Fred Savage's Never-Ending Wonder Years as TV's Hot Comedy Director
He rocketed to fame playing Kevin Arnold, then ducked the dangers of young celebrity by apprenticing himself to the industry's best behind-the-lens experts. Now he's in demand for "Modern Family," "2 Broke Girls" and more.
"I'd like to direct." Fred Savage was among the most famous child actors in Hollywood when he said those words. At 13, the breakout star of ABC's hit dramedy The Wonder Years already had garnered his first Emmy nomination. But when he sat down with the Associated Press in 1989 to promote another project, the adventure flick The Wizard, Savage revealed that his true passion lay elsewhere. "On the set, they call me 'Little Opie' because Ron Howard started as a child actor and grew up to direct," noted the young actor who played Kevin Arnold. "He could be a role model for me. I'm always looking through the camera and checking angles. I want to learn all that I can."
More than two decades later, Savage, now 35, married and raising two children of his own in Hollywood, is doing precisely as he hoped, a result of spending the better part of his 20s inviting himself to hang out on other directors' sets. On this day in early February, the low-key Savage sits in his sparsely decorated Silver Lake-area office, where he is helming NBC's now-short-lived comedy Best Friends Forever, stunned by the words he doesn't recall uttering. "It's just amazing to hear my 13-year-old self articulate it that way and then to be doing it? Come on," he says after the comments are read to him, his eyes growing moist as he makes sense of his career. "How many kids say they want to be firefighters or astronauts when they grow up? This is what I always wanted to do."
The trajectory from child star to successful director is particularly impressive considering that many of his peers, from the two Coreys (Haim and Feldman) to Full House's Jodie Sweetin, have provided little more than cautionary tales of the dangers of peaking early. Savage's status as a go-to comedy director has generated a resume lined with such credits as Modern Family, Happy Endings, Party Down and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. "People want Fred on their set. He's smart, and more importantly, he knows where the jokes are," says famed director and Savage mentor James Burrows, who accepted the actor's request years ago to shadow him on the set of Will & Grace.
Others in the industry have taken notice, with showrunners including 2 Broke Girls' Michael Patrick King and Modern Family's Steve Levitan putting the Chicago native on their shortlist of must-hire helmers. "There's a very limited list of young, energized, talented, clever, versatile comedy directors because you have to know more than just cameras, you have to know comedy," notes King. This year, Savage, who often benefits from being both a peer and an icon to a generation of thirtysomething actors and writers, was nominated for the craft's highest honor, a Directors Guild Award, for his work on Family (he oversaw the November episode in which the family organizes a community drive after a neighbor's house burns down); a month or so later, he signed to direct Martin Lawrence's untitled cop-comedy pilot for CBS as part of an overall deal he inked in late 2011 with the network's sister studio.
In an industry where those on either side of success find reasons to be jaded, Savage exhibits enthusiasm more typical of its fans. In fact, a cocktail of dedication, relationships and good fortune has produced a spirit that could easily be confused as naive. "He utterly lacks cynicism. It's disgusting," quips Levitan.
Savage, who has maintained the boyish look that won over fans many years ago, credits his parents for instilling in him -- and, perhaps more surprisingly, enabling him to maintain -- that sense of optimism about an industry he broke into in the mid-'80s as a 6-year-old starring in a Pac-Man vitamin commercial. The two of them shielded a young Savage, along with his actor brother and sister, from the potential pitfalls of the industry as his profile rose first with The Princess Bride then with six seasons on the awards darling Wonder Years.
"They bore the brunt of everything and never vented to me, so I had no feelings of, 'This industry sucks,' or, 'They'll eat you alive,' " he says, acknowledging that he was aware of the many examples of what could go wrong. (His parents have remained close to those of Wonder Years' other young stars.) "All of these kids were kind of going off the rails a bit," adds Savage, noting that he searched for positive role models, a shorter list that included Jodie Foster and Brooke Shields.
Savage's past remains top of mind as he steps onto a set today. "I can't fix everything [for these child actors], and I can't guide them through their life, but one thing I can do is make sure they have a great time on set and that they're treated with respect and that their parents are treated with respect," he says, shortly after showering BFF's then-8-year-old star Daija Owens with praise and supplying her parents with seats and regular attention next to the show's monitors.
"Fred will give Daija intentions rather than line reads. He treats her almost like he treats us," says the show's Jessica St. Clair, with her co-creator and co-star Lennon Parham adding, "He'll know exactly how much to give her on each take."
Savage's involvement with child actors extends beyond his TV projects. He and his mother, who he says "had to learn the hard way how to kind of look out for yourself," are active in an Actors Fund program that provides job fairs and counseling for young working actors. Although no such programs existed when Savage was younger, he considers himself fortunate that he was able to get a taste of traditional childhood -- at least his senior year of high school -- after Wonder Years wrapped in 1993. The pride with which he shares the story of scoring a touchdown in his homecoming game at the tony Brentwood School is emblematic of the period's importance to him. "Other than my marriage and the birth of my children, it's the third-greatestt moment of my entire life," he jokes, admitting later that his team already was way ahead.
He continued to push for some semblance of normalcy by enrolling at Stanford, where Savage joined a fraternity and graduated in 1998 with a degree in English. His actor friends discouraged his decision to step away from the industry, but he says he had no intention of taking another route. "I wasn't some sort of ingenue. I always saw myself as a lifer in this industry, and working as an actor on Wonder Years was a first act. I wanted the next one to be different, and I felt like four years in what I hope will be a career of 50 seemed small," he explains, adding: "That, and with my family, that's just what you did: You graduated high school and went to college."
That desire for a life outside of the industry remains a theme in Savage's life. Much as he once did on TV soundstages, he has made a habit of shadowing chefs on his nights off. He'll often head to Los Angeles' LudoBites to intern in Ludo Lefebvre's French kitchen, where he'll do everything from prep work to pitting cherries. "I love how restaurants work. The energy, the pace and the idea of working under budgetary restraints reminds me a lot of sets," says Savage, who spends the remainder of his free time with his children, ages 4 and 5.
Hanging in Savage's office on the Best Friends Forever set is a framed piece of paper that reads, "Knock 'em dead, director!" They are words his wife, Jennifer, a former real estate broker whom he has known since childhood (they married at Los Angeles' since-shuttered L'Orangerie restaurant in 2004), says to him daily. Sitting nearby, amid a collection of his children's art projects, is a figurine of St. Clare, the patron saint of television. Savage received it in 1999 when he made his directorial debut on NBC's Working, a short-lived workplace comedy that also marked his return to acting. Director Linda Day had been given the memento by director-producer Sheldon Leonard when she began directing years earlier. "I bring it to every set," says Savage. "It's a reminder of how it all started."
After getting his break on Working, Savage was offered a helming gig on his younger brother Ben's star vehicle Boy Meets World. But he was eager to work in the single-camera world in which he was raised, and with the multicamera format having a renaissance, he struggled to find opportunities outside of the kids space. So when he came across an episode of Disney Channel's single-camera comedy Even Stevens that he particularly enjoyed, Savage scribbled down the name of the production company and cold-called its number.
"I was like, 'Hi, I think the show is really funny, and I'd love to come hang out on set,' " he recalls of a request that would be granted on this show and later others. "I would come and take notes, draw diagrams of how they could stage the scenes, and I would look at the next day's work and think how I might approach them and then compare my approach with theirs."
In time, Savage was given a shot behind the camera. And though one episode turned into one or two a year, his larger goal was realized slower than he had hoped -- in part, he believes, because of his success in front of the camera. He'd be invited on sets because of his résumé but then wasn't always taken seriously because of those credits. "I think a lot of times, they thought: 'Oh, well, he's not serious. He's a dilettante, or he's just moonlighting before his next acting gig,' " says Savage, who nonetheless recognizes that the advantages of his past far outweigh the disadvantages.
Determined to prove he wasn't simply dabbling, Savage spent several years calling every director he knew -- and some he didn't know -- to ask whether he could spend time with them. He spent weeks shadowing such heavyweights as Amy Sherman-Palladino on the set of Gilmore Girls, Todd Holland on Malcolm in the Middle and Burrows on Will & Grace.
"I allow observers because I learned by observing director Jay Sandrich on The Mary Tyler Moore Show," says Burrows. "Fred was very perceptive. He's an actor, so he was way ahead of the guys who come out of New York City as directors who get a little buffaloed by the technical aspects. But as I think I told him then, getting your foot in the door is not the difficult thing -- capitalizing on that opportunity is. Fred obviously capitalized on it."
In fact, Savage treated the experience as though it were his personal film school, arriving at call time and remaining on set until the cast and crew wrapped. "I'd take notes and talk to everybody," he recalls of a level of preparation all who have worked with him reference. "Every set is its own animal, so it was less about learning the mechanics as it was about the dynamics of a set, from the time management to the workflow."
His professional pendulum shift came with It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which was seeking directors for its third season. The producers agreed to meet with Savage. "I think [co-creator] Rob McElhenney just wanted to ask me questions about Wonder Years," jokes Savage of his hiring between sips of a smoothie his wife has prepared for him this morning. He remained there for three years and became a producer on the series, an experience he was able to parlay into several others, including a director-producer gig on Starz's critically adored comedy Party Down in 2009.
Two years later, it was his reputation that led King to hire him on 2 Broke Girls. Savage called on Burrows, who had directed the CBS comedy's pilot, for advice, a practice he says is common in the tightknit community. "I tried to help him chart out the show because as a guest director, you have to play by the rules of the show," explains Burrows. "But while you're playing by those rules, you have to have the ability to put your own stink on the show."
Savage won over King with a snowstorm he staged meticulously during his first episode at the helm. "It had to look real, but I didn't have to say a word because Fred got that. To see him testing the snow to make sure he had the right balance of real snow coupled with fake snow, knowing that it had to hit the actors and fall in a comedy rhythm, could not have made me happier," recalls King, who says he'd like to get Savage back on set.
Looking ahead, Savage is eager to add to his growing portfolio. In addition to commercials (including recent Farmers Insurance ads) and a steady rotation of TV episodes, he has aspirations of doing more work on features (he made his directorial debut on 2007's poor-performing Daddy Day Camp). But what gets him most animated is the idea of becoming more involved in television's development process, which his newly hatched production company set up at CBS Television Studios is allowing Savage to do. Although he keeps tight-lipped on details, he has been busy meeting with writers about comedy projects he'll be involved with from conception, many of which he plans to start shopping in a matter of months. Says Savage of what he recently was reminded was a lifelong goal: "Some people look at TV as a means to an end. I look at it as my career -- and one I love."