Fred Savage: How the Grinder actor went from actor to director to actor again
The 'Wonder Years' alum presses pause on his directing career to go toe-to-toe with Rob Lowe
“Hey, it’s Fred Savage! I need your help.”
This is the phone call you get one morning from the eternally boyish actor-turned-prolific director-turned-actor again. He has to throw out the first pitch at a Dodgers game tomorrow, and, sure, he’ll be happy to answer all your questions about The Grinder (Tuesdays, 8:30 p.m. ET, Fox) — and how returning to acting was not part of his master plan — but right now he’s worried about winding up on a top 10 YouTube roundup of celebrity sports fails. “I really need to practice!” he pleads. And so a few hours later, you find yourself with a glove (and a cup, you know, just in case) in an L.A. park, tossing a baseball with the former star of The Wonder Years, the late-’80s coming-of-age-in-the-late-’60s show that ended its six seasons with a grown-up Kevin Arnold heading off to play catch with his son. The poetic symmetry here is sheer coincidence, he assures with a laugh.
Savage, 39, accompanies each throw — and there are more than 50 — with a crisp critique: “Totally respectable.” “That we can’t have.” “Uh-oh, what happened there?” Most attempts are solid; a few sail sadly away. He hurls another one. And another. Then a few more. “The worst thing you can do is be afraid of failing — that’s true for everything,” he says. “But if you just go out there and throw, you’ll be fine.”
His next big pitch? A career curveball in the form of a return to the small screen. After all but retiring from acting nearly a decade ago to become a TV director — “I was just interested in it since I was a little kid,” he says, “I wanted to be part of all these exciting things on set” — Savage finds himself back in front of the camera for The Grinder, a comedy that is earning early critical raves, playing a practical attorney who works for the family firm in Boise, Idaho. Rob Lowe stars as his brother, Dean, a striking actor who’s famous for playing a lawyer on TV. After his show is canceled, Dean returns to his hometown and tries his hand at litigating in real life, charming his way through town as well as the courtroom. Savage plays the foil as his understandably skeptical and perpetually overshadowed brother, Stewart. “People are like, ‘Oh, is it weird? Are you nervous?’ ” he says of his acting comeback. He’s not. “It’s weird that it’s so familiar.”
Strike! That one’s down the heart of the plate.
The Chicago-born Savage made his screen debut at age 6 in a Pac-Man vitamin commercial. “It was born out of this sense of excitement and adventure,” he says of his early desire to perform. He soon won audiences over as the bully-besting little brother in The Boy Who Could Fly and the sick grandson listening intently to a fairy tale in The Princess Bride, starred in the body-swapping flick Vice Versa and the videogame-centric The Wizard, and earned two Emmy nominations as the star of the nostalgia-steeped Wonder Years. When the show ended in 1993, he returned to civilian life, attending his senior year of high school in L.A., and then Stanford as an English major. Over the next half-dozen years, he acted occasionally to “stay relevant, stay current, stay alive” (see: NBC office comedy Working, his mole-in-one performance in Austin Powers in Goldmember), but mostly focused on his childhood dream of directing. After helming one episode of Working and two of brother Ben’s series Boy Meets World, he spent years ascending the kiddie-show ladder, starting with Even Stevens (whose production company he cold-called to get a foot in the door). That led to directing jobs on That’s So Raven and Hannah Montana, and one (disappointing) big-screen comedy, Daddy Day Camp. Ultimately he graduated to adult fare, including It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. “I was a huge fan of the show. I’d really prepared and had all these thoughts and observations on it,” he says, laughing, of his first meeting there. “I came in and I started talking, but really all Rob [McElhenney, Sunny creator/star] wanted to talk about was Wonder Years. I still maintain — and I’m sure Rob will second — that I got the job because he just wanted to ask me more about The Wonder Years.”
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He must’ve had a lot of questions, because Savage proceeded to direct 19 Sunny episodes and serve as a producer. “He was clearly very smart and very collaborative, which was very important to us,” says McElhenney. “Also, I needed to know if he really loved Becky Slater or if it was just Winnie all the way.”
Each gig begat another — Savage truly was the Grinder — and his résumé filled with steady work on Party Down, Happy Endings, Modern Family (for which he received one of his four Directors Guild award nominations), 2 Broke Girls, and Garfunkel and Oates. Asked if this vocation switch was partly a way to distance himself from child stardom, he says: “The result might have been that I was taken seriously. But the goal was much more a move toward something than it was away from something. … I loved the camera. I loved taking it apart and seeing how it worked. I loved trying to understand why one director would put a camera here and another put a camera there, and how that resulted in a different flavor of the scene.”
NEXT PAGE: And then came The Grinder
Don’t take his word that he’s passionate about directing; take McElhenney’s. “You just knew every day when you showed up that it was going to be a really fun, happy set, because that’s the energy he exudes,” he says, quipping, “Sometimes that’s annoying. At 6 o’ clock in the morning, you’re just arriving, and he’s coming to pitch you the 15 ideas that he has, and he’s so excited, and you’re like ‘Bro, you gotta relax just a little bit and let me drink a cup of coffee.’ ” Seconds Modern Family star Ty Burrell: “It’s an incredible thing to be at the end of a long week and have your director have more energy than anybody else, and he’s got the hardest job. It puts you back on your toes a little bit. He’s a very resourceful guy. He could probably do every single thing on set. If people got tired, you get a pretty strong sense that he would just take over their job — and do it incredibly, including ours. That’s even more intimidating when you realize that the easiest job for him would be to take ours.”
Acting, though, was just not something on his radar. His agent had long stopped sending him on-camera opportunities (“beaten into submission,” Savage says). But The Grinder was having difficulty casting the role of levelheaded Stewart with someone who also could go toe-to-toe with Lowe, and executive producer Nick Stoller — whose daughter goes to school with Savage’s — thought he might be perfect for the part. Savage read the script, and immediately said yes … to directing the pilot. “[Nick] goes, ‘Oh, no—this is for you to act in,’ ” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh, no thank you. It’s really funny, congratulations, but that’s just not something I’m doing.’ ” Savage continued to politely decline. “I’m like, ‘I don’t want to string you along. But just in the interest of it not being awkward, what’s the best way for me to pass? Do you want me to pass now’ — literally, I had this conversation with him — ‘or do you want me to pass after I meet with you guys?’ And he said, ‘At least meet everybody.’ ”
Savage was nervous about pausing his thriving directing career, and, as he admits, “I didn’t really know if I knew how to do it anymore.” (His last steady acting gig: 2006’s short-lived comedy Crumbs.) Grinder creators Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul were just as curious. “We were kind of like, ‘Yeah, maybe, let’s see if that could work,’ ” Mogel says. “And then we were blown away by how sharp and quick and funny he was.” Adds Lowe: “Fred was able to thread a very difficult needle in that you believed him as somebody who could be completely overlooked and undervalued, yet was still a man of substance and fire and excitement — and funny. At the end of the day you need somebody who the audience is going to enjoy seeing fighting for their piece of the pie, as opposed to feeling bad for them when they fight for their piece of the pie.”
Savage related to Stewart’s hardworking and underdog qualities, and was intrigued by the brothers’ relationship. “Stewart wants what everyone wants from Dean, which is he wants to be appreciated and valued and loved and respected,” he says. “But at the same time, Dean sees in Stewart someone who has roots and a meaningful life and is loved and all these things that Stewart can’t see but Dean’s never had. And that brings some parity to the relationship. They both want what the other person has and neither can appreciate what they have, and that’s a really interesting dynamic.” Savage recalls that when he started improvising scenes, “it felt so natural, and I felt so connected to this [character], that after that meeting I was going, ‘I can do this!’ ”
Indeed, he’s brimming with a surplus of can-do spirit as well as, yes, wonder and intellectual curiosity. Greeting a journalist on the studio lot, he asks eagerly: “What is it exactly that you do on a set visit?” He shadows directors on soundstages and production trucks at live events. He has chopped vegetables and tied racks of lamb for chefs because he’s intrigued by restaurants. “The dining room is so calm and relaxed and lovely,” he explains. “And the kitchen is so high-stress and noisy and dangerous and exciting.” After The Grinder earned a series order, Savage flew to Boise — without the producers’ knowledge — so he could observe the residents and capture their vibe. “Everyone had a story to tell, and I loved getting their perspectives on being from Boise. It was really enlightening,” he marvels. “Although my wife would say, ‘Are you creeping everybody out just watching them?’ ”
That would be hard to believe. The father of three — who has known his wife since childhood — is gung ho, gregarious, a frequent user of “gosh,” and the kind of guy you’d expect him to be. (And one who brings a gift to you at the park — a baseball glove, naturally — after he discovers that it is your birthday today.) Says Lowe, who first met Savage on set: “Clearly I am the only person who didn’t have a relationship with Fred Savage, because everywhere you go, people are like, ‘I love Fred! He’s the nicest guy! My kids are in school with his kids!’ ”
He also seems freakishly well-adjusted for a former child star. “There’s sort of a bad rap that child actors end up bitter and troubled, and Fred could not be further from that,” testifies Burrell. “He’s such a positive, optimistic guy. And it really rubs off on people.” Savage credits this to his father, Lew, a commercial real-estate broker/developer, and a stay-at-home mom, Joanne, who later oversaw a staffing company for financial executives. “I wasn’t treated any differently at home than outside of the house,” Savage says of his youth, noting: “When your whole identity goes away, it’s very difficult to rebuild a new identity. And I think that it was very important to my parents that I have a life outside of show business.” Savage looks back at The Wonder Years fondly — and with a healthy dose of perspective. “I feel very special to have been a part of it,” he says. “I certainly don’t want to dwell on the past. You don’t want to be the high school quarterback that peaked when he was 17. But at the same time, all these opportunities I’ve had in entertainment later in life, they all came from there. That’s what opened the door. … The people who understand that and appreciate and embrace it have the healthiest relationship with the stuff that they’ve done at the beginning of their career. … You don’t have A Beautiful Mind without [Ron Howard on] The Andy Griffith Show. You don’t have Good Night, and Good Luck without [George Clooney’s] guest shots on Facts of Life. It’s all part of a career, and everything leads to the next.”
And what’s next? Directing is on hold for a while — before The Grinder started, Savage helmed two episodes of the Jason Reitman-produced Hulu comedy, Casual — though he’s still the voice of Honda, and he’s on the Television Academy’s Board of Governors and the advisory committee for the Looking Ahead Program (which offers assistance to young actors). And he’s a coach on his son’s soccer team: “I have no skill to offer the kids. I’m the rah-rah coach. ‘You’re doing great!’ ‘It’s important just to have fun!’ ”
Which is exactly what he’s doing now. “This is the first time in a decade where I haven’t been like, ‘Okay, so what door might this open for me?’ ” he says. “It’s very relaxing and freeing to let all that go. People ask me, ‘Was it hard to turn it off?’ It was very easy. Directing is a difficult job. You have so many balls in the air, and so many different voices are coming at you. And as an actor, your responsibilities are: Be on time. Know your lines. Hit your marks. Don’t be a d—. So I just really want to focus on those four things.”
Speaking of hitting his mark, he did that, too, the following night at Dodger Stadium. The pitch was a little high, but he exclaimed with a smile as he hustled off the field, “Not bad!”
Still, he’ll probably just remain a double threat — at least for now.