When Fred Savage teamed up with Rob Lowe to make The Grinder in 2015, it was a momentous occasion—the first time Savage had taken on a series-regular gig in nearly a decade. Sadly, the Fox sitcom rested after only a single season; happily, rather than returning to the comfortable life he’d carved for himself as a director and producer, Savage decided instead to dust himself off and do some more acting.
Even better, he didn’t have to look very far to find his next gig. Nicholas Stoller, an executive producer of The Grinder, was casting his new Netflix series, Friends from College—the first season of which premieres Friday. Savage spoke with Vanity Fair about the show as well as his renewed excitement for acting, his enthusiasm about a potential Grinder movie, the chances of a Wonder Years revival, and the onscreen reunion with Daniel Stern the world will probably never see.
Vanity Fair: Friends from College isn’t your first time working with Nick Stoller. Was this series something that was discussed while you guys were doing on The Grinder?
Fred Savage: Well, I was actually friends with Nick and [his wife] Francesca before we were work colleagues, so I’d heard about this show from the beginning. My wife and I celebrated with them when they sold it to Netflix. I would always pester them and say, “Make sure I’m in this show!” Pestering them like a friend, but pestering them nonetheless. [Laughs.] But once The Grinder came along, that became my focus and that’s what I was doing. And that was the first time I’d acted in anything in quite a long time, but I really had a great time, and I was very surprised—and happy!—to find that there was an appetite for me as an actor. I felt very welcomed back into the fold.
When The Grinder ended, it was actually my agent who said, “Don’t neglect your acting!” He didn’t want me to completely throw myself back into directing and producing, which was what I’d been doing almost exclusively for the last decade. And when I was trying to consider what the next acting thing might be, Nick came along and said, “You know that thing you’ve been pestering us about? Well, with The Grinder done, do you want to be a part of it?” I was, like, “Look, you don’t have to do that. I was just kidding around.” I thought they were just trying to placate me. And they said, “No, no, we’d love you to be a part of it!”
Your partner on the show is played by Billy Eichner, who’s almost startlingly subdued when we first meet him.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I thought he did a great job! The show’s about this prolonged adolescence that everyone in the cast has. Freshman year in college has extended 20 years beyond when it should’ve, and every character is in some state of arrested development. And that’s great in some respects, but everyone’s lives as adults have really suffered—their relationships, their marriages, or their careers suffer because they just can’t fully commit to adulthood. And I think if my character, Max, would admit it, he’d have a great relationship with Billy. But he can’t. And he pays the price because of it.
You mentioned a few moments ago that you were surprised by how warmly people welcomed you back to acting with The Grinder. Were you surprised at how badly you’d been bitten by the acting bug again?
Yeah, I was surprised, but I was also excited to find that I was excited by acting. Between the incredible writing and the phenomenal ensemble, plus just the fact that I was older, I’d never had so much fun and never felt so free in front of the camera. Or at least not since I was a kid. I just really enjoyed myself. And I wasn’t prepared for that! [Laughs.] I thought it would be more difficult.
And now you’ve got this “in” with Netflix. Surely this is the time to pitch a Grinder movie.
[Instantly] I’m in! Rob would be as well. We all would be. We had a great time making that, but audiences never seemed to discover it. But it’s on Netflix, and people are slowly coming around to it. And the fact that no one watched it . . . [Laughs.] I won’t let that deter me. I won’t let that convince me that it was anything other than terrific. I think we all were really committed, and we had this great magic alchemy of writing, and people behind the camera, and people in front of the camera. But we couldn’t control whether people watched it.
Which reminds me: I recently heard about an interesting project that viewers never had a chance to watch: a pilot script for a series that would’ve reunited you and your “adult voice” from The Wonder Years. What can you tell me about Stern/Savage?
Stern/Savage was a spec script that the fantastically talented writing team of Steve Basilone and Annie Mebane wrote early in their career as a comedy sample, and it helped get them some of their earliest gigs as staff writers. I met them when they were junior writers on the first season of Happy Endings, and when I heard about this script, I begged them to let me read it. It was wholly original: smart and dark and painfully funny.
I got a copy of the script. You guys would’ve played exaggerated versions of yourselves. To read the lines of this foul-mouthed, substance-abusing Fred Savage is really something. Did it really almost come to fruition?
I showed it to Dan Stern—who has mostly been focusing on his burgeoning career as a sculptor—but it was more an excuse to reconnect with him than anything. All of our careers kind of diverged before we ever got a chance to really make anything of it. But it still remains a fantastic script, one that’s in all our desk drawers, probably never to see the light of day.
In regards to other things the world will probably never see, are you tired of people pitching you the idea of a Wonder Years reunion set in the 90s?
No. Absolutely not. I think the fact that I was part of something that still means so much to people, and after all these years they still want it to be on the air, they still think about it . . . I mean, that’s really a special thing. Some people work their whole careers and don’t get that! So, no, I’ll never get tired of that. That’ll never stop being meaningful to me or stop making me feel incredibly special. But my answer will remain the same—so I won’t get tired of people asking if everyone else doesn’t get tired of me saying, “No, it’s not going to happen.” [Laughs.]
You know, I’ve always said that The Wonder Years, it’s not just the name of the show—it’s a time in your life, a very special, finite time in your life. And the way the show was written, it’s about looking back with some longing. I think we all look back at that time in our lives and long for it and idealize it. One of the reasons it takes on this kind of mythic, almost haunting quality in our lives is because it’s something you can’t go back to and can’t revisit. It only exists in our memories, in our shared experiences with people who went through it with us. That’s really what the show was all about. And I think that the idea of revisiting the show mirrors that. And I like that.
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