December 1999/January 2000
"Ben Meets World"
As Ben Savage tools around Los Angeles in his BMW convertible, grooving to the greatest hits of ‘70s R&B singer Bill Withers, a megawatt smile crosses his face. “I love this song,” he says. “It just makes you feel good.” He’s talking about “Lovely Day,” that snappy number from those shut-up-and-dance Gap khaki “soul” ads on TV. And if there’s anything the 19 year-old star of Boy Meets World loves, it’s a tune that goes for the soul. “I’m inspired by music,” he continues. “Sometimes more than I want to be.”
Ben is obviously a romantic – which means you can expect him to pull out all the emotional stops this season when his TV character, Cory, ties the knot with his longtime girlfriend, Topanga (played by Danielle Fishel). “These characters still have a lot to go out and do,” says Ben. But if you can find someone you love and have such a strong connection with, it’s understandable that after all this time they’d get married.”
With Cory embracing holy matrimony, Ben also has embarked on the tricky transition from boy to man – by becoming master of his domain. Parking in front of his very first bachelor pad which is actually the guest house behind his family’s San Fernando valley home, Ben steps inside and points out several shelves of CDs. (His massive collection includes everything from The Smashing Pumpkins to Van Morrison to Cat Stevens.) The place may be a hand-me-down from his big brother, Fred, 23 (former star of The Wonder Years and Working), but it’s all Ben. “He keeps it a lot neater than I did,” says Fred. “My parents keep reminding me of that.”
Since moving in last year, Ben has made the spacious studio his own by adorning the walls with his favorite semiobscure poems and philosophical quotes. Still, he says, “My friends tell me I should get my own apartment. But I have the best situation. I’ve got my own entrance, my own refrigerator, free rent, free everything.”
And ideal neighbors in his parents, Lew and Joanne, both accounting headhunters, and, occasionally, sister Kala, 21, an English major at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “I have a nice relationship with them,” says Ben. “My parents were always there for me.” They were happy to encourage their sons when the acting bug bit Fred and Ben. At the tender age of six, the latter landed his first gig: a commercial for Costco. “All I had to do,” he says, “was sit in the pool and give a big smile.”
Soon he was flashing that killer grin on the West Coast, where the Chicago-based family moved after Fred got a starring role on The Wonder Years in 1988. Slowly, Ben, like Fred, began to thrive in Hollywood, nabbing a recurring part in 1989 on the NBC sitcom Dear John and a featured role in the 1993 miniseries Wild Palms. At age 13, he was chosen to play Cory Matthews on Boy Meets World. “I want to say that I’m doing some Shakespearean acting,” he says of his breakthrough role as a Beaver Cleaver for the ‘90s. “But I’m really just being myself.”
Cory, though, had it easier in high school than his real-life alter ego. “I sort of felt on the outside,” says Ben. Most of the time, he was making it to Brentwood High School only about one week a month due to his work schedule. (He was also tutored on the set.) “I was changing physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially,” says Ben. “And I was depressed a lot.” He was also stubbornly independent. “A lot of the problems teenagers go through,” he says, “it’s better for them to go through them on their own. If you always have a crutch, you don’t learn anything.” Time helped ease his growing pains. “My junior and senior years were a lot better,” he says, “because I was more comfortable with myself.”
Since graduating from high school in 1998, Ben says he has twice had to defer his acceptance to Stanford University in California (Fred’s alma mater) in order to stick with Boy Meets World. But he’s intent on going eventually. “I’ve told him, ‘Go to college,’” says Fred. “I mean, aside from education, it’s so great to go and be with kids. Like I did, he spends so much time on the set. It’s just great to go away where you don’t have to be anything but a young college guy.”
Ben has the smarts to excel there. An avid writer, he credits his 11th grade English teacher, Ms. Davis, for broadening his academic horizons. “She said, ‘Just write whatever comes to you, and don’t worry about all the rules,’” he says. “She liberated me from the whole high school structure thing.”
Ms. Davis isn’t the only woman to change Ben’s outlook, though. Last year, his world was rocked by his first love. “We were very romantic, very into holding each other and listening to Sarah McLachlan,” he says. “We fulfilled all those things that everyone always says you should do, like walks on the beach.” The couple recently downgraded their relationship to “just friends” for reasons that Ben considers too personal to divulge. He and his TV sweetie, Danielle Fishel, are more than willing, however, to tell about their six-year relationship. “I had the biggest crush on him at first, and I think maybe he liked me back, but he didn’t know how to handle it,” says Danielle, 18. “Now, we’re the best of friends. We talk about everything. I seriously trust him with my life.” Says Ben: “She’s the person that I feel most comfortable talking to, and we have a lot of fun.”
Lately, he’s been focusing on another bond. “My dad and I used to argue a lot; then something brought us together,” he says. He credits music, particularly “Walk Like a Man” by Bruce Springsteen: “so much has happened to me/That I don’t understand/All I can think of is being five years old following behind you at the beach/Tracing your footprints in the sand/Trying to walk like a man.”
“How amazing is that?” Ben asks after quoting the lyric. “It’s so good.” Jumping back into his Beemer, he once again cranks up Bill Withers. “Lovely day. Lovely day,” Withers sings. For Ben, it certainly is.
"Out of This World"
If you think that Danielle Fishel is anything like Topanga Lawrence, the brat she plats on the ABC hit series Boy Meets World, think again. From her beliefs on higher education to her views on guys, even to her taste in shoes (platforms are a must-have), everything about Fishel is decidedly non-Topanga. Well, almost. Fishel, 17, was an admittedly much shyer 12 year-old when she was cast as a guest star on Boy Meets World five years ago. “I was really excited because it was my first serious job,” she recalls. Despite her self-consciousness about her character’s “weird traits,” Fishel played Topanga, the smart yet slightly overbearing girlfriend of Cory Matthews (Ben Savage), with enough style and conviction to become a permanent cast member. Now, as the series enters its sixth season, Fishel is among the ranks of other television personalities (Rhoda, Dharma) who are referred to simply by their character’s first name. And with a name like Topanga, there’s no need to explain why.
The exuberant, petite blond (she’s 5’1”), arrives at Seventeen’s photo shoot dressed in skintight bell-bottom blue jeans, her signature platform shoes and a nondescript T-shirt. Fishel warms up to the beauty patrol )a hairstylist and a makeup artist) and makes a point of telling the hairstylist how she thinks her hair looks best (on the set, she barely lets the ABC groomers touch a strand). “I always do my own,” she says matter-of-factly. From her hair to the BMW storylines, Fishel has an opinion on ho things should be done. Take Topanga, for instance: “I have a real problem with her being a nag,” Fishel says with some displeasure, “and she’s completely codependent on Cory.” Topanga’s decision to pass up an opportunity to go to Yale University to stay close to Cory is something Fishel, at an L.A. public high school, frowns upon. “I don’t necessarily agree with her decision, but maybe it was the best thing for Cory and Topanga,” she says. But Fishel is quick to stick up for Topanga, especially in regard to last season’s controversial cliff-hanger, where Topanga proposed to Cory (now they’re engaged). “She’s strong in her beliefs, and she’s not just going to follow what everybody else thinks she should do,” says Fishel.
Fishel was equally determined to do what she wanted with her own life. She was resolute about becoming an actress and somehow managed, at age 10, to convince her mother that she was a star in the making. Using a list of talent agents given to her by a fifth-grade classmate who had done some modeling, Fishel started looking for work. Fishel’s parents allowed her to pursue her goal on one condition. “When I first got into the business my parents told me I would be allowed to act only if they didn’t see any signs of an attitude,” she says. She spent several years doing commercials, most notably for Mattel’s Barbie. “I was the Mattel girl for a year,” she says, smiling.
At home she was behaving like – well, one of the boys. Fishel is an avid football player. “I’ll go out with any group of guys and play football on the pavement,” she boasts. Her favorite teams: the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers. When she’s not being tackled by big burly men, she loves to chill with – get this – her mom and manager, Jennifer. “My mom is my best friend. We do everything together.” Mother and daughter are going shopping after the shoot but Fishel is quick to point out that they have a typical mother-daughter relationship. She’s broached the topic of moving out a few times with her mom, but so far, Mom’s not going for it. “It’s hard for any mother and daughter to go through a separation, but it’ll be harder [for us] because we’re so close,” Fishel says.
The entire Fishel clan is close-knit. Her father, Rick, is a medical salesman; Danielle’s 13-year-old brother, Christopher, is a bass guitarist player in a local band who has also been bitten by the acting bug. A menagerie of animals, including Cassidy (a husky-Lab mix), Tyson (a long-haired Chihuahua) and a rat named Lacer, complete the cast of characters. Fishel plays the role of good older sis to perfection, often rehearsing scenes with Christopher or offering him sage Hollywood advice. “It’s bonding time for us,” she says. Nightly family are a must at the Fishel household, and unlike Topanga, who might roll her eyes at an outdated custom, Fishel actually looks forward to it.
Fishel’s family may be the most important thing to her, but boys come in a very close second. Fishel’s most recent relationship started on the set of BMW. The lucky guy: Matthew Lawrence (Jack Newman), who escorted her to his senior prom last year. “If we weren’t working together, we’d still be dating,” she says. “You know, we were like so crazy about each other, but at the same time, it made things really tense [at work] because when you’re with somebody, you can’t turn your back [on them], and yet you have to. Because you’re not going to be a couple while you’re being professional.” She still considers him her best friend. “When I’m hanging off the set, the person I’m with the most is Matt,” she says. “He’s an awesome guy.” Fishel currently describes herself as “extremely single,” but has cultivated a rather, um, intense interest in all thing Leonardo DiCaprio (she has never met the actor). “I know everything about him,” she says unabashedly. “He is the most fascinating actor in the world to watch.”
Fishel is looking forward to the future, in and beyond her career. “We joke the BMW has become Saved By the Bell: The College Years!” she says, laughing. She also says the show’s success is bittersweet. “We can’t stay in high school for, like, eleven year, so we have to move on.” Big plans on her agenda include college (first choice: UCLA), where she hopes to study psychology. Marriage and having children are much further down the line. Right now, Fishel says she has an important gig lined up in the very near future: her high school prom. Fishel leans over and gushes “I’m so excited about going! I’ve already started looking for dresses!” Ah, but the real question is, Will she wear her trademark platforms?
For struggling college students, Jack (Matthew Lawrence) and Eric (Will Friedle) have a pretty stylish loft. The two have been roommates on ABC’s Boy Meets World for almost three years now. “I think the apartment was probably decorated before Jack and Eric moved in,” says Will. “Two teenage guys could not do that to save their lives.” (Actually, Will is 22; Matt’s 19.) Will is right – the loft was designed by set decorator Larry Wiemer, who rents must of the cool furniture (like the vintage leather couch) from Los Angeles prop houses. He also shopped at Pier 1 Imports for the dishes, and Ikea for the gray chest of drawers.
Sure, the apartment looks cozy enough, but it would look pretty frustrating to crash in: The cereal has been there for months, the “patio” outside the back doors doesn’t really exist, and the aquarium is full of wooden fish on sticks. “We haven’t named the fish, in case, God forbid, they die,” says Will. And most important, there’s nowhere to sleep. “We’ve been in the apartment three years and have never even seen the bedrooms,” says Matt.
With only one real room on the set, things have gotten even more crowded for the boys since Rachel (Maitland Ward) moved in last fall and hooked up with Jack. While things get pretty tense for Jack and Eric, Matthew and Will are still the best of friends. They hang out a lot off the set, but both agree that a real-life bachelor pad would not be a good idea. “I think we’d kill each other. He’s one of my best friends, but we’re so different,” says Will. “In all fairness, I don’t think I could live with anyone, so it’s not just Matt.”
"I'm coming out of a funk," Danielle Fishel confesses. The actress, now in her seventh season as Topanga Lawrence, the brainy girlfriend of Ben Savage on ABC's Boy Meets World, recently split with her beau of eight months, Lance Bass, 20, a member of the band 'N Sync. "Our schedules were just too crazy," says Fishel, 18, at home in her tidy three bedroom L.A. condo. "I needed affection, and it's hard to get it on the phone."
At least she's getting some attention. This month, Fishel makes her debut on film (as a catty cheerleader in Jack of All Trades) and in print (with Girl Gets Real: A Teenager's Guide to Life). Her success comes as no surprise to her costar. "Most young girls can relate to her," says Savage, 19. "She has turned Topanga from a hippie flower child into someone who is reality-based. Danielle is like that."
Fishel, who grew up in Yorba Linda, Calif., with her brother Chris, now 14, aced her first audition at age 10 -- for a doll commercial -- and went on to sitcom guest shots before landing the past of Topanga in 1993. She credits her parents, Rick, a medical equipment sales exec, and Jennifer, her manager, both 41, for keeping her grounded. "They said if my career changed me in any way -- wrong crowd, drugs -- they would rip me out of the business so fast." Not to worry. Fishel, who graduated from high school last June and soon will start taking courses at UCLA, says, "I don't smoke, I don't drink, I don't do drugs. I shop, okay? The worst thing I do is buy shoes." Indeed, her closet contains an Imeldaful: 130 pairs.
TV Guide - Feb. 28, 1998
"Girl Meets World"
It's another day in history class for the 16-year-old Californian, except when the teacher fires off questions about Marcus Garvey or the Palmer Raids, Fishel doesn't have to raise her hand. She's the only student. This is the classroom for the ABC comedy Boy Meets World (Fridays, 9:30 P.M./ET), tucked into a corner of the CBS Studio City lot where Fishel is tutored surrounded by an insect terrarium and Polaroids of her fellow cast members.
Fishel's school routine may be markedly different from the average American teenager's, but at work she gets to at least pretend to be normal, portraying the ups and downs of Topanga, girlfriend to Ben Savage's Cory (the Boy of Boy Meets World).
Fishel tries to achieve some semblance of normalcy in her own life too. After a 6 A.M. wake-up, three to five hours of classes and as much as nine and a half hours on the set, she attempts to squeeze in workouts, time with friends (even if it's often spent on-line) or, recently, her regular high school's winter formal, where she wore a dress purchased during a personal appearance at Minnesota's Mall of America. Fishel also writes a column for 16 magazine, contributes to her own web site and just released a calendar and poster.
Pretty heavy stuff for a kid who just wanted to give acting a whirl. In fact, Fishel's parents -- Rick, director of business development for a Los Angeles medical equipment company, and Jennifer, who serves as Danielle's manager -- still have reservations about show business. "From the very beginning," Fishel recalls, "they said I could pursue it if I wanted to, but if it ever became anything other than just great for me they were going to take me out of it." ar, so great. Fishel's early career included a series of commercials as a smitten Barbie owner, two episodes of Full House and one of Harry and the Hendersons. On Boy Meets World, Fishel first was cast in a minor role, but made such an impression during rehearsal that she not only was given the role of Topanga, she spurred the show's producers to make her a central character.
Originally, playing Topanga was a bit of a stretch. "I'm, like, little miss cheerleader," says Fishel, delivering the assessment with a self-mocking singsong lilt, "and Topanga was a total flower child." So much so that her dad was played by Peter Tork of the Monkees. This also explains how a girl from Philadelphia came to be named Topanga (also, "Scranton" just didn't have the same ring to it).
The part has evolved into more of a "typical girl," Fishel says, and she has evolved with it. "Most people get to go through their gawky awkward stage by themselves," she laments. "The whole nation got to go through mine." Topanga is both the show's primary female point of view and a daffy straightwoman to Cory. Still the couple's relationship is surprisingly serious for a pair of teenagers. "They're 17, but they sort of have the emotions of 30-year-olds," Savage says. "They are a role-model couple," adds the show's executive producer, Michael Jacobs. "They genuinely are in love, and they're best friends. I think it shows the audience that the potential to find a loving relationship can come at any age, and if it does, to hold on."
The romance has definitely been an inspiration to young viewers. On her Celebrity Sightings web site www.celebritysightings.com, an umbrella heading that contains the official home pages for a number of young stars, including Home Improvement's Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Fishel gets bushels of mail from teens looking for relationship advice, as well as exercise and diet tips. Fishel augments the site with snapshots (her family vacation, her new Toyota 4 Runner and that winter formal) and frequently logs on for virtual chats. Sometimes she'll mingle openly as "DanielleCS"; other times she and Thomas have been known to lurk incognito. Fishel prefers her own page to the 30-odd other web sites devoted to her, mostly created by admiring teenage boys.
That's one of the dilemmas of Fishel's young career: serving as a celebrity crush object while remaining a somewhat wholesome adolescent. She'll wear a belly shirt or short skirt in her calendar, but she has to draw the line somewhere. "People who are fans want that kind of stuff," she says, "but I'm 16. It was not going to be a Playboy calendar."
Even a pinup model is subject to the usual teen yearnings. Fishel would like to attend UCLA, perhaps to major in psychology. At the same time, she would love to break into movies. But she admits there is an ulterior motive to her Hollywood aspirations. "I am obsessed with David Letterman," she says. "I need to become famous just so I can go on his show." Okay -- the ball's in your court, Dave.