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Hollywood How Fred Savage Was Convinced to Relive His Wonder Years – The Hollywood Reporter Theviraltime


Hollywood How Fred Savage Was Convinced to Relive His Wonder Years – The Hollywood Reporter Theviraltime


Fred Savage had no intention of revisiting his past. In fact, he said as much, multiple times, when asked about a potential Wonder Years revival.

“And I stand by it,” he says now.

While the coming-of-age comedy that premiered this fall bears the Wonder Years name, the former star insists Saladin K. Patterson’s version is an entirely new show, built around a Black family from the same era. Savage no longer is the face of the series, as he was some 30 years ago, but rather the ABC series’ Atlanta-based director and executive producer. The experience, he says, has been nothing short of surreal. “I remember so vividly being a kid on that set and looking to the directors and the producers, and they terrified me and inspired me and really laid the foundation for what I wanted to do for the rest of my career,” says Savage, 45, via Zoom. “And it really is mind-blowing that the kids on the show are at the same age I was and that they might look at me in that same way.”

In the three decades since he warmed America’s hearts as young Kevin Arnold, Savage got a degree from Stanford and built a prolific directing career, having helmed more than 200 episodes of TV, from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to Modern Family. He’s appeared in front of the camera periodically, too, with starring roles in sitcoms including Fox’s The Grinder in 2015. Back in Los Angeles for the holidays, the married father of three opened up about his career pivot and his initial discomfort with telling someone else’s story.

A few years back, you were asked if you’d ever considered a Wonder Years reboot, to which you said: “The show … 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.” What changed?

That was in response to, “Do you want to see Kevin and Winnie again today?” When those questions were being asked, there were a lot of reboots, Fuller House was probably the most successful example, and so that was in response to seeing the Arnolds again. I stand by what I said. I think that seeing Kevin and Winnie dealing with mortgages and their kids’ school, like, we live that, no one wants to see them trying to struggle through the teeth of their marriage. But when this show was presented to me, Saladin was writing about his own experiences growing up in Tuskegee, Alabama. And there was this notion of, “That time was the wonder years for a lot of families.”

How was the new take presented to you, and what were your reservations?

Lee Daniels’ company got the rights to The Wonder Years, and they reached out to me several years ago, like, “We have this thing, we want to do it about a Black family.” I was like, “I love the idea. I don’t think that’s my story to tell. But I’ll watch and support it.” Years passed, and I made a pilot that Saladin wrote. It didn’t ultimately go forward, but I made this bond with Saladin, and the next year he asks me to drinks and says, “I talked to Lee Daniels, and I’m going to be writing The Wonder Years.” And as I’d told Lee, I said, “I don’t know if that’s my story to tell, but you’re the guy to do it. You’ll be amazing.”

So, what changed?

Saladin said, “I’m telling you that you have a place in this, and I’m not going to do it without you.” So, we talked about it for a few weeks and, honestly, I had to kind of get over myself a bit and realize that we were telling a new story. Eventually, we moved forward with him being the narrative-driving force and me being the connection to the past, keeping the tone and the shape of it consistent with the original. That’s how it started, and we went out and pitched it together, and it’s been an incredible partnership.

How much re-watching of yourself did the process entail?

Quite a bit, actually, and I was surprised at how poorly I remembered it. It’s true of all our memories: You remember what you want to remember. We were working on these scripts, and there were these big fantasy pops, and I’m like, “No, no, no, The Wonder Years is about honesty. It’s holding up a mirror to your experience and the world around you.” Then I went back and rewatched [the original], and, like, the third episode Kevin went to work with his dad and the entire second act was a fantasy. I got caught up in the mythology of this really ripped from the headlines, rip your heart out and show you the world, and that was certainly an element of it, but it wasn’t all of it. And by the way, it’s for the better of the show.

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“They knew I wanted to be a director during the earliest days,” says Savage, who was given a slate by the Wonder Years camera crew during his run on the show.
Photographed By Adam Amengual

When you decided to shift to directing, you began cold-calling every director you knew and many you didn’t. What did those early asks entail, and were they all warmly received?

They were not all warmly received. (Laughs.) And I realize now, I had agents, clearly I should have just asked them to help me. I’d look up numbers and cold call production offices, and most of the calls weren’t returned. It was very humbling. But a few were like, “Yeah, sure, come check it out.” I called Jimmy Burrows’ assistant, who said, “Sure, you can come sit in the bleachers,” which I did at Will & Grace. Todd Holland, who I did The Wizard with, was on Malcolm in the Middle, and he was like, “Yeah, come hang out.” It was a lot of very Willy Loman-y cold-calling, humping my little sack of wares from door to door until someone let me in.

What do you think the resistance was about?

With actors who want to be directors, it’s looked at as, “Well, why? Are you serious about it? Are you worth rolling the dice on?” And it’s on us to convince them that we are. I’m very aware of it, to the point where when The Grinder came along, I was really nervous to take a job as an actor. It took someone sitting me down, like, “Fred, you’re an idiot, you’ve been directing for 15 years, no one’s going to question whether you’re serious about it.”

Episodic directing can be challenging, you’re dropping in and have to play by the rules of the show. How much calling around about casts and crews happens before arriving on a set?

The further along you go in your career, the earlier you come in. You’re doing either pilots or first-season shows. But yeah, you’re always reaching out to directors and you listen to whatever they want to share, anything from intel about the actors to crew dynamics to, “Oh, the B camera operator’s really the better operator, so if you have a more difficult shot, give it to B if you can.” The spiritual leaders of the set are very important, too. When I was a kid on The Wonder Years, the key grip, Skip Cook, was our “spiritual leader.” If you had Skip’s blessing, you could do anything. Usually it’s a cinematographer. But you’re looking for anything to give you a little head start because it’s a tricky role: You’re a guest, but you’re also there to lead.

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“I’m not a smoker, but they’re good to gnaw on,” Savage says of the pipes, his maternal grandfather’s, that he keeps on his desk and some of Savage’s collection of books on Hollywood.
Photographed By Adam Amengual

At this stage, what gets you to a yes as an actor?

If it sounds like fun. Sara Gilbert is a friend of mine, and she was like, “Hey, do you want to come be a therapist on The Conners?” I’m like, “Yeah, of course. Sounds awesome.” Lord and Miller called me to come do a role on the Tiffany Haddish Apple TV show [The Afterparty], and I love those guys. If it’s fun, with good people, and you can have a good time, I’m in.

But presumably, you’re not going to go back to the audition circuit?

I’m not above anything. There’s a lot of exciting things out there and a lot of people that I’d love to work with. If Ryan Murphy wants you to read, I’ll read for Ryan Murphy.

When you revisit your work as an actor, some of your early guest roles as an adult include very un-Kevin Arnold parts: a serial rapist on SVU, a womanizing professor on Boy Meets World. Was that by design?

No, they were just interesting opportunities. Can you really be in show business without having been on Law & Order? It’s like the law at the Screen Actors Guild. And being in my brother [Ben’s] show [Boy Meets World] was fun because I got to work with him. So in hindsight, you can say, “Yes, it was some big master plan,” but really the only thing in my career that I consciously tried to do was to become a director.

Looking back, what didn’t hit that you really wish had?

I loved [2019’s] What Just Happened?! It was such a weird, crazy thing — an aftershow about a show that didn’t exist — and we got amazing guests, and we still can’t believe Fox got on board and allowed us to do it. I really felt like we were doing something groundbreaking over there, and, like, it didn’t have to work. It didn’t have to run for 20 years or anything. But the thing that was so tough about that one is that no one even had the decency to pan us. There was not a drop of ink spilled. It was so invisible. And for me, that was the worst thing. At least tell us how awful we are because at least you see us. Even a kick in the balls would have told us we were there.

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A vintage bottle of J.T.S. Brown is an homage to The Hustler; Savage and his wife, Jennifer, have saved champagne corks since their engagement. “Anytime we open a bottle, we save the cork and write the date and what we were celebrating that night,” he says.
Photographed By Adam Amengual

At this point in your career, what’s the call you dream of getting?

My dad used to say, “I love your business, Fred. You pick up the phone and you never know what’s going to be on the other end of it and how it’ll change your life.” But the dream call? Gosh, don’t we all just want to hear from Dana Walden or Ted Sarandos? Isn’t that what anyone wants? Dana, Ted Sarandos or Kevin Feige.

Hoping to end on a more personal note. You have three children now, all around the age you were when you were on The Wonder Years

Yep, 9, 13 and 15, and they all are interested in some aspect of this world.

Are you encouraging of this?

It’s the only thing I know, so I feel very comfortable with it. Like, my oldest is a musician and a really wonderful writer. He met [Ramin Djawadi], the composer for Game of Thrones, and announced that he wanted to be a composer for film and television. And I’m like, “Great.” Then, this summer, he said, “I think I want to be an astrophysicist.” And I’m like, “Don’t do that. Like, what a waste of time. Be a composer for film and TV.” (Laughs.)

That may be a parenting first …

Because at least I know show business. I know how to navigate that space. I know how to parent them. Their whole lives, they’ve been around sets and so they’re interested in it, and, yeah, I’m very encouraging. I hope they become a carny like me, and not like a scientist, because that would just be really embarrassing.

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Savage named his production company after his paternal grandfather’s Chicago lamp store and the doorstop is a gift from actor Roddy McDowall.
Photographed By Adam Amengual

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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