob Lowe. Is he trying to hawk you DirecTV subscriptions?

Just as a fan, I feel like we can all trace our lives through Rob Lowe roles — whether cinematic classics like “The Outsider” and “Wayne’s World” to TV favorites like “The West Wing” or “Parks and Recreation.” I think that he’s just been such an icon in all our lives for so long, to be on a show with him is kind of weird. And yes, he’s that handsome in real life.


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