After a four-year layoff, 'The Wonder Years' actor plunges into TV once again

Something’s gone terribly wrong.

According to Hollywood tradition, Fred Savage should be robbing a dry cleaner right about now. Or maybe getting his methadone treatment. Or, at the very least, whining about the travails of child stardom on The Jerry Springer Show.

Instead, the all-grown-up star of the ’80s dramedy The Wonder Years is sitting in an L.A. coffeehouse — scrubbed, sober, and seemingly sane. He chats about his favorite writers (Hemingway and Fitzgerald), about playing miniature golf with his frat buddies, and even more shockingly, about his alive-and-well career. Yes, the 21-year-old is taking time out from highfalutin Stanford University to headline the NBC sitcom Working (Wednesdays, 9:30 p.m.).

What gives? Savage himself has pondered the mystery — he’s even written a college paper on the subject called ”Catch a Falling Star: The Effects of Acting at an Early Age.” (His grade: A-.) ”My generation was deluged with these terrible stories of people who got in trouble,” says Savage, referring to the likes of Dana Plato, Diff’rent Strokes‘ confessed holdup girl. ”It was kind of our albatross — ‘Don’t let this happen to you.’ I think that really sunk into us, and we tried to steer away from that.”

In fact, for the past few years, Savage has tried to steer away from showbiz altogether. When Wonder Years ended its six-season run in 1993, the then-17-year-old actor morphed into a knapsack-wearing high school student — albeit one who happened to get huge residuals checks. ”A lot of people say, ‘Well, what have you been doing?”’ says the surprisingly burly English major. ”Like I’ve been sitting around doing nothing. I’ve been busy writing term papers and reading books.”

Not to mention browsing the occasional script — the acting bug, after all, is hard to shake. But the offers — mostly wacky teenager roles — underwhelmed Savage, who wanted to earn his sheepskin before returning to Hollywood. Then came Working. One of the exec producers, Michael Davidoff, says Savage was perfect because ”he sort of typifies the American young male adult.” Savage, for his part, couldn’t resist playing a bona fide grown-up.

That grown-up would be Matt Peyser, a cubicle-bound number cruncher at a faceless corporation. It’s a bit of a strange return vehicle for a guy who’s never had to wear pinstripes and kiss his boss’ ass. ”I guess [being an actor] is not thought of as a real job,” admits Savage. ”But gosh, I think it’s real.”

Real or not, Savage’s first job came at the age of 4 when he starred in a commercial for ”nutritious and delicious” Pac-Man vitamins. Some 75 ads and two features (1986’s The Boy Who Could Fly and 1987’s The Princess Bride) later, Savage landed on the nostalgia-fueled Wonder Years — a gig he’s a bit nostalgic for himself. ”I do miss the child-labor laws,” he sighs. ”When you’re shooting till 2 a.m. on a Friday night, you miss those nine-and-a-half-hour days.”

For 115 episodes, Savage played Kevin Arnold, the sensitive suburban Everykid with a sadistic older brother (Jason Hervey), an adorable, alluring neighbor (Danica McKellar, whom Savage denies he ever dated in real life), and a pair of amazingly expressive eyebrows.

The Wonder Years
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