Judy Savage has been representing child actors for 30 years, heading up the Savage Agency, the longest-running youth-focused talent agency to withstand being gobbled up by one of the major firms. But if you turned the clock back and asked a younger Judy what she wanted to be when she grew up, you’d get a very different answer.
Like a real-life Juno McGuff, Savage faced an unanticipated pregnancy at age 16. She finished high school by correspondence, then earned a college degree in biology while raising three kids. In a sense, it was her eldest son, Mark, who chose Savage’s current career for her with his desire to perform onstage at a young age.
A natural entertainer, Mark landed a part in the road company of “Mame,” starring Celeste Holm in the role originated by Angela Lansbury. When the young actor was called to Los Angeles to appear in the show opposite Lansbury herself, the move prompted Savage to recast her family’s destiny and focus on showbiz.
“I realized we were all having so much fun,” Savage recalls from behind a large desk in her cozy Hollywood office. “So we sold our house in Detroit and moved to L.A. We had no jobs, but I had written ahead to agents, and after the first day, we had one. Three days later, the kids had jobs.”
What followed, besides divorce from the father of her children, was a whirligig life of casting calls, rehearsals and shoots, with all three of Savage’s children — not just Mark, but also Tracie and Brad — variously involved in stage shows, commercials and movies.
Mark, who today writes musicals and runs IT at the Savage Agency, continued performing through his teens, taking his final bow in a Florida production of “Hello, Dolly.” Brad, currently a marketing veep at NBC Universal, appeared in nine movies and 167 commercials by the time he was 11, pulling the plug on his acting career after 1984’s “Red Dawn.” Tracie made numerous guest appearances on TV series before becoming a news reporter, now at KFWB radio, but she still enjoys the occasional TV cameo.
“Tracie’s competition was fierce,” Savage says. “This is a much harder business for young girls because there are so many more of them trying out. There are twice as many things for boys and only half as many of them.”
Although Savage built her agency on the experience that came from being mother to three child actors, she initially met resistance from the very pros she already knew, rather than finding open doors. “Trying to get these casting directors who knew me as a mother, not as an agent, to see me as a professional wasn’t easy,” she recalls.
She persevered, though, buying a small bungalow on a side street in Hollywood for $40,000 and then setting up shop there in early 1978 — it remains the Savage Agency’s home to this day. “The first four or five years were horrible,” she acknowledges. “But each year, I’d do a little bit better.”
Early on, she made ends meet by flipping houses in the then-flush real estate market. She was also lucky enough to be solidly positioned for what she calls “the best years for children” in network TV — the1980s and the ’90s. “Think about all those ABC shows that featured kids, and those shows lasted for eight years each,” says Savage, who always puts kids’ interests first when signing new clients — which is more than can be said for many stage moms.
“I interview the parents and the kids very closely to make sure (acting) is a passion for the kids,” she says. “If the parents want it and the kids don’t, we don’t want them. If baseball’s your passion, play baseball. They need the passion and the look.”
Her protective, mother-hen quality comes across immediately in person — a plaque in her photograph-filled office proclaims, “Nothing you do for children is ever wasted,” and she backs up such sentiments by noting of her clients, “I’ve only had two kids who got into trouble. All the rest were clean and went to college.”
Her biggest foe seems to be the aging process — not just because her clients grow up and leave the business when they reach young adulthood, but also because those who continue acting tend to defect to larger agencies with more diverse portfolios.
“These big agents shower these kids with gifts and promises,” she says. “Lucas Grabeel (of “High School Musical” fame) is the exception.”
Yet even in her own niche, business can be cutthroat. “When I started, people didn’t poach,” she says. “We were all friends. We even informed each other when we were approached by one another’s clients. It’s much more competitive now.”
She attributes these changes largely to economic woes. “Because of the strikes, almost half our commercial business went away. And because California doesn’t give tax credits, we’re losing shows every year,” she explains.
Yet the news is far from all bad. Lately, Savage has been involved in what appears to be a mutually beneficial relationship with Paradigm, the large, Beverly Hills-based talent agency. “Paradigm didn’t want the hassles of a children’s department, so they came to us,” she says. “When I think somebody’s about to jump ship, they take a look, and if they take them on, we split the fees 50-50. Right now, we’re sharing Zach Mills.”
After 30 years of looking after others, Savage is finally thinking about looking after herself a bit more. She’s taken on a partner, Stella Alex, to whom she’s ultimately selling the Savage Agency.
“I’ll always be here if they need me,” Savage says. But she also is making time for things that her 30-year, full-time job didn’t always permit: gardening, seeing more of her grandchildren and teaching weekend seminars on the subject she knows best.
“I’m even thinking of starting a clothing line for older folks,” she adds. “You know, the population is aging.”