Fred Savage directing ABC’s new The Wonder Years
Fred Savage as Kevin Arnold of The Wonder Years, circa 1988
Ron Howard as Opie of The Andy Griffith Show, circa 1960s
Director Ron Howard on location
Director Kimberly McCullough on location for Fox’s Fantasy Island with (from left) first assistant camera César Marrero, dolly grip Anibal Pabón and camera operator Raphy Molinary
Kimberly McCullough began appearing on General Hospital at age seven as Robin Scorpio; as she matured, she became Dr. Robin Scorpio Drake.
Matt Shakman, circa 1988, as J.R. in ABC’s Just the Ten of Us, with Heidi Zeigler as Sherry
Matt Shakman directs Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany in Disney+’s WandaVision.
Raven-Symoné directing Raven’s Home, the Disney Channel show in which she also stars
Raven-Symoné, circa 1989, as Olivia on The Cosby Show
The Opie Effect
Sure, lots of young stars say they want to direct — like Opie of The Andy Griffith Show, who grew into Ron Howard . But there’s much more to it than climbing into the big chair. Re-meet four former child actors who now call the shots.
"I don't know what i'm doing. I can't get this done. This is going to be a disaster. Everyone's going to know I'm a fraud."
On a recent late night in Atlanta, Fred Savage paced through the closest park to quell these thoughts rattling around his head. He had just started production of a pilot for ABC — no problem if he were acting, which he'd been doing since age 11. But this time he was calling the shots as director. And despite a directing résumé that includes Modern Family, The Goldbergs and black-ish, he still fretted about overreaching.
Oh, and the new series on his plate? The Wonder Years, a reimagining of the poignant, Emmy-winning gem that ran from 1988 to '93 and made Savage a star.
"I was very, very, very aware of my responsibility," he says. As it turned out, Savage's angst was for naught. Not only did network execs greenlight the series (it premiered September 22 on ABC), "Directing the pilot was an incredible experience," he says. "I could draw a clear line to being on the set back then to where I am now. And it made me proud and appreciative that I can still be part of this industry that I've loved so much in a meaningful way."
No kidding. Look, it's one thing for a precocious young star to proclaim that what he or she reeeeally wants to do is pull a Ron Howard and direct; it's quite another to put in the labor and make it happen à la the artist formerly known as Opie.
But some familiar faces have reestablished themselves as forces behind the TV camera. The work of this exclusive club is both highly acclaimed and down- the-middle popular, with quick pacing and a visual flair that keeps audiences clamoring for more. Members also come equipped with a personal style that can only be cultivated through years of on-the-job training.
"I've been trying to nail down why certain actors work specifically well in episodic television," says Kimberly McCullough, the General Hospital vet who's moved on to direct It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Bold Type and the Fox reboot of Fantasy Island.
"I think it's because the pace is so fast and you have to get to know actors in an hour. It's hard for directors who didn't come from an acting background to understand that."
Raven-Symoné — now directing for the Disney Channel and her own unscripted YouTube series, 8 PM — seconds that: "If you're a smart child actor, you're keeping your eyes open. So when you direct, the muscles just pop because you paid attention."
You don't need to watch an old E! True Hollywood Story to understand that show-biz kids are an unusual breed. Arriving in the big city with big smiles and bigger dreams, they must summon deep emotions on a dime and learn how to navigate Hollywood at a startlingly young age.
Savage, for one, enjoyed it. "I felt very fortunate that I had great people looking out for me and had wonderful opportunities," he says, noting that he hosted Saturday Night Live at 13.
Raven-Symoné, who started cracking jokes on The Cosby Show in 1989 when she was three and was the opening act for NSYNC just nine years later, proudly points out, "I went to public school every week, I navigated my mental health, I never went to jail or had a drug addiction, and I still have my own money." Still, she adds, "I've blacked-out a lot of my experiences. And there are shadows within the light."
Matt Shakman, the WandaVision director who'd popped up in Webster, Diff'rent Strokes, The Facts of Life and Night Court by his 12th birthday, still shudders at the flashbacks:
"It's difficult to be a kid in a professional environment. You're being asked to be mature and know your lines, and that's not what six-or seven-year-olds are asked to do in school or at home." Upon finishing his run on the Growing Pains spinoff Just the Ten of Us in 1990 at age 15, he decided to call it a day and focus on his education.
Over in the soap-opera world, McCullough also felt adrift. A former child dancer, she landed the role of headstrong Robin Scorpio in General Hospital in 1985 when she was seven.
She won a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Younger Actress in a Drama at 11... and accepted it with dread. "I always wanted to blend in and disappear," she admits. "And then when I won, the older women in my category were like, 'Oh you little bitch' or 'You only got that because you're cute.' I'd rather not have it than have people look at me like that."
She won another seven years later. There was an upside. While their non-Hollywood buddies had fun careening down slides and playing kickball during recess, the actors found joy on the playgrounds of real-live TV sets. "I love equipment and cameras, so I was always asking the crew, 'What does that do?'" McCullough recalls. (For school credit, she wrote out the timecodes for the start and end of shots.)
Savage was fixated on how cameramen on The Wonder Years rolled on film. "I became interested in how many shots it took to film a scene of us at the kitchen table," he says. "I began to see how certain mechanics conveyed certain emotions."
When Raven-Symoné landed her own Disney show, That's So Raven, at age 18 in 2003, she became so enmeshed in the behind-the-scenes action that she was offered the chance to direct. Flattered but scared, she turned it down.
"It seemed like too much power for a teenage girl to have," she admits. "I wanted to wait and earn it." She finally checked the box in 2019 during the second season of Raven's Home and directed five episodes in all. "I just moved forward and did the damn thing and here I am."
Indeed, these formerly pint-sized VIPs didn't cut any lines en route to success. After studying English at Stanford, Savage poked around for directing gigs and approached Michael Jacobs, cocreator–executive producer of Boy Meets World (starring his younger brother, Ben). The semi-stinging reply, per Savage: "I'm not going to give you your first job."
So Savage persuaded the execs of his 1997–99 NBC comedy, Working, to let him try his hand as part of a season-two contract negotiation. He then returned to Jacobs, who gave him the keys to two episodes of Boy Meets World, a hit in ABC's TGIF programming block.
Shakman helmed short films during his time at Yale University in the 1990s, then opened a ramshackle 30-seat theater with his friends in an area of L.A. "near auto-body shops and liquor stores, because it was all we could afford." One of the productions lured in producer-director Ed Zwick (thirtysomething), who liked what he saw.
"He left me a complimentary message on my answering machine and asked me to come in for a meeting," Shakman recalls. He ended up shadowing the three-time Emmy winner on his projects, "not just watching him, but hanging with everybody to see how every element of a production came together." By 2002, Shakman was helming an episode of Once and Again, the ABC drama from Zwick and his writing-producing partner Marshall Herskowitz.
For McCullough, the road was especially grueling. As both a woman and a daytime-drama actress, "I got a lot of eyerolls when I told people I wanted to direct, because in the entertainment business being on a soap is the lowest of the low — and I'm not, you know, Harrison Ford," she says. "I knew that I had to be better than the men around me and that my experience had to be iron-clad."
The actress studied at the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at New York University in the mid-'90s. Though she had been an ABC employee since the Reagan administration, she applied the old-fashioned way for the network's esteemed directing fellowship program and was accepted in 2012 on her third try ("They did not give me any special breaks.")
Even after the directing jobs started trickling in, she continued her arc on General Hospital through 2018 as a source of steady work.
Of course, the opportunity to sit in the big chair is only half the challenge. A good director must also nail a series' narrative voice while shaking the ex-child-star stigma.
Savage says he used to worry that casts and crews would view him as an adolescent Kevin Arnold from The Wonder Years. He didn't get a shot of confidence until 2005, when he directed an episode of Kitchen Confidential , a short- lived Fox dramedy starring Bradley Cooper and Frank Langella, based on a memoir by Anthony Bourdain.
"I had a note for Frank Langella for a scene, but I was terrified to give it to him — because it's Frank Langella," he says. "He told me that he appreciated it because it made the scene better. I had a moment of realization that good actors want good, thoughtful notes and that it was my duty to give them. That was a big lesson for me."
In 2012, McCullough used her public past to her advantage during her first job — one of the final episodes of the Disney Channel comedy Shake It Up. Overseeing Zendaya and Bella Thorne, then still teens, she sat them down on day one and imparted some well-earned wisdom. "I told them, 'Look, your show's almost over, but I'm not going to phone it in — and I don't expect you to phone it in, either,'" she recalls.
"I've learned that you never know who is watching, so you have to bring your A -game or else you run the risk of fading into oblivion."
Zendaya gave her a fist bump and tossed a "Girl power!" her way. McCullough has since collaborated with the younger set on Pretty Little Liar, Fuller House, The Cool Kids and High School Musical: The Musical – The Series (the latter with breakout star Olivia Rodrigo). "It's not in my job description," she says, "but I just think if I can be effective as a leader, it can definitely be satisfying."
Raven-Symoné, who went on to lens Sydney to the Max and Bunk'd, reaped similar benefits: "I pride myself in speaking 'actor,'" she explains. "When I'm directing kids, it helps them to know what I've done. I have the ability to say, 'Trust me, I got you. I've done it and so can you.' It's not just a random person asking them to play a role."
And sometimes the work itself is the reward. Even as Shakman racked up credits on the likes of Mad Men, The Good Wife, Six Feet Under and three installments of Game of Thrones (including the famous "Spoils of War" episode), he admits that he didn't make peace with his past until he entered therapy — in the form of taking on all nine episodes of WandaVision for Disney+. (Logline: The Wanda and Vision characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe explore domesticity via diverse prototypical sitcom genres.)
"I've had mixed feelings about how all those years as a kid actor impacted who I am now and what I wanted to be, which is a serious filmmaker and someone allowed to do sophisticated things," Shakman says. "In the back of my head, I'm always a TGIF sitcom kid. I was afraid people would be dismissive of me. It was wonderful to finally own that."
Interview enough child stars-turned-directors, and a common thread emerges: they discuss their acting careers in the past tense. "It's totally over," Shakman says. "I think I'm a bit too much in my head to ever go back. I wouldn't be able to stop looking at things from the outside."
Though McCullough recently returned to General Hospital in a tribute episode for actor John Reilly, she's also done. "I absolutely do not miss it at all," she says. "When I'm seeing actors do great work, there's not literally an ounce of me that wishes I could be doing that. As a director, I get to be the magician, the mathematician and the mayor. There's a feeling of having control of your environment and feeling the actor's emotions from an observational state."
Raven-Symoné can relate, vowing that she plans to be on camera only in a reality show-type setting with her wife to promote LGBTQI+ awareness: "After 30 years of doing the same thing, I'm ready to retire like anyone else would after 30 years! I don't want to regurgitate lines and be told what to do and have that pressure. So I prefer directing because I'm able to make the decisions and be heard with respect. I'm not just seen as some actor complaining."
Savage felt the same way — until his friend, writer-director Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), sent him the pilot script for a Fox comedy called The Grinder in 2016 and asked him to appear in it.
It ran for only one season, but, Savage says, "The performance was well received, and I was surprised as much as anyone that there was a seat for me at the table." The gig led to a role in Netflix's ensemble comedy Friends from College. "There's a free-ness in the way I act now," he says. "I'm not so precious with it."
As for the future? Raven-Symoné has her eye on adult fare such as CBS's The Neighborhood and Wanda Sykes: Not Normal on Netflix. Others cite certain Oscar winners as long-term inspiration. "Ron Howard and Jodie Foster are the people I admired and looked up to and still do," Savage says. Adds Shakman, "All you have to do is look at the diversity of [Howard's] work."
For now, this group gets by with a little help from their friends. Shakman and Savage are close; Shakman calls his former ABC cohort "a lovely human and excellent director who turned out better adjusted than any of us."
Both Savage and McCullough have done episodes of The Conners with their longtime friend Sara Gilbert, who's also an actress and producer. McCullough is tight with Regina King, a fellow ABC Directing Fellowship alum who just scored acclaim with the film One Night in Miami, and with Shiri Appleby, whom she beat out for the role of Robin Scorpio back in the day — and who's recently directed episodes of Roswell, New Mexico; mixed-ish and New Amsterdam.
They support and encourage each other, always ready to lend an ear. After all, they know that few others can empathize with both the art of a scene and the mixed feelings of being seen. "There's a very small group of people who have done this and who have stayed in show business," Savage says. "Having this strange experience of having a public childhood bonds us. Whether it's spoken or not, for better or for worse, we've had similar battles and come out the other side."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 9, 2021