Catching up with Fred Savage

Actor, producer, director talks about the reboot of “The Wonder Years”

Ranked as one the top 20 shows of the 1980s by TV Guide, The Wonder Years was also one of the most popular shows of its timeThe star of the show, Fred Savage, at the age of 13, was the youngest actor ever nominated as Outstanding Lead Actor for a Comedy Series. Continuing his career as an actor, as well as a producer, and director, Savage is back in the limelight with Wednesday’s reboot of The Wonder Years on ABC. Wingspan’s Emily Thomas reached out to Savage and interviewed him via Zoom and a follow-up phone call where he talked about The Wonder Years reboot, his life as a child star, and what’s he learned in nearly 40 years of show business. 

Thomas: “Hello Mr.Savage, how are you?”

Savage: “Hi! I’m good, I’m good. Sorry it took me a second to call in.”

Thomas: “No you’re good.”

Savage: “Are you at school right now?”

Thomas: “I am at school, yes. So I am a reporter for my high school newspaper and our teacher wanted us to try and get an interview with one of our biggest inspirations so I thought I would reach out. I’m a little nervous.”

Savage: “I will tell you I’m so flattered, that’s so nice. I can’t believe this worked out. Every once in a while social media is kinda cool so I saw your thing and I was so impressed by your reaching out and so I am so glad it worked out. Congrats to you for reaching out, you know reaching out to my assistant, working it out with her.”

Thomas: “Well, thank you so much.”

Savage: “You know it’s my pleasure, don’t be nervous, you’re doing great, and um tell me what I can do, how can I help?”

Thomas: “Perfect, ok so I have a few questions for you, are you ready?”

Savage: “I’m ready I’m driving into work so I may have to jump off in like 12 minutes but I could call you back if you have more, but yes let’s dive in.”

Thomas: “Alright! So my first question is the reboot of The Wonder Years is set to debut later this month. How do you feel about this and how did you get involved in it?”

Savage: “I am incredibly excited that it’s gonna be premiering on Wednesday, this coming Wednesday the 22nd, a week from today, or a week from yesterday. No, I’m incredibly excited about it. Um sorry I put you on pause for a second, can you see me still? Soo ya I am incredibly excited. We have been working on this since.I think I first sat down with Saladin [Patterson] who is the writer who created this new version of The Wonder Years. We sat down together in January of 2020, right before everything went crazy. So we have been working on it for like about a year and a half, and the fact that it is finally here, and out and we can share it with people. It is incredibly gratifying, it represents so much work and just passion and hurdles and obstacles to overcome so I’m incredibly excited it’s going to be premiering.”

Thomas: “I am too!”

Savage: “Good, good! And then to answer your second question, I met Saladin, we did a pilot together a few years ago that didn’t move forward. It was something he wrote and I directed it. It was great he wrote it, Kerry Washington produced it, Leslie Odom Jr. starred in it. And we had a great experience working on it, and it didn’t go forward, but we had this very positive collaboration and working experience. And so Lee Daniels is a producer, and director, and writer. (INAUDIBLE 33:12) for several years and when he found Saladin to write it, Saladin reached out to me and asked if I wanted to be a part of it. I obviously leapt at the chance to not only work on the show but to work with Saladin, and with Lee. I will also say just as a lesson for young people in entertainment. Are you interested in getting into entertainment, is that something you’re interested in, in TV or film?”

Thomas: “Maybe like a broadcaster.”

Savage: “Oh well journalism.”

Thomas: “Yes sir, ya.”

Savage: ‘So it’s the same for anything that, I feel like in just my experience in entertainment, I feel like ya know, I never try and look at my career as failures or successes. Certainly you celebrate the successes for sure, but you know there’s so many misses. Pilots that don’t become shows, there’s so many meetings that don’t result in anything, or auditions that don’t become roles. There’s so much failure, in show business or just careers in general, but particularly show business. I try to measure it not by successes and failures, but rather by you know opportunities or steps to the plate. If you have enough steps to the plate you can succeed in something. Odds are you’ll succeed. I was trying to with Saladin, you know that pilot was you know (INAUDIBLE 34:56) But at the same time it led to this really exciting opportunity, so it was great.”

Thomas: “No worries, no worries. Do you have time for a few more questions, or do you need to hop off?”

Savage: “No, I absolutely have time.”

Thomas: “Ok, cool! So my next question is, I wanted to ask what your relationships with the old Wonder Years actors and actresses are like today?”

Savage: “Well, so actually one of the nice kinda byproducts of doing this again now is that I’ve reached out to them. We have always kinda stayed connected in some way or another, checking in a few times a year or like Josh who played Paul on the original. If I’m in New York I’ll reach out or if he is in LA he’ll say hi so we have definitely stayed in touch over the years. But again one of the nice byproducts of this show is that it put us back into each other’s orbit in a more regular way and that’s really nice, kind of a nice result.”

Thomas: “What was life as a child star like, and what lasting effects has it had on you?”

Savage: “I really enjoy it. I had a really positive experience, and I feel very fortunate for that, because that’s not always the case for a lot of people. For me it was totally normal like I didn’t live like a big star life, I didn’t live the crazy Hollywood lifestyle. I had regular friends, I went to a regular school. I just would go to work each day that was kinda like, you know I’m sure all of your friends have something, someones a track star, someones on the debate team, or someone is in the dance company whatever. That was just the thing that I did, so to me it was very normal. I mean lasting effects, I mean the biggest lasting effect was probably like my career in entertainment, like it gave me an entree into a field that I found that I really loved, and really enjoyed so I don’t know that there were any lasting psychological or emotional damage, but I think that, for the most part it was really positive, and it gave me this entree into this new career that I really love and enjoy. What I was saying, I definitely credit my parents, my family, and my friends for kinda keeping everything sort of normal, but I also think that you know, I think that the idea or the notion of like a kind of broken child star is definitely something that I grew up around, there were a lot of cautionary tales like from people that kinda came before me, but I think that, I think people who came up when I came up learned a lot from the previous generation of kids, on television and movies were able to learn from their mistakes and hopefully make better choices. I’m not saying that’s been totally eradicated, but I do think that when you look at the people that kinda came up when I came up, and since I think that it’s really the exception rather than the rule of people kind of running a foul with the law or ya know. Not that it’s non-existent, but we have definitely learned lessons from the people that came before us.

Thomas: “Definitely, now if you have time for one more I wanted to ask what you’re most proud of in your career.”

Savage: “Thats a really great question, I try not to stand back and look at things, and have too much pride in myself, but I think that this is a business that is very difficult to find footholds in, and very difficult to maintain a foothold once you manage to create one for yourself. I think that the fact that I’m just still doing it, I’m really proud of. I did my first commercial when I was six years old, and now I’m 45. So to have an almost 40 year career, and be able to still enjoy it, and still do it at a high level, and also that I have grown. I have done acting, directing, producing, creating shows. But the fact that I am still in it and my career has kind of grown, I’m really proud of that. I’m really proud that there is still a seat for me at the table, and with each passing year I’m increasingly suprised by, and delighted by that fact.”

Thomas:: “Ya, well it is very admirable.”

Savage: “Thank you.”

Thomas: “Do you have something at 11:30?”

Savage: “There is a rehearsal on set, can I call you back in like 20 minutes?”

Thomas: “Of course, that’s perfect.”

Savage: “Do you have a class?”

Thomas: “Well I mean ya, but whatever. It is getting me out of physics.”

Savage: “Oh wow well great congratulations!”

Thomas: “Thank you so much!”

Savage: “Let me call you back in 20 minutes.”

Thomas: “Ok sounds good perfect.”

Savage: “Alright bye.”

Thomas: “Bye bye, thanks.”

Interview switches from Zoom to telephone call approximately 25 minutes later

Thomas: “Hi!”

Savage: “I thought this might be easier.”

Thomas: “Ya this is much easier, Zoom can be very finicky. Anyways thank you so much for working with me!”

Savage: “No problem, let’s go, let’s do this.”

Thomas: “Ok perfect so my next question is what do you think the reboot of such a classic show can offer viewers in 2021, and why do you think it is the right time for this?”

Savage: “You know we did this show for a variety of reasons. One of the most important ones between Saladin and myself was to show that in 1968, the show that I was on, you know, The Wonder Years was about this one particular family, on this one particular block, in this one particular town. It was important for us to set the show in the same time as the original, and show that it was a wonder years for lots of different kinds of families. A lot of families were experiencing their own wonder years at that time, and at all different times. It was important to show that there were lots of families in lots of different parts of the country that were also experiencing the wonder years of their own. They might look different, and they might feel different, but they are still looked back on with the same fondness.”

Thomas: “For sure, I am so excited to watch it and see what you guys have done with it”.

Savage: “Yes, we are too. We are really excited to share it with everybody. It has been well received so far, and it feels like, you know while we definitely wanted to tell a new story of a new family, we also wanted it to feel totally like its a spiritual cousin to the first one so we are really trying to capture that same sense of nostalgia that same sense of looking back. We have a narrator talking to us about his childhood. We wanna try and straddle that same line between comedy. A show that can make you laugh, a show that can break your heart. So we are trying totally to stay true to the original while also telling a new story with new characters.”

Thomas: “It’s going to be good I can already tell.”

Savage: “Thank you, I appreciate your confidence.”

Thomas: “Of course! Well youŕe most known for The Wonder Years, well when I told people I was gonna interview you like most of them knew you from The Wonder Years but what do you think your favorite project you’ve done has been, rather directing or acting.”

Savage: “Oh that’s so interesting that your friends really feel like, how do they know the show? Where have your peers seen it?”

Thomas: “I’m being honest, it’s more teachers that know the show.”

Savage: “No please let’s be honest, let’s be honest with each other.”

Thomas: “I know a few of my friends know you from The Princess Bride, but a lot of teachers, my journalism teacher sent an email out to the school, cause we are gonna do a story about this, and he just said that Im interviewing Fred Savage, not from anything, and they all knew you from The Wonder Years specifically.”

Savage: “Oh that’s cool, I mean I’ll tell you this kinda dovetales with an earlier question that you asked me. I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to do this for so long and so many different capacities. I feel like, so people will know me from different things, depending on how old they are or what kind of personalities they have, and what kind of comedy they like. It could be anything from The Princess Bride that I did when I was 10-years-old to you know I directed and was producing It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia for a lot of years, people really loved that show, to the work I’ve done on Modern Family. People know me from stuff in front of and behind the camera. I acted on a couple of shows in the last several years that have had strong fanbases. I have been very fortunate that people know me from a variety of things, but as far as what I am most proud of. I will say that, I think in order to do a good job, or sometimes even not a good job. In order to do the job you have to really find an emotional connection to the material. Rather you’re producing, rather you’re directing it, rather you’re acting in it. You have to find some toehold, some personal connection to the material. If you’re able to do that then you end up really caring very deeply about it, everything you work on cause everything rather it’s a big part, a small part, a long job, a one week job, it all means something to you, it’s the only way I know how to do the work. So I really don’t know if I have an absolute favorite, because at one point or another they were all incredibly important to me. You pour a little bit of yourself into each thing, and I think they all mean something big or small. This Wonder Years reboot that I’m working on right now, I’m pouring myself into it, that’s kind of what’s in front of me, my whole heart is here. I directed an episode of Hannah Montana a few years ago, and I found this emotional connection to the material. This was going to be the best performance alive. This is gonna be the best most important episode of Hannah Montana ever, and by the way I still believe that it is. I feel like all of them, every job is still meaningful.”

Thomas: “I feel like it would be hard to pick a favorite, I know I feel that way about a lot of things. I just have one more question. Who would you say your biggest influence throughout your entire career has been, like who has helped you the most/”

Savage: “That’s a really great question, I feel like if I’m doing it well, you kind of pull a little nugget of knowledge from every job. A little nugget from everyone that you have worked with. I always really admired as a kid, I really looked up to people like Jodie Foster, and particularly Ron Howard. Those people who started early, in the business, and transitioned into such successful roles behind the camera as adults. They have always been role models to me, but as far as mentors you kind of get a little knowledge from everybody, there is a cinematographer named Joe Pennella, who I worked with in the early years of my career, he helped me understand how to work with lenses. There is a really famous TV director named Jimmy Burrows, who I observed a lot when I just started directing, I spent some time on some sets, and watched him do his thing, he gave me incredible pearls of knowledge, one I quote all the time is he said ‘have the patience to let bad ideas fail’. I saw that all the time, I worked with Bradley Cooper, on a show called Kitchen Confidential, before Bradley Cooper was a massive movie star, and I learned so much about directing, and acting through working with him. He gave me so much, he didn’t sit down and teach me, but I learned so much from him about how to direct actors, and how not to direct actors. I feel like if you are paying attention, and if you are open and not defensive, that is never a good place to learn. You can get a little morsel of knowledge from every experience. I just think that is how you grow as a professional, but also as a person. You should be compiling little bits of how to interact with people, treat people, and live your life better with every interaction.”

Thomas: “Well thank you so much, this is like the coolest thing I have ever done.”

Savage: “I will tell you I am very happy to hear that, it makes me feel great, but I am also really impressed by you, and you should feel really great about your boldness, and your willingness to put yourself out there, and just to get me here. You are tenacious, smart, hardworking and creative. Also, and I thought, I have been giving a lot of interviews cause the show is about to launch, are among one of the better interviewers, including people who have been doing it forever.”

Thomas: Oh my goodness thank you so much!”

Savage: “All credit is to you, this would have not happened if you weren’t as tenacious, and creative, and hardworking, and charming as you are. It is my pleasure, and good luck to you, I think you have a really really bright future if you continue down this road, I am really impressed by you.”

Thomas: “Thank you so much, that means so much to me.”

Savage: “It is my pleasure, send the pool of the article, would you?

Thomas: “I will, I will, of course, I’ll send it to you over Instagram, is this a good number to send stuff through?”

Savage: “No, this is someone I work withs phone, mine isn’t working in the station, Napa or instagram is the best bet.”

Thomas: “Ok perfect, I will send to both just in case.”

Savage: “Ok, thank you.”

Thomas: “Yes, thank you so much, you have a great rest of your day.”

Savage: “You too, congratulations. Bye!”

Thomas: “Bye bye.”