Ben Savage knows he’ll be known as Cory Matthews — the character he played on the beloved 1990s sitcom Boy Meets World — for the rest of his life. “People call me Cory most every day,” he says. “I was at Starbucks before coming here and they called me Cory. They nearly wrote ‘Cory Matthews’ on my cup. I’m destined to deal with this for the rest of my life, so I might as well embrace it.”
He’s embracing it so much that he happily signed on to reprise his childhood role in Girl Meets World, a new Disney channel show that focuses on Cory and his wife Topanga’s young daughter Riley as she navigates her way through middle school. In the grand Boy Meets World tradition of teachers being inappropriately close with their close with their students, Cory is her history teacher. The show premiers tonight at 9:45 p.m. on the Disney Channel.
We spoke with Savage about the legacy of Boy Meets World, reviving the show all these years later and the enduring mystery of what exactly happened to Minkus, Mr. Turner and all those other characters that vanished without a trace.
When the original show ended did you ever imagine it would go on to have such an enduring afterlife?
No. I was 19 at the time and had been on the show for seven years. I was really focused on going to college. I got into Stanford two years earlier, but had to defer. When the show ended I was tunnel-visioned about going to college and being a normal kid for a while. I didn’t expect I’d be sitting here 14 years later talking about it with you, but things took on a life of their own.
How was your college experience? You must have been surrounded by students that grew up with the show.
Stanford was full of so many accomplished kids and everyone was a champion in their own right just to get in there. Maybe it was an issue for a little bit, but after a couple of days everyone was like, “Oh, hi Ben.” Suddenly I wasn’t so cool. There was a kid across the hall from me that was a national wrestling champion. There was a girl across the hall that was a champion ice skater from Texas.
You interned for Arlen Specter, right?
I did. I was a political science major and I was interested in government and structure. Getting an internship in DC is really all about connections. I thought it would be a fun experience.
Did you think about making a career in politics?
Acting and politics are almost too similar. I don’t know…You have to be a very specific breed to do that.
When did you realize that Boy Meets World just wasn’t going away?
It took a little while. What’s interesting is that the kids who grew up watching the show are now in control. They took the show and enhanced it, really making it into a cult show. I mean, I was at Stanford with the founders of Google and Instagram. That’s the generation that grew up watching Boy Meets World. They’re in charge of media now, so they helped shape and grow the legacy of the show.
It was an interesting show because Cory was so normal. He wasn’t a jock or a nerd or a popular kid.
The word I use is “relatable.” We dealt with issues that kids go through and we made the character a relatable guy. That’s one of the things I’m most proud of about the show. We didn’t put dream models in front of the audience that said “worship us.”
You played him in a very neurotic way, sort of like a mini Woody Allen.
That was partially me because I’m built like an old guy. I’d be lying if I said that Woody Allen wasn’t one of my influences…that’s gonna get me in trouble. I really enjoy Woody Allen films. I’ll leave it there. I know the TMZ headline is gonna be “Woody Allen Is My Idol.” But I think that personal issues aside, he’s just brilliant. He’s just enriched film and the world so much.
How did the ball start rolling on Girl Meets World?
I had just gotten back from Austin City Limits a couple of years ago when I got a call from the executive producer who did Boy Meets World. He said he had an idea he wanted to talk to me about, and it just kept rolling from there.
Over the years we had been approached about ideas regarding a Boy Meets World reunion special or a little movie of the week or even a little skit on some show. Nobody wanted to do that because it might tarnish the legacy and goodwill we had built. One of the most important assurances I got was that it was going to be something new. We didn’t want to redo the old show over again. That would be fun for a minute, but then people would say, “Okay, we already saw the original. This is boring.” We wanted to tell a new story, but in the same framework and tenor as Boy Meets World.
Right. You can’t build an entire show around nostalgia.
Right, that just works for a one-hour special or something. That’s something Boy Meets World fans have been struggling with. This show was written and conceived for a whole new generation of kids. It’s been interesting since our generation is supposed to be the most tolerant and laid back generation, but they’re very protective of Boy Meets World and what it means to them. It’s so ingrained in their childhoods and there’s been a generation tug of war over who owns Boy Meets World. Have you seen the pilot?
OK. Well, the other thing we’ve been getting blowback from is, “I’ve seen the pilot and it’s not as good as Boy Meets World.” Well, if you judge a seven year show plus 14 years of buildup and hype, it won’t measure up. I think that Girl Meets World is a little seed and it’s going to grow. People forget that Boy Meets World took a little while to become the show that everyone loves. It took us a couple of episodes for us to find this show, so I hope our fans are patient with us and understand.
You’re bringing back many characters from the original show.
Yeah. We’re bringing back Mr. Feeny, Rider Strong who played my best friend Shawn, Cory’s parents, Minkus, who is the father of one of the girl’s best friends. We are definitely paying homage to the original show and doing it in a clever way that I think people will appreciate.
I saw that Mr. Feeny had a little cameo in the pilot. Will he be in more episodes?
I don’t know. I wish I could tell you and I’m not trying to be coy. He won’t be in any more this first season season. We’ll see what happens in the later seasons if we get picked up for more.
It’s nice you’re bringing Minkus back. He was one of the many characters that vanished without any explanation.
I was at TV Guide yesterday and they were like, “What happened to Topanga’s sister?” I was like, “Sorry?” I had no idea what they were talking about.
How about Mr. Turner? He was a major character, and then he crashed his bike in a season finale and you never saw him again.
I get in trouble whenever these questions come up because I wasn’t a writer. I was just paid to show up and act. I know there were some unresolved issues. The truth is that things get complicated in sitcoms. Sometimes people aren’t available or storylines change.
The timeline also got confusing. It seemed like you guys were done with high school awfully quickly.
We skipped a year. I started in sixth grade and suddenly we were in high school. The funny thing is that back in the 1990s you could get away with a lot more. There wasn’t the Internet, so people didn’t go onto fan forums and compare information. People come up to me all the time with these questions and I’m just like, “I’m sorry.”
It must have been surreal to find yourself back on set playing this character again after so many years.
It was. It’s really like revisiting an important part of your childhood. There’s an expression you can’t go home again, but this show is proving you can. I go to work every day and I see a lot of familiar faces because we have a lot of the same writers and crew members that worked on Boy Meets World. I keep having these deja vu moments where I’m like, “Gosh, Michael Jacobs is sitting here telling me I got a line wrong.” It gives me this flashback to being 14 or 15. It’s really incredible.
I’ve done a lot to replicate the experience of Boy Meets World as much as possible. I’m a creature of habit and a little superstitious, so I listen to the same music on the way to work I did back in the 1990s.
Third Eye Blind, Oasis, Counting Crows, Tori Amos. I remember going through this weird period of nostalgia earlier this year. I was listening to this Third Eye Blind song “Losing A Whole Year” while I drove to work, and I always used to listen to the band when we made the original show. I get out of my car, walk on set, and there’s Michael Jacobs and some of the writers from the original show. I see Danielle [Fishel] and our original script supervisor and even the studio teacher. They’re all back. It’s like I’m really replicating a part of my childhood.
I read you’re even bringing back Cory’s old bully.
Yeah, Harley Keiner. Michael Jacobs keeps saying that the door is wide open for all our former stars and guest stars to come back. What better place for the bully Harley Keiner to be these days than the janitor at the school? And he’s much more humbled and respectful of Cory Matthews.
Will your brother be back?
Will Friedle? Not the first season. We’re trying to get him back. We hope he comes to visit. We’ll see what happens. Hopefully in another season.