Though it’s been off the air for more than 20 years, The Wonder Years is one of those shows whose legacy has remained untarnished; you don’t hear many people looking back and saying it doesn’t hold up. Set against the backdrop of the tumultuous late Sixties, the ABC show focused on a suburban family — in particular, the growing pains of youngest son Kevin, played by Fred Savage. It may be the story’s universality that’s accounted for its ability to stand the test of time, or simply that, because the show only ran for six seasons and faded away before it burned out, the series retained a level of consistent quality throughout. Even its controversial 1993 finale, in which (spoiler alert) Kevin and Winnie part ways and a key character’s death is revealed, couldn’t dampen its long-term appeal.
It may not seem like it, but The Wonder Years was fairly unconventional for its time. For starters, the plot device of the narrator — a grown-up Kevin Arnold (voiced by Daniel Stern) looking back on his youth — was something brand new, as was the show’s single-camera format. Then there’s the fact that it was one of the first real pop-culture forces to capitalize on boomer nostalgia (The Big Chill notwithstanding). Children of the Sixties were only two decades or so removed from that period, and had just started looking back on the era; the series managed to do so without seeming schmaltzy or overly wistful.
Despite all this, the series has been mostly unavailable either on DVD or streaming services. Getting the rights to the music featured on the show (some 200 songs from artists like the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Percy Sledge, not to mention Joe Cocker’s iconic cover of “With a Little Help From My Friends”) proved expensive and difficult, and the less said about reruns cursed with poorly-chosen cover versions, the better. But that’s all about to change: This month, Time-Life is releasing a massive DVD box set of the series, with the original songs included. In the wake of that, we caught up with some of the series’ major players to get an oral history of the show, warts and all.
In the Beginning…
Neal Marlens (co-creator, The Wonder Years): We [Marlens and co-creator Carol Black] had done a television series [Growing Pains], and I think we learned a great deal from it. We had what was called an overall deal at New World Television, so we were basically paid to sit there and think of projects that we wanted to do.
I think the [creative] impetus came from our personal experience of having come of age in a period when there was so much turmoil in the world; and yet, the experience of being a middle-class suburban kid really wasn’t that much different than it was five or 10 years earlier. It’s just that it was in a whole new context as you got older and as the implications of that started to get closer and closer to home. It kind of stirred things up in a way that seemed like a really interesting time.
We sat down and wrote the pilot, and then walked upstairs to John Feltheimer’s office and said, “We’ve written this pilot. We think it’ll work as a series. How should we sell it?” ABC — with whom we had a pre-existing relationship because we had a series there before — was the first to say, “We want to do this.” They were the only ones, actually.
Fred Savage (Kevin Arnold): I had done a movie called Vice Versa, and Carol and Neal had seen it. Based on that, they wanted to meet me for Kevin Arnold. I was living in Chicago with my family — we didn’t know a lot about show business, but [my parents] knew that doing a TV show meant moving to Los Angeles, possibly for a long time. They were reluctant at first because of that, and then read the script and just loved it. So I went to L.A. with my dad for a night and I met Carol and Neal. We worked on the scenes a little bit, and that afternoon we went to ABC and I tested for the network.
Marlens: We knew that the success or failure would rest on the shoulders of finding a phenomenal 12-year-old kid. Every casting director we interviewed said, “Whether you hire us or not, you really need to see this kid Fred Savage in Chicago for the role of Kevin.” We flew him out and read him with the other actors — and it was a no-brainer. We had seen some kids who were pretty good, but whether the series would have been anything like what it turned out to be with Fred…I suspect not.
Danica McKellar (Winnie Cooper): I hadn’t been acting for very long at that point. By the time I was called in, they had been searching for several weeks for an actress to play Winnie, so I was part of a last-ditch effort to find someone. It came down to my sister Crystal, me and a third girl. It was going very quickly; the initial audition was on Thursday, and the callback was on Friday for starting work that Monday. On Friday, the third girl was eliminated. I remember seeing Fred at the table next to ours during a dinner break and I wondered if he was the actor we were going to read with. because I thought he was cute.
Alley Mills (Norma Arnold): In the pilot, the thing that stood out to me about the mother…it was the era right before my time, and my mother was not like Norma. She was working, she was an intellectual, she was a feminist. But my best friend’s mother was Norma. She was very, very smart, but she decided to support her husband and then she raised the family. So I put on a shirtwaist dress and pearls and sneakers, and I channeled her. That’s how I got The Wonder Years.
Dan Lauria (Jack Arnold): I literally couldn’t get in [to audition], but I was dating Joanna Kerns, who played the mom on Growing Pains. She said, “Did you get in for Neal and Carol’s series?” I said, “Nah, my agent can’t get me in.” She went in the next morning and called Neal, and she came out — “He wants to see you tomorrow at 10 a.m.” I went in with nine million other guys, and we auditioned, but I had a bit of an inside track. If it wasn’t for Joanna Kerns, I probably never would have gotten the show.
Mills: Olivia [D’Abo, who played Karen Arnold] was the first person I auditioned with. And when I walked into my audition, she had on no bra. She had pretty big boobs and no bra on. When we were reading I actually…she made me blush. She in my face with her boobs. Everybody in the room was howling! But it was sort of instant chemistry. That’s the kid that I used to be, but because I was being Norma at the time, she literally made my skin turn completely red.
Bob Brush (executive producer, writer, The Wonder Years): The brilliance of Neal and Carol’s show, the original concept, was the ability of setting the very small stories of a 12-year-old living in the suburbs and setting it against these gigantic world events — not to mention the third dimension, which is the narrator seeing it from all these years later with an idea of how all these events turned out.
Lauria: [The show] was well-written, it had real heart, but no other show had a narrator. And I said, “This is too good. They’re never going to let this fly.”
Marlens: We were [originally] thinking of doing a movie using a narrator, a retrospective look at the period we ended up looking at in The Wonder Years. Creatively, I think the impetus came from our personal experience of having come of age in a period when there was so much turmoil in the world.
Daniel Stern (Narrator): I’d never seen anything like it. When Neal and my agent were negotiating, he said there’s really no precedent except for My Mother the Car or something [laughs]. The narrator was so well-written. It was a full part; it didn’t feel like just a voiceover. Between that and the incredible soundtrack that the show had, it felt like a new way of telling a coming-of-age story.
“There’s Something About This Show That’s Different”: The Early Years
Marlens: [For the first season], ABC wanted to do 13 episodes, and I think we may have been the first writer-producers to go to the network saying, “We don’t think there’s enough time to do 13, so for the season order we’ll do six.” I think that’s one of the reasons the first six did work well, because we really put a lot of time and energy into crafting those. People always talk about how good the English television series are, and I think one of the reasons is they do these limited orders, and now it’s becoming increasingly common in the American television world. One of the reasons we haven’t done television since we’ve started having kids is because even doing bad television is very time-consuming; trying to do a half-decent TV show, forget about it.
Lauria: My one real contribution to the writing was at the very beginning, because I’m a veteran. I asked if Jack could be a veteran, and Neal and Carol said, “Oh, that’s a good idea.” When Bob Brush wrote that wonderful episode about Wayne’s friend going off to Vietnam and then when he came back — Bob called me up and said, “What was it like coming back?” I remember saying to him, “You know, the weirdest thing was, nothing fit. Not just the clothes, but nothing around, you know.” And then next thing I know he writes that thing where the kid takes off all his clothes, and he says to Wayne, “Nothing fits.”
Brush: The show premiered after the Super Bowl in 1988, and was an instant hit; after six episodes it won the Emmy. So it had that momentum from the very beginning.
Mills: The president of ABC, Brandon Stoddard, called us and said that [viewers] didn’t tune out after the Super Bowl; they stayed on, which is proof that they liked the show. Usually if they go out after the first commercial, the ratings drop. And I remember the number of people that told me that they saw it and that they really liked it. I just thought, “There’s something about this show that’s different.”
Josh Saviano (Paul Pfeiffer): I remember exactly where I was in my old house when the phone rang; my mom answered the phone, she handed it to me, and I was told that the show got picked up and it was extremely exciting. We were picked up for six episodes, a mid-season replacement, so it was like a very long movie where I had a big role in this very big movie.
Stern: It was the greatest job in show business ever. I’d wake up, I’d stay in my pajamas, I’d record the show, and I’d go back to bed [laughs]. I kept doing movies while I was doing it, so when I was in town I would go in before they shot the show, and I would record all of the narration. I carried that role as the show’s narrator with me wherever I went — I did it all over the world, actually.
Lauria: Skip Cook, our head grip, he made sure none of the crew members cursed when the kids were there. And we all treated them with respect as actors.
McKellar: The producers made sure that above all, we were kids first. They were very accommodating for important events in our lives. And they never rushed us; when there was an important emotional scene — there was one in every episode — they let us take our time. If we wanted to rehearse 10 times, we did.
Savage: Everyone took a lot of care to make sure it was a positive, upbeat set and a place where kids could feel welcome and enjoy themselves. I think all the producers took great pains to make sure — it was an environment that was safe and friendly and G-rated.
McKellar: Fred and Paul were the closest thing I had to brothers as I was growing up. They taught me what “pull my finger” means in addition to other charming tricks.
“I Was So Worried That I Was Sobbing”: The Second Phase
In 1989, after working on the show for 18 episodes, Marlens and Black left the show due to “personal issues”; Marlens declined to elaborate. Bob Brush was named executive producer.
Brush: I joined the show then after the first six episodes as kind of a co-executive producer, and then I was there the next season for the first 11 or 12 [episodes], and when Neal and Carol left, I took the show over at that point. It was mid-season, so it was a kind of a scramble to keep the show moving forward at that point.
Lauria: Initially, when Neal and Carol left, we were a little down about it. But Bob had been here. So we kind of felt like if anybody should take over it should be Bob.
Mills: Neal and Carol got carte blanche with this show; the president of ABC, Brandon Stoddard, loved them. Because of that they could make it however they wanted to make it. And [when they left] I was so worried that I was sobbing, and I think I was even screaming. I said, “You can’t do this! You can’t create something that could be really iconic and then bail!” But they had to. Bob Brush was new, he’d just come in, and I liked him, but I just didn’t think he was going to be able to handle it. But he was seamless. I don’t know how he did it; he kept the writing excellent, and he kept the quality of the show excellent.
Marlens: We didn’t really watch the show very much after we left. When you do something creative and you do it from a personal place, and then someone else comes in tries to continue and execute what it is you started — there are always going to be things that are very different from what you would have done. At the end of the day, I think the show worked, and that’s about all you can ask for. You either have to do it, or be happy with the way someone else does it.
Brush: Everybody was writing from their own childhood experiences. And of course, my job was to make sure these stories became universal in the telling. But I know for myself it was a tremendous experience to write about those old memories. As a matter of fact, I had a therapist that I was still talking with, and I had to finally give up the therapy because he was watching the show and he became convinced that I was Kevin Arnold. So he was analyzing Kevin Arnold at that point [laughs].
Savage: I never thought of myself as a star of a TV show. In a lot of ways, I still don’t. It was just something that I liked doing. And when people started to watch it and the show kinda grew, everyone had nothing but the most positive things to say. I was never overwhelmed with the responsibility of of it all. I was never treated that way by my friends or by my family or by the crew at work.
Saviano: It was a bit awkward because we were literally growing up on camera, so we were going through a lot of awkward stages — our voices were changing, and we were getting zits and pimples, and some of us were having kisses on television. I was going through those things at the same time. I didn’t have to act so much in certain instances; I could just do it because I had just experienced it like, three days ago.
“I Want My Money Back”: Some Favorite (and Not-So-Favorite) Episodes and Memories
Brush: We had one show where we went to the studio and asked to buy the rights to the Beatles’s Ed Sullivan appearance, which had never been on TV. We acquired that by pitching the show to the studio as that it was gonna be the show about rock & roll in the Sixties. But as it turned out, we didn’t really use the Beatles footage very well, and that episode was kind of mediocre when it came out. I had a call one day that Jon Feltheimer [the head of New World Entertainment] was on his way down to the studio, and he walked into my office and said, “I want my money back.”
Savage: I love the episode when the math teacher passes away. I just loved Steven [Gilbon], the actor who played the math teacher. While shooting that episode, my grandfather was very sick, and playing that out on the show was really meaningful to me.
Mills: We were sitting around that table that we always had for dinner, and we had mashed potatoes and turkey with gravy and Coke with straws. Fred always sat across the table from me. So whenever they were doing close-ups of Fred, I would always be behind the camera. It had been a very long day, and I could see that the kids were fried, so I put peas in my nose. And when they said “Action,” I shot the peas out of my nose into my Coke, and then I flipped some of the mashed potatoes onto Jason’s face. I wanted to see if we could get Fred to laugh or not laugh during his close-up [laughs].
Saviano: The most surreal moment that I can remember was the moment they announced The Wonder Years won that first Emmy. I was seated way, way in the back — further back than anyone else in the cast who was in the audience that night — but if you look at the footage, I’m pretty sure I was the first person to get to the stage. I literally sprinted from the back of the theater to the stage. Once I was off of that whirlwind conveyor belt of being on stage and going backstage and physically bumping into Michael J. Fox, we were being whisked into the back media room, with a parade of people taking pictures and asking questions. It became pretty clear that this would be a very unique experience.
“The Anticipation of That Kiss Nearly Killed Us Both”: Winnie and Kevin
Brush: Winnie Cooper was that person that we meet, that first love that we meet in that dewy-eyed, innocent time of our life, which is so powerful. The one we still think back on, and wonder where she is and how she did.
McKellar: I had my first kiss on that show. It was [Winnie’s] first kiss and my real-life first kiss, too. I had a crush on Fred and he had a crush on me. I think the anticipation of that kiss nearly killed us both.
Savage: Nobody really ends up with their first love. There are exceptions to the rule, but for the most part, we have our first love and it shapes us, and then we move on. Your first love can always be your first love if you didn’t end up together. But if you have three kids with her, and you have to figure out the carpool, it’s a whole different thing.
Brush: If you imagine that the narrator was Kevin Arnold one weekend in his 40s sitting around at halftime of a football game telling old stories of his friends, these stories about Winnie Cooper were not stories of the woman he had married. If Winnie were in the other room cooking dinner, I don’t think he’d be telling quite these stories.
McKellar: I was rooting for them [to stay together], but I also knew that The Wonder Years was a show about bittersweet memories so I wasn’t surprised when they didn’t end up together.
Savage: Kevin and Winnie obviously shaped each other in ways that will stay with them forever, but there’s more to their story than just the two of them and they moved to do other things. To me that felt very real — that bittersweet loss of something you wanted so badly.
“Everybody Was Upset”: The End of “Wonder”
Brush: I know that there’s a feeling in some quarters that it was an abrupt ending, but we knew it was time. From my point of view, I think we had a year more than we actually deserved. The Wonder Years was really about a specific time in life when you’re still young enough to believe in things like magic and the truth and all of those things. One of the jokes was that Fred’s voice was getting lower than Danny Stern’s voice. So from my point of view, the story was well told, and it was time to put a button in it.
Saviano: We had all expected and assumed that the show was going to go one more year; it was just the next logical conclusion for the show, to take it through high school. But we also were made aware more generally that the production company was going through some difficult times and they were looking to sell the show into syndication and close up shop and move on. We knew that was a possibility. All of a sudden I got called in and got sent a script and it looked like we were wrapping up. Nobody knew if that was going to be the last episode, nobody knew if that was going to be the last shoot. In fact, that voiceover, that narration was written after the fact.
Lauria: We were shocked when we heard we were being canceled. I don’t know what they’re going to tell you, but everybody was upset. I think Bob did a fantastic job with that ending narration, but it was out of necessity, not out of want.
Brush: I’ve heard the rumor that somehow we didn’t know that the final episode was going to be the final episode. But we did. It was crafted to be the last episode, and we were very proud of it — I think the story was, there wasn’t much more to tell. It was time to get out of there.
Stern: It was very emotional to read about everybody’s fate. I didn’t even expect that’s what happens to Winnie, and that’s what happens to Dan, and that’s what happens to Mom and everybody. It turned into this wrap-up thing.
Brush: I knew that it would be a shock, but it was partly to inject some truth and reality into it. We didn’t want it to be a fairytale; it was a real story about a real kid who grew up, and these are his memories, and then life went on; he’s just like all the rest of us. It didn’t seem like our story was the kind of story where everything always turned out right. I was surprised at the pushback that came after that. I know that Alley Mills was furious.
Mills: I said, “You cannot do this. You can’t make the last episode of The Wonder Years fake. You can’t shoot us here at a parade, and we don’t know what the narration is.” Every time there was a narration it would be read out loud as the camera would go by you. And they just generically panned us in that parade, and we had no idea what it was going to be. I was pretty much screaming at Bob Brush. [Later on] I wrote him and I said, “You know what? I was wrong, and forgive me. I really think that you did a pretty amazing job with that last bit of narration.”
Stern: Bob Brush was not afraid of darkness. He’s not afraid of incompleteness and having the bow not tie up so neat. He had to make decisions of how to bring that ship to port. If he’d had a year ahead, then maybe it would come down differently, but he’s a writer creating, and I thought that was a great choice.
Savage: It was sad that [Jack] passed away, but again, that was part of all of our experiences. We lose our first love, we lose our parents, we don’t always get everything we want, and the people we thought we were going to be at 17 — we don’t always end up that person. I think that the way it ended was surprising and sad and bittersweet, but so was that time in our life; I thought it was very true to what the show set out to do.
Stern: But the kicker of the [last episode], the thing that made it so charged for me was that there’s the last line of the show, and then there’s the narrator’s kid saying, “Hey, Dad, come on outside and play catch with me!” And I said, “I’ll be right there!” They asked me if I would bring my own son, Henry, to go do that in the recording studio with me. I keep crying during the reading of the stuff, because the stuff’s so emotional with who’s happening, the show’s ending, what’s happened, the state of all the characters — and then here’s friggin’ Henry saying, “Hey Pop, come play baseball with me!” I was a ball of tears the whole time. I’m tearing up thinking about it now.
“It’s Always Going to Ring True”: The Show’s Legacy
Brush: For years I’ve heard that there was an attempt to get the music rights and to put the DVDs out. That’s always been my fervent hope, because my feeling has always been that the little I’ve seen of the episodes that came out with the replacement music…it was just horrific. Those songs were not just picked at the last second and kind of thrown in; they were another actor in the piece, and they had such dramatic power in them. To see them pulled out and something else thrown in its place, it corrupted the nature of the show.
Marlens: The fact that these guys have paid a lot of money to put the original music in there is what makes it worthwhile. Music was so much a part of that whole period. You can’t even separate it from the experience of living through it. It’s unfortunate that that took so long in some ways.
Mills: We’ve all seen each other independently, but we hadn’t been together as a group since this Museum of Broadcasting thing where we got together with Neal and Carol 20, 16 years ago, something like that.
Stern: I guess people have watched it through the years on reruns or something, but it’ll be fun to see people binge watch this and see how it feels to go deep into it.
Lauria: I think what Bob and Carol and Neal hit on — that’s all still going to be relevant 50 years from now. Fathers are still going to come home just worn out from work, and mothers are going to be carrying a lot more than just cooking on their shoulders; they carry the family responsibility. And I think that’s the legacy that’s going to remain relevant for a long time.
Mills: With the title of the show, really what [Marlens and Black] were beginning to say was that it was like the end of wonder. It was just at that point when everybody was experiencing war for the very first time, and there was so much less cynicism. There was so much less danger. I think the thing that was so touching about The Wonder Years is every single half-hour was about the human spirit somehow winning out in the end.
Savage: I was the age of the kids on the show when we were shooting it, so I was going through all these things with the characters. Now, I’m a father, I’m a husband, and I see my life in a totally different way. I can look back with some nostalgia and remember that time as a kid growing up, but now revisiting the show as an adult — I totally understand Norma’s heartbreak when she saw Kevin ride away on a two-wheeler for the first time. I can see the show in a whole different way. It’s a 25-year-old show that took place 50 years ago…but it still feels fresh.