08/27/2007 at 01:00 AM EDT
At Fred Savage's house, 3 p.m. means nap time—but not for Daddy. Nearly 20 years ago, he starred as Kevin Arnold, the 12-year-old hero of TV's The Wonder Years, a tender coming of age drama set in the '60s. Now, the 31-year-old actor is all grown up and crooning the Grateful Dead song "Ripple" to his 1-year-old son Oliver to get him to sleep. It's a tradition that began an hour after the baby's birth on Aug. 5, 2006. "Whenever I sing it, he drifts right off," says Savage. "Fathers and sons," he muses. "The timing of all of this has been interesting."
Sitting cross-legged on a worn brown couch in the comfortable four-bedroom Los Angeles home he shares with Jennifer, 34, his wife of three years, Savage isn't just talking about new parenthood. With the release of the comedy Daddy Day Camp on Aug. 8—three days after Ollie's first birthday—the former child star debuted as a movie director. It's a job the Stanford University grad has yearned for since his days on The Wonder Years. "Fred was always asking the directors, 'What if we did this instead of that?'" recalls producer Jason Hervey, 35, who played his older brother Wayne. "Am I surprised he's directing? Not at all." Adds Danica McKellar, 32, an L.A. mathematician and author who played Winnie, Kevin's childhood sweetheart: "From the time Fred was 12, he'd always try to stick in a pratfall, and we'd all be cracking up. I can't wait to see what he's done now that he's calling the shots."
When the show ended its five-year run in 1993, Savage went off to college, and then honed his directing skills on such kids' TV shows as Drake & Josh and Boy Meets World, which starred his younger brother Ben, now 26. He also continued to act, landing parts on the short-lived sitcoms Working and Crumbs. Along the way, he reconnected with Jenny Stone, a longtime family friend from Glencoe, Ill., who had moved west in 1998 to pursue a career in the commercial real estate business. "Back home she was the celebrity, not me," says Savage of his wife, whom he recalls as a pretty and popular junior high schooler before he left the Midwest with his parents Lew, a real estate executive, and Joanne, a homemaker, to pursue an acting career.
At first, Savage even tried to fix Stone up with a pal, but soon they began dating and wed in August 2004. Still, it's only been recently that Jenny Savage has become a Wonder Years fan. "I never watched the show when it was on the first time," she says. "But a couple of months ago, in reruns, I saw a beautifully poignant episode about Kevin arguing with his mother, and Fred walked in on me crying my eyes out!"
But it was Savage's makeup job in a comic bit part—as the Mole in 2002's Austin Powers in Goldmember—that Day Camp's star, Cuba Gooding Jr., thought of when he first met him. "I had forgotten his face," recalls Gooding Jr., who says Savage was the first person he interviewed for the job of directing the sequel to Eddie Murphy's 2003 comedy Daddy Day Care. "But I remembered that big old mole."
Savage got the job on the spot. It didn't hurt that he knows a thing or two about working with child actors. "Watching Fred direct these 47 little kids [in Day Camp], he'd be laughing and smiling, then he'd yell, 'Action!' and become this little tyrant," says Gooding Jr. "But when it comes to the father-son relationship, this movie has more heart than the original. Fred delivers that."
At home, he's all heart, too. "From the start, Fred's been a hands-on dad," says Jenny Savage. "He takes Ollie with him wherever he goes, feeds him and changes him." But if the couple trade late-night shifts with the baby, one thing they don't quite see eye to eye on is when to get their son his first pet. "We'll see," says his mother. But Dad is already shopping around. "I know, I know, people say wait," says Savage with a smile. "But Ollie already loves dogs. How can we not get him one?"