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Life after 'Wonder Years' is 'Working' for Fred Savage

Fred Savage
Think Kevin Arnold of "The Wonder Years" fresh out of college, coping with his first real job, and you've got Fred Savage in NBC's "Working"  

By Jane Wollman Rusoff

Fred Savage is not a nameless, faceless corporate drudge. But he plays one on TV. In NBC's "Working," the formerly cute child star of "The Wonder Years," now a cute 21-year-old, plays Matt Peyser, fresh out of college, in suit and tie, coping with his first real job. He's naive, earnest and bewildered. Think Kevin Arnold, Savage's coming-of-age alter ego, who survived the calamities of adolescence for six TV seasons (1988-1993).

In fact, Matt could be Kevin grown up. This is Savage's first TV role after returning to high school, at 17, following cancellation of the nostalgia-laced series. As a Stanford University junior last year, the two-time Emmy nominee got an offer he couldn't refuse.

"There was nothing to compel me to leave school until this show came along," Savage says. "It's a great transitional role: a chance to play an older guy. I haven't gone through the horrors of working in the office environment that Matt's in. But portraying someone out of college trying to make it in the world on his own is not far from what I'm going through now."

The young actor's challenge is an honest, idealistic chap getting hip to the rat race in a giant bureaucracy. "Working" deliberately does not reveal exactly what it is Matt's company, Upton/Webber, does. "We try to make everything as generic as possible so anyone with a job can relate," Savage says. "So even if you work in an ice-cream parlor as a waitress, you'll see bits of truth in the show."

As for the actor's feel for Matt's Upton/Webber problems: "I'm drawing on the experience of my first year at college. Everyone told me how to handle it, but when I got there, it was a whole new set of rules. Stanford, at first, was scary and intimidating."

That's why joining a frat seemed a fab idea. For his initiation, Savage was made to carry out a bunch of typical pranks. Once, he was sent to San Francisco with a list of things to do and a video camera to document that he did them. "I had to dress up in this outfit -- a T-shirt with I-can't-tell-you-what printed on it -- and perform on the boardwalk and sing in a restaurant. Then I had to do these ridiculous high jinks at the airport. It was fun -- and just enough to humiliate you."

Selling vitamins at age 6

Chicago-born, Glencoe, Illinois-reared Savage went on his first TV audition as a lark. But by age 6, he was selling Pac-Man vitamins on the small screen. At 12, he relocated to Los Angeles to play the wide-eyed lead in "The Wonder Years." The natural-born actor and his warm, fuzzy show were a hit; but the lifestyle change from kid to TV star was difficult.

"It was really a rough time getting used to the move and leaving all my friends. I didn't have a lot of them in L.A. at first because I was working all the time. ... My family was torn between Chicago and L.A. -- my dad traveled back and forth on weekends," he recalls.

Portraying Kevin was "fun." However, "there wasn't a whole lot of time to screw around on the set. I'd work for a while on camera and then be rushed off to school (a tutor). And, Savage adds, "I didn't feel like I was being treated like a little kid. Everyone treated me like an adult."

Savage's younger brother and sister also act. Ben, 17, stars on TV's "Boy Meets World." Kala, 19, is a stage actress. Their parents are not in showbiz; they own a head-hunting firm.

Savage, who majored in English and creative writing at Stanford, has every intention to eventually return for his senior year. "I'm definitely going back to take the spring term, and then, depending on what happens with the show, I'll plan accordingly. I have only one year left. I wouldn't accept anything less than graduation," he says.

During his three years at college, Savage directed and acted in plays and wrote a paper, "Catch a Falling Star: The Effects of Acting at an Early Age."

"Being a child actor has taken on a really negative connotation -- it will ruin your life. That's the exception to the rule," he says. "Robbing convenience stores and having a crack habit are not synonymous with child acting. I wrote about the steps that can be taken to avoid that (behavior). Kids who get into trouble probably would have, no matter what they did. If you ... have lousy parenting, for example, that's gonna spell disaster, no matter what."

For his part, Savage still lives happily at home, in the guest quarters behind Mom and Dad's San Fernando Valley, California, house. "It's a good little deal for me," he says and chuckles.

As for the future, he wants to act in more TV movies and feature films. But the acting vet is realistic: "You can never take a career in the entertainment business for granted. Especially with a TV show, your success is week to week.

"If you start believing you're the success people tell you that you are, then you've got trouble ahead. This is a lousy field to plan a career in because it's not really in your hands. To me, show business was always something fun and exciting to do. And the cool thing is," he says, "that's how it's stayed all these years. You maintain this eager, wide-eyed attitude."

But whenever stardom gets unavoidably crazy, Savage knows just what to do. "I take my phone off the hook," he says, "veg out, watch TV and be stupid for a while."

(c) 1998, Jane Wollman Rusoff
Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate


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