What they saw was "a marvelous actor with a natural quality - which essentially means he has no quality at all except being a kid. It sounds funny, but it's a rare thing to find in a child actor. It's the same thing we looked for and discovered in Josh Saviano and Danica McKellar."
Between 300 and 400 youngsters were screened and interviewed nationwide before all the children's parts were cast, says Marlens, who is married to Black. "My wife and I made the final choices from about 70 candidates, each of whom had to be approved by the network."
They've been pleased with their choices, and so have the critics and the viewers of the highly praised series. "Other than needing a mathematician to figure out how much they can work under child labor laws, there have been no problems," Marlens says. The young actors are "real professionals" who seem to enjoy "our relaxed atmosphere" on the set, he adds.
Leading kid Savage - all of 12 years old, and with 85 wiry pounds packed on a 5-foot frame - portrays Kevin Arnold, a boy with a fresh-scrubbed face, soulful brown eyes and unruly dark hair, growing up in a typical suburban household during the late 1960s. The adult Kevin narrates, taking viewers back to 1968, when he was 12 and living in a subdivision with his world-weary father, Jack (Dan Lauria); twittering mother, Norma (Alley Mills); hippie sister, Karen (Olivia D'Abo), and obnoxious older brother, Wayne (Jason Hervey).
Life was an unraveling mystery during that last summer before junior high school, when Kevin and his nerdy best friend, Paul (Saviano), suddenly discovered girls - particularly Winnie Cooper (McKellar), the former tomboy down the block.
Savage knew it wouldn't be an easy assignment. The pilot, shot in the fall of 1987, called for his first screen kiss - a lingering clinch with the (prematurely) near-sultry McKellar.
"Yeah, well, that was kind of tough and a little embarrassing, because we had to do it in front of our parents, cast and crew," says the blushing Savage. "Look, I had only known her for a week, and I think she was embarrassed, too. We rehearsed everything in the scene except the kiss, and when the director said, 'Let's shoot one!' I just went for it. . . ."
Predictably, all hell broke loose when the pilot was sneak-previewed after the Super Bowl in January.
"My friends, all guys, were at the house that night," Savage recalls. ''When the kissing scene came up, they went crazy - screaming and jumping all over the place. All of them wanted to meet Danica. I guess we got a little carried away, because we started calling up all the girls in the neighborhood afterwards."
Savage was born in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park and was reared in nearby Glencoe along with a sister, Kala, 10, and a brother, Ben, 8, both involved in local acting and TV commercials. Their father, Lew Savage, is an industrial real-estate broker and developer, and their mother, Joanne, oversees the children's careers.
"It all started quite by accident seven years ago, while Fred was still in kindergarten," says Joanne Savage, who has an easy manner and a dry sense of humor. "A director who lived in Glencoe sent all the kids in Fred's class home with flyers announcing there would be an open audition for a hot-dog commercial at the community center one day. We went down there for a lark, like all the other kids and their mothers."
Savage didn't impress anyone with his acting skills and was sent home empty-handed. Six months later, the same director called him in for another audition - with the same results.
"When the guy called for the third time, about a year after the first interview, my mom was going to turn him down as a waste of time," Savage says. "But, thinking it over, she gave it one more shot. That's when I got a commercial for Pac-Man Vitamins, and the phone started ringing. I guess I've done about 75 mostly national commercials so far."
At the age of 8, already hot in the Windy City, he made his motion-picture debut in The Boy Who Could Fly, followed by a short-lived television series, Morningstar/Eveningstar. His credits now include several series guest shots, the feature films Vice Versa and The Princess Bride, a CBS TV movie called Run 'Til You Fall, and Runaway Ralph, an ABC Weekend Special. Last summer, he completed another feature, Little Monsters, with Howie Mandel and with little brother Ben in a supporting role.
"I love acting and the travel that comes with it. I've worked in Los Angeles, Vancouver and London so far," says Savage, a seventh grader. "But I always miss my old friends back in Chicago. I've known most of them since I was 3 years old, and they treat me the same as always. The girls don't treat me any differently, either. Everyone's a star in their own field. My friends include a hockey star and a baseball star. I'm the acting star. I just act."
Savage loves sports, but is quick to acknowledge that he doesn't excel at any of them. "Let's put it this way, I'm not the first guy chosen on a team, and I'm not likely to hit the home runs when I'm playing Little League ball," he says, smiling.
"I'm a pretty good rightfielder, but a rotten hitter. I'm also a Chicago Bears fan. My favorite basketball player is Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls. I did a couple of TV commercials with him, and he's fantastic."
To make sure he isn't bored between takes, Savage's teachers back in Glencoe prepare his lessons well in advance. He spends up to three hours a day with a studio tutor, going over the material before taking the tests and writing the essays that are expected to be handed in when he returns to Glencoe. He likes school, "especially science, math and social studies." He
plans to stick with acting, perhaps eventually studying theater at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. So far, he says, he's "never had an acting lesson in my life."
Savage's grandparents and some other relatives live in Los Angeles, and he enjoys the occasional visits by his father and siblings in California. ("My relationship with Ben is much better than with my screen brother, Wayne, but I still tease my sister too much," he says.) But he was overjoyed when his ''longtime" girlfriend, Abra, came out from Chicago recently to spend a weekend with him. Unfortunately, so did her mother.