Fred Savage returns to TV acting with gay role

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January 04 2006 1:00 AM ET

Fred Savage was
thinking about devoting himself to directing and
producing, but that was before he was offered
Crumbs. Savage's cute-little-boy-next-door mien
brought him success as wide-eyed Kevin Arnold, growing up
amid '60s morals and mores on the ABC series The
Wonder Years
(1988–1993). He's also
remembered as the grandson in the 1987 feature film
The Princess Bride. Less memorable is the
NBC sitcom Working, which lasted barely two
seasons in the late '90s. Since then his focus has been
behind the camera, including producing and directing
the kid-oriented comedy series Phil of the
Future,
on the Disney Channel, and Nickelodeon's
Drake & Josh.

"Other acting
opportunities had come along, but nothing that was
tantalizing enough to me to step away from what I found most
interesting," says Savage, who at 29 still retains his
boyish charm. Crumbs, an ABC sitcom about
a dysfunctional family, premieres January 12
at 9:30 p.m., following the second installment of a new
run of the summer smash Dancing With the Stars.
Savage says Crumbs appealed to him because it
didn't have "that setup/setup/joke pattern that has come
to define sitcom. I liked that it was about the characters,
about the family...and was brave enough not to have a
laugh for a few pages."

As the name
implies, the Crumbs are a crumbled family who nevertheless
retain affection for each other. The mother (Jane Curtin)
has just been discharged from a psychiatric facility.
The father (William Devane) is expecting a baby with
his new girlfriend. They have suffered the death of
one of their three sons, and many unspoken memories linger.
Jody, the son who stayed home to run the family
restaurant, is played by Eddie McClintock. Savage
portrays Mitch, the gay prodigal son who returns home
from a failed Hollywood career.

The series will
explore the family's varied reaction to Mitch's sexual
orientation, but Savage says, "That's not what the show is
about...the show is really about family and secrets that
families keep from each other and how a family pulls
itself back together after keeping so much from each
other for so long." Openly gay creator Marco Pennette
has used incidents in his own family life as inspiration.
"We had a lot of tragedy and a lot of pain, and we got
through it with a lot of humor," he says.

"Marco really
kind of honors these characters.... They are not just
these made-up fictitious people but are based very closely
on his family, so I felt confident going forward that
he would really respect them and not sell the show
out," says Savage, explaining his choice to play
Mitch, who's essentially Pennette. "I'm certainly not doing
a Marco impersonation, and I don't think that's what
he wanted," says Savage. "For me, Marco is a wonderful
resource because I can talk to him and ask, 'Does this
moment ring true?' or 'I don't understand how to make
this transition from here to here.'"

The live studio
audiences sometimes have a hard time understanding
too—in their case, the tone of the series.
"That actually encourages us to feel that we are on
the right track, that we are doing something
different, so it's encouraging when they laugh at the wrong
places or don't laugh at all sometimes," Savage says,
laughing. He doesn't agree at all with those who think
sitcoms have lost their appeal. "I think the sitcom is
alive and well and just needs new life breathed into
it," he says, hoping Crumbs will do that.

As a young child,
Savage "stumbled" into acting after going to a local
community center. "They were having auditions for a hot dog
commercial, and I went with my friends and my mom because we
lived in the suburbs of Chicago and it just seemed
like something fun to do," he recalls. "Instead of
going to the park that day, we went there. Most kids
have a favorite after-school hobby, but not every Little
Leaguer becomes a professional baseball player. But I
got to become a professional actor. I was really
lucky."

Savage ended up
marrying a hometown girl—they knew each other as kids
growing up in Glencoe, Ill., and reconnected when she moved
to Los Angeles. A graduate of Stanford University,
Savage is philosophical about the pitfalls of
stardom. "I understand the business. I get it. I
didn't buy a plane and then figure out how I was going to
pay for it if a show got picked up," he says, smiling.
"I think I bought a sweater." (Bridget Byrne, AP)

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