Jason Hervey can understand why so many people hate his guts. But that doesn't mean the 17-year-old actor, who plays Fred Savage's big brother on The Wonder Years, enjoys suffering for the sins of Wayne Arnold, the character who became TV's most reviled bully last season when he engineered a fatal encounter between Kevin's (Savage's) pet hamster and the Arnold family vacuum cleaner. "A lot of people assume I'm Wayne," gripes Hervey, a pugnacious 5'6" bantam whose lip curls naturally into the slight sneer that seems to bring out the worst in teen passersby. "People always come up and call me a jerk and say, 'Why don't you leave Kevin alone? How'd you like it if I beat you up? Come on, let's fight!' "

Little wonder. In addition to having Hoovered Kevin's hamster, Hervey's Wayne calls his brother Butthead in public and once gleefully broadcast the appearance of Kevin's first zit. Even Hervey admits it's easy to despise anyone who would pick on Fred Savage. "He's a cute little kid, with the cutest little face I've ever seen," Hervey says. "If I were watching TV, I'd take his side too." Hervey is philosophical about the bad vibes—"They let me know I'm doing a good job"—but he would like to tell the world that the real Jason Hervey, the private Jason Hervey, is warm, sensitive, the kind of guy who's not too macho to own a bunny named Muffin. "When I saw this rabbit, I just fell in love," says Hervey, who claims to have rescued Muffin, a runt, from a litter of aggressive bunny siblings. "Now would Wayne Arnold have a bunny rabbit?"

For dinner, maybe. Seriously though, Hervey, whose father is a retail sales manager and whose mother is a talent agent, never had the opportunity to play Wayne in real life. "The truth is, I was always in Kevin's position," he says. "If I was annoying my brother, I'd get slammed." True enough, says older brother Scott, 22, a student at Cal State-Northridge. "He'd be a brat, so I used to beat him up. Brattiness comes naturally to him."

A veteran of more than 250 TV commercials—he did his first at age 4—and several hit movies, including Back to the Future, Hervey worried that he had blown his auditions for Wonder Fears in 1987. But series co-creator Neil Marlens thought Hervey was right for the part. "To play a character so unlikable and unsympathetic, you must be funny," Marlens says.

Today, Hervey leads a teen dream life. He dates "an older woman," secretary Dawn Bailey, 21 ("He's really got his head on straight," she says), rents an apartment in an L.A. complex owned by his parents, who live downstairs, and can choose among his Corvette, Jeep or two motorcycles when he wants to take a ride. Often that ride ends at Slammers, a club where Hervey practices wrestling, to the taped accompaniment of 10,000 screaming fans. "I love it," says Hervey. "My godfather is [famed wrestling villain] Terry Funk. He once kicked in my pinkie finger. I'm going to be a professional wrestler or manager, I think."

That, of course, will have to wait until the end of The Wonder Years, which Hervey hopes won't be anytime soon. As for his next movie, "I want something challenging," he says. "But if they just give me Wayne Arnold-type roles, I'm comfortable with that too. I'll just do a good job at being a jerk."

—Steve Dougherty, Craig Tomashoff in Los Angeles