At just 11 years old, Ben Savage landed the role of Cory Matthews, the titular character on Boy Meets World that would define his career. After seven years of oversized flannel shirts, an epic romance with Danielle Fishel’s Topanga (or Corpanga, as Tumblr now knows them), and endless words of wisdom from next-door neighbor turned perpetual teacher Mr. Feeny (William Daniels), the ABC primetime series came to an end and Savage and the rest of the cast and crew said good-bye to the Philadelphia family that felt like their own.
That is, until a year ago, when it was announced that Disney Channel would continue the story of Cory and Topanga — now married with children — the eldest of which, Riley Matthews (Rowan Blanchard), will be the new focus of spin-off series Girl Meets World. For some, it would be a strange feeling to revisit a character he or she left behind more than a decade ago. But for Savage, it was like coming home. “It’s the same exact executive producer, it’s the same writers, it’s the same cast, and it even comes down to — in typical Cory fashion, which is also typical Ben fashion — the same script supervisor that we had since the beginning of Boy Meets World. We even have some of the exact same crew,” the now 33-year-old actor told BuzzFeed. “I did everything I could to make sure we had some of the same people. To turn around and see people who have known you and supported you for years, it’s a great thing.”
Savage won the part of Cory 20 years ago after meeting with co-creator and executive producer Michael Jacobs. “I had met with Michael when I think I was 11. I just remember going to meet with him at his offices at Disney in Burbank,” he recalled of the life-changing encounter. “I remember us talking and hitting it off and one thing kind of led to another and 20-some-odd years later, here we are.”
Here, of course, is Girl Meets World, where Savage now plays grown-up Cory, a New York City middle school history teacher (cue the Feeny-homage aww’s) for Riley and her best friend Maya’s (Sabrina Carpenter) seventh-grade class. He and Topanga, who owns an after-school hangout that specializes in pudding, also have a younger son named Louis (August Maturo). Though using the same script supervisor should help with any consistency issues between Boy Meets World and its spin-off, it bears mentioning that in Season 1 of the original series, 11-year-old Cory had a different idea as to what he and Topanga would name their hypothetical offspring (see right). “Unfortunately, they’re not Chewbacca and Plankton,” Savage said, laughing. “However, I’m sure we’ll address that at some point.”
Savage said he, Fishel, and Jacobs, who is serving as the executive producer of Girl Meets World as well, talked a lot before agreeing to sign on for the Disney Channel series. “We just wanted to make sure that we were doing this properly and that we were doing it for the right reasons and that we weren’t going to hurt the legacy of the show,” Savage said. “I think once we kind of checked off all the things on our checklist, the choice was easy, but there was a lot to talk about and there were weeks of discussions. But it all came together.”
As for playing a father of two, Savage is still adjusting. “It’s weird that I’m a dad with kids,” he said. “It’s just an interesting change because I have no children, so it’s been an interesting shift. But I think I’m getting some good practice.” Nor is this exactly where Savage thinks Cory would’ve been in his early thirties. “For some reason, I always thought of Cory as someone who’d move into a retirement community at, like, 20 years old and be perfectly content to spend the next 80 years eating Jell-O. But is that realistic? Probably not. I think this is a nice transition … It’s a great storyline and I think it makes sense. But between us, I think Cory would still much rather live in an old-age home and play bocce ball all day. But I’m sure he does that on the weekends anyway.”
Cory was basically a senior citizen out of the womb, and so is Savage, he said. “He just kind of was very happy sitting at home, watching TV, eating cake, and being with his wife, or girlfriend at the time,” the not-yet-middle-aged actor said. “I think Cory was just kind of a grouchy, neurotic, but lovable old man from the time he was, like, 12, and that’s kind of how I am as well — just very settled, and very comfortable, and not really into change. I mean, the character was pretty much me, so everything hit close to home.”
Savage and Cory are so intertwined (though there are some notable exceptions. “I always liked having curly hair,” he said), and became more so over time. “The writers knew us so well, especially in the later years, they kind of tailored the characters and the writing toward us,” Savage said. And the things Mr. Feeny said to Cory clearly resonated with Savage himself as well. “His last line of the whole series to us, which was, ‘Believe in yourselves. Dream. Try. Do good,’ I’ll always remember that moment and I’ll always remember filming that scene. And I’ll just always remember how we all felt — everyone was crying … And I guess it was just someone kind of closing the door on my childhood and kind of saying, ‘Time to grow up now,’” the actor remembered. “Feeny was just a wise, solid, wonderful influence on Cory’s life and on all of our lives, really.”
Of course, there are many things from Cory’s earlier years that have resonated with fans as well, including his pronunciation of the word “underpants” (as “undapants”). When asked how he decided upon his delivery for the now legendary Boy Meets World Season 6 scene when Cory finds Topanga and his best friend Shawn (Rider Strong) sitting in a coffee shop in his boxers, Savage can’t help but laugh…a lot. “I think the writers gave us a lot of leeway and a lot of room to play in the show. And so we played and we just had a ball. And I think that Cory would’ve said,” he paused, almost embarrassed to say the word, “‘underpants’ like that so that’s how I said it. I don’t know what I was thinking and I probably wasn’t thinking at all, but I was just having fun when we were shooting and I probably had had too much sugar that day or something and I think I just said it like that. And it’s definitely stuck with people.”
Boy Meets World had a very vocal fan base online, perhaps even louder than Savage and Co. realized while the original series was on the air since Tumblr and Twitter didn’t exist at the time. And that was evidenced by the explosive internet reaction to the Girl Meets World news and all that has followed, including a panel at the ATX Television Festival in Austin, Texas, this past summer and an Entertainment Weekly cover in October.
Though Savage is on Twitter, he has had a bit of trouble adapting to the golden age of technology, as one might predict considering his born-an-old-man status. “The girls on the show make fun of me a lot. I think they think I’m a huge nerd, but what can I say? I’m definitely not as cool as they are. They’re so good with their phones, and when we shot the pilot, I had a BlackBerry, and boy, did they [make fun of me],” he said. “They just think I’m from a different generation, but I am. They literally don’t understand a world before Twitter, so everything that happens has to be posted online. The hashtagging and the this and the that. Oh my gosh. Everything is so LOL, but it’s so not LOL … No one laughs out loud ever! When someone writes, ‘Hahahahaha,’ I don’t believe that they’re laughing that much. Maybe one ha, maybe two, but not 12,” he continued, launching into what sounded like signature Cory Matthew rant.
“I’m the most naive person. I don’t know. Still, I live in L.A. and I just don’t understand anything. I’m (ehh),” he said, uttering a perfect grandpa-esque moan. “Modern technology, you gotta be fast. I mean, people get angry if you don’t text them back right away. But I don’t want to sit on my phone all day and text … And then, if you’re dealing with someone particularly interesting, they’ll wait as long as you waited to text you back. But what if you were working? So they text you at 1 p.m. and you’re working so you don’t text them back till like 7 or 8 p.m. Ohhh, forget it! They may not text you till the next morning! I guess that’s a generational thing. I put my phone down and then work. But if you don’t have your phone attached at the hip, people get very offended.”
Clearly, Savage has the dad schtick down. And he’s ready to bring the Boy Meets World phenomenon to a younger generation, despite being a bit disconnected from it. “I don’t want our fans to be disappointed if Girl Meets World isn’t exactly like how Boy Meets World was, because we’re really creating a show for a new generation of fans and a younger generation of kids,” he said. “Hopefully, we can create seven more years of memories for a brand-new generation.”
Boy Meets World: The Complete Collection arrives on DVD on Tuesday, Nov. 5, from Lionsgate Home Entertainment.