Why Fred Savage put directing on hold to star in ‘The Grinder’

“The Grinder” debuts tomorrow night at 8:30 on FOX as the most promising new network sitcom this fall. Some of that's just by default – as I've said, this is a poor freshman class – but some of it's the fun of watching Rob Lowe (playing a former TV legal drama star who returns home to Idaho to help out the family law practice) at his most cheerfully self-parodying, and much of it is the pleasure of having Fred Savage back in front of the camera in his first regular series role since the short-lived “Crumbs” back in 2006.

Savage, like Ron Howard, was a natural child actor as both a little kid (in movies like “The Princess Bride” and “Vice Versa”) and a teenager (growing up as the avatar of all things Baby Boomer on “The Wonder Years”), and seemed well-equipped to make the transition into adult acting once he graduated from Stanford. (“Working,” his first regular grown-up sitcom role, wasn't a great show, but he was strong in it.)  Instead, like Howard, he decided he would rather direct, and he's become a very good and prolific TV comedy directing, working in both single-cam and multi-cam. He's acted occasionally, but “The Grinder” is his first prominent role in a decade, and it's good to see that his comic timing and innate likability are still intact and ready to go(*).

(*) Due to some producer shuffles behind the scenes at “The Grinder,” I'm going to wait a while to see what it becomes before writing a full review of it.

At press tour, I sat down with Savage to talk about the decision to at least temporarily abandon his plan to stick with directing, what he's learned about himself as an actor from his years as a director, and whether he has ever tried to recruit fellow former child performer (and his co-star in “The Wizard”) Jenny Lewis to return to acting.

“Crumbs” was a while ago, so while you have done some acting, you haven't really done it as a regular.  You've been doing a lot of directing.  Was it even a thought in your mind that you wanted to go back to it eventually?

Fred Savage:     Was not even a thought in my mind.  Honestly, it's true.  It wasn't a consideration.  It wasn't part of the plan.  Directing was part of the plan.  I knew that's what I wanted to be doing, and I really committed myself to that.  It was going well.  Like, each year was better than the next, and I was really building a lot of momentum, and so that's what I wanted to continue to do.  But then this script and this opportunity came along and it was just hard to say no to.  It really made me laugh.  I loved the script.  I loved the part.  I loved the creative team behind it, not just Rob but Jake Kasdan and Andy and Jarrad.  And it was great.   It was definitely not part of the plan and it was just kind of a package; it was really hard to say no to and something I didn't want to say no to.  I wanted to be on board for the fun.

Watching you in this, I had the feeling I had when Ron Howard showed up in one of the Netflix “Arrested Development” episodes:  here's someone who's a really good director but, damn, I miss them acting.

Fred Savage:     Oh, that's so nice.

Had you missed it?

Fred Savage:     I hadn't, or I didn't think I did until I got there.  Once I started doing it and enjoying it and it was going well, I was like, “Oh, this is a lot of fun.”  It wasn't something I was pining for or longing to get back into, but once I started doing it I really enjoyed it again.

I want to talk about the plan. The first thing you directed was an episode of “Working.”

Fred Savage:     I don't think it even aired.

Was that a point in which you already had the plan, or was it more a case of you directing it and deciding you liked it?

Fred Savage:     No, that was part of the plan.

So when and how did the plan come about?

Fred Savage:     Well, I mean, I was interested in it.  I knew I wanted to direct since I was a kid.  That was something I was always fascinated by and wanted to experience and see if I would be any good at it.  You mentioned Ron Howard, he's been a role model of mine since I was a little kid.  It was always something in the back of my head that I wanted to try and to do.  So after college I was doing this show “Working,” as you mentioned, and it was really my parents and my dad who were like, “Look, if you want to do this we should get (it set up).” That was part of the deal: that in season 2, I would direct one.  And so my dad had that foresight.   And then the plan was to just try and do anything I can and kind of direct as much as possible.  And I did.  I went and met with Michael Jacobs, who was doing “Boy Meet World,” my brother's show.  And he said, “Well look, I'm not going to give you your first job,” he goes, “but I can give you your second.  Someone else has to hire you before I will.”  And so he was true to his word and he hired me next.  And then I did another one of those, I did two of my brother's shows.  And I felt incredibly proud that that second one, I felt like I really earned that.  And then I started directing on “Even Stevens,” the Shia LaBeouf show on Disney Channel.  And we just kind of took off from there.

You've directed single-cam, you've done multi-cam, you've done things that are all over the tonal map. When you were a kid, you worked with some great directors, many of whom tried to do things with varied tone. How much at that age were you picking up about tone and about what directors do?

Fred Savage:     I think it all informed it.  I think that you don't really know where you pick up certain things.  Some of it was really conscious.  I'd sit and watch movies and watch shows really trying to make note of directorial choices, or I'd spend time on sets of observing figuring out how you made your day and how you break a scene down.  So there are some very conscious ones and then there's just the unconscious ones that just happen where you're going about your day.  So I definitely think that that shaped me, for sure, my experience working with directors as a young kid.

You've talked about how when you have to direct yourself, it doesn't work out very well.

Fred Savage:     I've only done it the one time, but I feel like I didn't do very well at either job.  Like I said on the panel, taking “The Grinder” wasn't an opportunity to go direct.  I feel like at this point I feel comfortable enough as a director; I've built enough of a directing career.  I don't quite have to horse trade acting for directing jobs.

Was there a point where that was discussed?

Fred Savage:     Oh, for sure.  Very early on: “I'll do this show if you can let me direct one.”  All the time, we would talk about things like that.  So I don't feel like I'm in that position anymore, now I can just kind of act on this and not worry about it.  So I'm going to just focus on the acting side.  And if that goes well, then I'll figure out what to do next.

You're a gifted actor.  You've done a lot of things and displayed a lot of versatility and good comic timing.  Having directed as long as you do, does that in any way inform your acting or give you a better understanding of what you're good and not good at?

Fred Savage:    It absolutely helps inform my acting.  And I didn't really realize that until I started doing it again.  But oh yeah absolutely.  I've had the honor and pleasure of working with so many different kinds of actors, different styles, different approaches to comedy, different methodologies.  And working on shows tonally with all different kinds of comedy, really broad comedy, really adult in your face comedy, really subtle comedy, really heartfelt comedy, all comedy based, but in the comedy world, there's so many different approaches.  And I feel like because I've worked so intimately in so many different facets of TV comedy, I felt very comfortable, for whatever reason, it did inform me.  I felt very comfortable stepping back in front of the camera again.  It felt incredibly natural.

What does Fred the director think Fred the actor is good at?

Fred Savage:     Oh, man.  I think Fred the director would appreciate that I come to set prepared.  I know my lines.  I hit my marks very well.  I think that Fred the director would appreciate Fred the actor's technical proficiency.

Sometimes with child actors, even the ones who we get to watch age all the way into adulthood as we did with you, there comes a point where whatever was working with them as a kid and as a teenager, something about adulthood takes that away.  When you act, you're pretty much the same kind of performer you were as Kevin, and you were in those other roles.

Fred Savage:     As a good thing, you're saying?

It's a good thing.  What I mean is, you haven't lost whatever that spark was.  I'm just wondering if that's something you were even conscious of as you were finishing college and getting back into it?

Fred Savage:    I wasn't thinking about that.  I feel like it really depends.  I think a lot of longevity, especially as a performer, depends on kind of what your commodity is.  If your commodity is your cuteness and your chubby cheeks and your big gap between your teeth, if that's what your greatest asset is, of course that fails or that changes, you know, that goes away.  Of course that fades.  But when you look at Rob or any actor who's endured and maintained, whether it's Jodie Foster or Reese Witherspoon or Leonardo DiCaprio, their cuteness was never their calling card.  They were talented.  And I think that I was never an ingénue at any point in my career.  I was hoping that whatever I was bringing to the table, it wasn't some physical attribute that would change or fade over time.

You look at something like “Vice Versa,” and you're playing the adult for the bulk of the movie.

Fred Savage:     Yeah.  So I didn't really think about that in college, and growing up, I was just hoping that I'd get opportunities to work in the entertainment business again.

With “The Wonder Years,” you and Danica and Josh all have turned out okay, but you're the only one who's still predominantly in show business, and for a long time you weren't acting.  At the time, were you guys talking about whether you wanted to keep doing it?

Fred Savage:     No.  As far as what we are going to do next, we were talking about what colleges you wanted to go to.  We weren't talking about careers as adults.  I always joke with Danica and Josh that they can go do other things.  Danica's a math genius and she's written many best-selling math books.  Josh was a patent attorney, an intellectual property attorney, and now he's opened up his own firm.  I was the only one who wasn't well-rounded enough to do anything else so I had to stay in show business.  They had options.

Finally, it's been about 15 years since Jenny Lewis acted on camera.  In all that time, have you ever like tried to recruit her to do something with you, whether costarring or directing?

Fred Savage:     No.  I haven't.  Jenny Lewis was always way cooler than me and still is, but it wasn't until recently that I even knew she remembered me.  Like, I'm a huge fan of her music and she's awesome.  I never miss a chance to go see her live.  I'm a huge fan of Jenny's, both as an actress and particularly as a musician and songwriter.  But I haven't tried to recruit her yet.  I think she's doing just fine.

How did it feel when you saw the video where she puts in the tribute to “The Wizard”?

Fred Savage:     It was great.  Fred Armisen I think was a great stand-in, don't get me wrong, but I would have done that video in a second with her.  I loved “The Wizard” tribute.  The fact that people are still talking about “The Wizard” and it's taken on this kind of cult following all these years later just blows my mind.  It blows my mind.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com