Long before he became a star on Discovery Channel’s explosive-and-hypnotic show “Mythbusters,” Adam Savage was just a red-headed kid tooling around Philipse Manor on his banana-seat bike in what was then North Tarrytown.
“Sleepy Hollow Bicycle was a fixture when I was a kid,” says the 1985 graduate of Sleepy Hollow High School. “I got a 10-speed when I was about 12 or 13 and I kept getting flats. I brought it to them and they fixed a few of them and then they were like ‘Let us show you how to fix a flat so you don’t have to keep coming in.’
“I realized you could take a bike apart and put it back together and it wasn’t that hard,” he says. “I’ve been building and putting bicycles together since then.”
A self-described “lifelong generalist,” Savage brings a tinkerer’s curiosity and a lot of science to his work, whether it’s designing toys, costumes or models — or figuring out how to blow things up on “Mythbusters.”
He has built models for movies (“Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones,” “The Matrix Reloaded”) and has had his brief share of screen time, too.
He was Mr. Whipple’s stockboy, Jimmy, in a Charmin TV commercial, played a boy saved by a burly lifeguard in the 1985 Billy Joel video “You’re Only Human (Second Wind),” and appeared, with his “Mythbusters” co-star Jamie Hyneman, in the Joseph Fiennes-Winona Ryder film “The Darwin Awards,” a movie Savage says was better on the page than in execution.
Whatever the endeavor, Savage brings the same impulsive, energetic passion he has brought to nine seasons of “Mythbusters,” a perfect counterpoint to his more taciturn mustachioed co-star.
He now lives in San Francisco, but has fond memories of growing up in the Tarrytowns, a place where history and the contemporary live side by side.
“My prevailing memories of my childhood are wandering around the Rockefeller property following the Pocantico River miles inland,” he says. “We also grew up going to the Philipsburg Manor Restoration, which was literally at the end of my block practically. And right across the street from Philipsburg Manor is the Old Dutch Church, the oldest operating church in the United States. Except for a period in the Revolutionary War, it’s been open since 1640. That kind of deep history was a lovely thing to grow up with.”
Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was “sort of in my DNA” as a kid, he says. “It comes with the territory.”
Philipse Manor was ideally suited to Halloween, he says.
“It was 11 blocks long and four blocks wide and had really big streets. I don’t remember ever leaving Philipse Manor on Halloween, even when I was in high school. I just remember the neighborhood itself was kind of like Bedford Falls, and really iconic for Halloween.”
It was an idyllic place for Savage, a kid who loved wearing costumes.
“I remember my mom getting me a ‘Jaws’ costume when ‘Jaws’ came out,” he says. “And wearing a Batman costume. Back then, everyone dressed up as hobos.”
Savage was always after authenticity.
“My sophomore year in high school, my dad and I built a suit of armor for me out of roofing aluminum — you know, flashing — and it had 700 rivets,” he says, with pride in his voice, then adds with a laugh: “I wore it to school and passed out from heat exhaustion in math class. I woke up in the nurse’s office and the first thing I said was ‘Where’s my armor?’”
Nearly 30 years later, Savage is still at it, making exact replicas of movie wardrobe and showing up — anonymously, in costume — on the exhibition floor at the Comic-Con convention to the delight of attendees.
“I always walk the floor in costume and I still feel just as conflicted and slightly embarrassed by it as I did when was in high school, and yet I’m still totally drawn to it,” he says. “And now I can afford some pretty nice costumes so I always put together something pretty special.”
This year, he was the spooky character No Face from Hayao Miyazaki’s anime film “Spirited Away.”
He tells a great story about how that costume led him to re-evaluate Comic-Con in a way.
“I’m a huge Miyazaki fan and No Face is one of my favorite characters and I made this intensely awesome No Face character. I’m walking around Comic-Con, no one knows it’s me. I hear people saying, ‘Oh, it’s No Face.’ And every 10 seconds, someone asks to take a picture with me, and I have a pouch with gold coins and, just like No Face, I give out coins to everyone who asks for a picture.
“The little Japanese girls who were most freaked out to see No Face would hand me back the gold coins because it’s bad luck to take coins from No Face. How cool is that?
“I came to a new conclusion about Comic-Con this year. Comic-Con is a cultural mecca and a locus of different genres and mediums. But what I was doing with those girls was a type of theater that was really different. They show up ready to play and I play and they play further and it snowballs. It’s wonderful. That’s all brought about by putting on the costume, by being anonymous.”
In years past, he has been a “Star Wars” Storm Trooper and Hellboy.
“Whenever I put one of these together, I put it together with as much accuracy as is humanly possible,” Savage says. “That’s one of the things I find really pleasurable.”
No matter how long it takes.
“For me, it’s meditation,” he says.
Savage grew up seeing movies.
“The first movies I saw were at The Strand on Beekman, back when it was an actual movie theater,” he says. “But my parents would take us to see inappropriate films all over Westchester County. I was raised on a steady diet of inappropriate European sex comedies at the Scarsdale Fine Arts cinema. That’s where I saw ‘La Cage Aux Folles’ and ‘Cousin, Cousine.’”
When not watching the big screen, Savage had a connection to the small screen: His dad created animated shorts for “Sesame Street.”
“My favorite, and his most famous one, was about Harry who likes to eat his lunch high in the sky,” Savage says. “It’s a long, 30-second story and you see Harry climbing girders and going up in elevators, ladders and stairs all the way to the top of a building under construction. He has gone up to the top to have lunch and when he finally gets up there, you see birds fly by and someone yells up from the ground, ‘Haaaarrrrry! You forgot your luuuuunnnnch!’ That’s absolutely my dad’s sense of humor right there.”
His sister, Kate Savage, is an artist in her own right.
“She’s an incredible artist, painting, drawing, sculpture,” he says. “She has an impeccable eye. I’m one of her biggest fans.”
So it’s Savage in the wetsuit being whipped across the surface of a pond to test out whether it’s possible to walk on water. And it’s Savage donning pontoon-like “ninja boots” to test the same hypothesis.
His open-mindedness is charming. At one point, after taking a rather mortifying face plant in a swimming pool, he declares: “If I had any dignity that would have been humiliating.”
All in a day’s work, in search of humor in the service of science.
“I learned a long time ago that my favorite actors were comedians,” he says. “I also noticed that my favorite comedians showed me that being genuinely funny was also being genuinely willing to be humiliated. You got something by giving up your dignity. You got a deeper dignity. I’ve really tried to have a fidelity to that on the show.”
He’s the 44-year-old father of twin 12-year-old boys.
“I try to tell them my experiences and I try to remember my experiences through what they’re doing,” he says. “You always see what your kids are doing and remember what it was like for you. It’s a little different because my kids are so much cooler than I ever was.”
Truth be told, Savage is a lot cooler now than he ever was, managing in “Mythbusters” to make science cool and blow things up in the process.
“Yes, I didn’t achieve coolness till my mid-40s,” he says.
Photo courtesy Discovery Channel: Host Adam Savage on the set of the Discovery Channel series “Mythbusters.”
By the numbers
Here are a few fun facts about “Mythbusters,” new episodes of which are on Discovery Channel at 9 p.m., Wednesdays:
12: tons of explosive used
128: vehicles destroyed
759: myths tested (425 busted, 179 confirmed, 155 plausible)