The Wonder Years ran from 1988 to 1993, bringing a recent nostalgia to those who lived in the ’60s and ’70s. And if you see the show now, it’s hard not to feel sentimental about little Kevin Arnold (played by Fred Savage) as he navigates through his teenage years. And who can forget his girlfriend, Winnie Cooper?
It’s been about three decades since the show aired on ABC, so we think it’s high time we take a moment and look back at all the behind-the-scenes secrets and sweetness that took place on the set of The Wonder Years, like that infamous on-screen kiss between Kevin and Winnie. And yes, of course, we’ll check out what the actors are up to now.
The Show Was Inspired by A Christmas Story
Series co-creator Neal Marlens explained that in the late ’80s, “a door opened when the networks realized cable was making inroads.” The Wonder Years was a mix of comedy and drama, shot with a single camera rather than a live audience, and the music was a major piece of the storytelling. That Joe Cocker opening and Daniel Stern’s narration – it was an equation that came together, and it just worked.
As it turns out, The Wonder Years was inspired by the classic film A Christmas Story. The coming-of-age theme and the use of narration that characterized the film inspired the spirit of The Wonder Years.
Fun fact: Peter “Ralphie” Billingsley appeared in the series’ final two episodes as Kevin’s roommate.
Playing Around With Narration
Series co-creator Carol Black said they “played around with writing a screenplay that used narration as a device.” The way they saw it, it could potentially be fun because “you can really play with the contrast between the narrator’s point of view and what the characters are doing.”
She also explained that with narration, you could “go inside their head and expose what they’re really thinking when they’re saying something different.” From there, they decided to go with an adult narrator looking back on his childhood. Black and Marlens are married, and they created the series together after having had previously worked on Growing Pains.
The End Was Inevitable
Speaking of growing pains, the aging factor had a lot to do with the show’s demise. The show about growing up is partially what led to its end after six seasons. “There has always been a question of just how long The Wonder Years would last,” executive producer Bob Brush told The Los Angeles Times in 1993 (after the series finale).
As the kids developed and got older, there were new stories to tell, “but the tension and constraints of the deadline of the concept of The Wonder Years were beginning to press on us,” Brush explained. When Fred Savage turned 16 and 17, there were things he needed to do that they just couldn’t show on primetime television which aired at 8:00 p.m.
The Sopranos’ Creator Pitched In
It came to a point when The Wonder Years enlisted the help of Sopranos creator David Chase in an effort to bring some more maturity to the series. Producer Ken Topolsky commissioned Chase to write a script. Topolsky told The Wall Street Journal that he recalled thinking that if a suburban with a pretty good life is complaining about his mom not letting him do something, “you just want to smack him.”
But it didn’t really come to fruition. “That’s when we felt that Kevin’s wonder years were over.” Still, he thought Chase’s script was “phenomenal” and “one of the best.” The storyline, which included hard drug use, would have been a bit too much of a leap for the family-friendly series.
It Won an Emmy After Only Six Episodes
The Wonder Years marked the beginning of a golden era of television and made a few dents during its run. The show won an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy with only six episodes in its first season. In fact, ABC wanted 13, but Marlens and Black knew they wouldn’t be able to deliver that many right off the bat.
It’s not like they had the extra time. They were busy fighting the industry forces to film the half-hour comedy with a single camera and voice-over narration, which, by the way, was almost unheard of for a TV show at the time. Their hard work paid off, though!
No Laugh Track? It Was Revolutionary at the Time!
Also unheard of at the time was making a comedy without the use of a laugh track. Today, few if any series use a laugh track, and if you see one, it definitely feels old-timey. But back in 1988, this was revolutionary.
The Wonder Years set itself apart from the rest, production-wise at least, with its single-camera setup, narrator, and lack of laugh track. “The Wonder Years showed the television industry that it’s okay to create a show like that – to take out the laugh track, to try different camera styles — to take a risk,” Josh Saviano, who played Paul Pfeiffer, said in 2013.
It Just Had to Be Fred Savage
To find their lead actor, Marlens and Black consulted with five casting directors for recommendations. Each and every one of them suggested Fred Savage, who by then was best known for being that adorable kid in The Princess Bride.
By the time they settled on a casting director, they already knew that they wanted Savage. Marlens said in 1988 that even though they knew nothing about the child actor, they screened some unedited footage of a film he was making at the time called Vice Versa. What they saw was a “marvelous actor with a natural quality,” which means he was the perfect kid to play a kid!
He Was the Youngest to Win an Emmy
“It sounds funny,” Marlens said, “but it’s a rare thing to find in a child actor.” The co-creator also disclosed that it was the same thing they looked for and were happy to find in the other main actors, Josh Saviano (Paul) and Danica McKellar (Winnie).
I think it’s safe to say that Fred Savage was the right choice (so too for the others). In 1989, when he was just 13 years old, Savage became the youngest actor to be nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. He was nominated the following year again.
Danica McKellar Auditioned Against Her Own Sister
When it came to casting the role of Winnie Cooper, the producers saw hundreds of girls. In the end, it came down to Danica McKeller and her sister Crystal. It was last minute, too, being a Friday before the pilot was scheduled to begin shooting.
“It was practically a tossup,” casting director Mary Buck said in 1990. According to McKellar, she landed the role for two reasons. First, she was older than her sister, and there was a kiss involved in the script, so producers felt more comfortable with her in the role.
Winnie Was Supposed to Be a Guest Role
Second, her hair was brown, whereas her sister was blonde. Apparently, producers wanted her and Kevin to have the same hair color. Believe it or not, Winnie’s role was originally meant to be a guest-star part in the pilot.
As we know now, Winnie was a series regular, and we have her mother to thank. Mrs. McKellar was reportedly hesitant to let her daughter continue filming the series. “My mom wanted us to stay kids, so we weren’t allowed to audition for pilots or feature films,” Danica McKellar said. “Acting was just a hobby.”
Becky Slater Was McKellar’s Real Sister
In the end, her mom didn’t just give in; she let both her daughters act in the series. After they chose Danica for the role of Winnie, Crystal was hired for the recurring role of Becky Slater. The producers loved Crystal and didn’t want to let her go. They decided to write her into the series.
Remember the girl who loved Kevin, got dumped by him and then beat up Kevin? We didn’t know it at the time, but that was Crystal McKellar, who was essentially Winnie’s one-time rival for Kevin’s affections. “I absolutely loved the part. This is a little girl who stands up for herself and doesn’t let herself get pushed around,” Crystal recalled.
They Lived in Anytown, USA
Even though no specific location was ever provided for Kevin Arnold’s hometown, it’s not because the series’ creators wanted it that way. Marlens wanted to set The Wonder Years in his hometown of Huntington, Long Island, with additional elements pulled from Black’s hometown of Silver Spring, Maryland.
ABC insisted no city or state should be mentioned. They wanted it to resonate with anyone and everyone who watched the show. Still, many fans tried to get clues to pinpoint a location. Jack Arnold’s license plate and Wayne’s driver’s license, for example, placed the show in California.
Where Was The Wonder Years Filmed?
The show was shot in California (surprise, surprise). The house used for the exterior shots was located on a small street in Burbank, whereas the interior was replicated on a soundstage. Why that particular home? Marlens explained that, “The street looked new because a disease had killed all the trees, and they had to be replanted, so it looked like a new neighborhood.”
The homey feel wasn’t just an exterior feature. The cast on-set was very much like a real family. Dan Lauria and Alley Mills (who played Jack and Norma Arnold) felt like real parents to all of the kids on the set.
There Was a Real Family Feel on the Set
Lauria taught the kids all about acting and directing. He even made them watch old movies. “He would talk to us about theater all the time and really challenged me to do more readings of plays and watching classic movies,” Savage recalled in an interview.
Lauria made sure to educate them on the history of entertaining and performing, which Savage said really served him well in his career. During long shooting days, Mills would try to rally everyone and boost their energy. Neither Lauria nor Mills had kids, which was interesting to Savage, who said, “we were their kids in a way.”
Wayne Was Inspired by the Actor’s Real-Life Brother
Jason Hervey, who played Kevin’s mean older brother Wayne, was, in reality, the cool older brother you always wanted around. Off the set, he would take Savage and Saviano to meet his buddies and drive them around in these awesome cars.
“There were so many things that I borrowed from our real-life experiences,” Hervey said of his brother Scott. He gave an example: In the driver’s license episode (featuring Juliette Lewis), he took Kevin to the mall because their mom made them. Wayne dropped him off at the absolute furthest end of the parking lot.
His Brother Would Also Embarrass the Hell Out of Him
He dropped him off and told Kevin, “Well, technically, this is the mall.” Then, when he picked him up, he was already flirting with some girl. And sure enough, Wayne pulls up and tells him to get in the car. But every time he went to reach for the passenger door, he kept jerking it forward.
That was actually something Hervey’s older brother Scott would do to him. On his first day of 7th grade, his brother “embarrassed the hell out of me.” (At the end of the day, where would we all be without our annoying older brothers? Am I right?)
That Kiss Was the Real Deal
In the series’ first episode, Kevin and Winnie share a very awkward first kiss, which happened to be something that neither of the young actors had experienced in real life before that. “The one good thing about getting your first kiss on camera is that you know for sure it’s going to happen,” McKellar remarked in 2014.
As for Savage, he remembered it being terrifying. “We were both really scared and nervous and didn’t know what was going to happen or… if we were going to do it right.” Their anxiety was likely the reason it took six takes to get right.
They Grew Up in That Moment
Savage and McKellar were 11 and 12 at the time. “It was tough to go back to 11-year-olds after that,” Savage joked. When McKellar first read the script, the part that excited her the most was their kiss. “I just thought, wow, I am going to get my first kiss!”
Directing such a delicate and awkward moment on screen requires a certain kind of direction. Savage recalled the director telling him to put the coat on her. In a joint interview, McKeller wondered out loud if Savage was told to stroke her hair after the kiss or if that was him. “I just kinda went with it,” Savage revealed.
Her Family, and 80 Million Others, Watched That Kiss
“That moment was so much a part of my life and experience,” McKeller said. “It’s hard to separate yourself from it.” To make the moment even more awkward, McKeller remembers watching her first kiss with her entire family!
Since that pilot episode aired after the Super Bowl on January 31, 1988 (for 80 million people to watch), everyone in the McKellar family got to see it together. While everyone asks the two actors about that infamous kiss, more people – they say hundreds, even thousands – ask why Kevin and Winnie never ended up together (spoiler alert).
They Didn’t End Up Together for Realistic Reasons
According to Savage, the reason the two teens didn’t end up together is that it wouldn’t have been realistic, and the show always prided itself on displaying the more real side of life, especially growing up. Between the third and fourth seasons, their breakup was more of a practical decision because McKellar grew much taller than her on-screen beau.
“Your life doesn’t end up the way you thought it would. This felt more real,” Savage remarked. Saviano, who was also in the interview, added: “We didn’t want to make it complete and pretty.” Producer Bob Brush knew the show’s fans wouldn’t be happy that Kevin and Winnie didn’t have a happily ever after ending.
They Had a Crush on Each Other, at First…
He told The Los Angeles Times that the message he wanted to convey was that it’s “part of the beauty of life.” On that note, something else that proved to be realistic was the fact that the two young actors actually had some real feelings…
McKellar said she’ll “never forget what it felt like to be there in that moment, the anticipation.” She confessed that in those early days on set, she and Savage had a “real-life crush” on each other. That is before it grew into more of a brother-sister relationship.
They Taught Her “Pull My Finger”
Both Savage and McKellar swear that their offscreen relationship eventually turned into a brother-sister sort of bond, but they also admitted to having mutual crushes. “I was in love with her for the same reasons every other boy fell in love with her,” Savage admitted. “You won’t meet a sweeter, nicer girl… and she’s gorgeous.” Awww!
After their initial crushes, things went into the “teasing stuff,” as she put it. They grew into a “more comfortable, brother-sister thing.” McKeller said that both Savage and Saviano were like brothers to her in the end. They teased her relentlessly and even taught her the old “pull my finger” joke, she confessed.
The “Terrible” Lawsuit That Took the Show Down
Actual growing pains weren’t the only reason the show wrapped up. It came to light not too long ago that as the show was wrapping its sixth and final season, one of the series’ costume designers filed a sexual harassment charge. Monique Long filed the suit against Fred Savage and Jason Hervey, who were both in their teens at the time.
Obviously, the lawsuit brought unwanted publicity to the show. The case was eventually settled out of court. Savage stated that he was “completely exonerated” and referred to the whole thing as a “terrible experience.” In 2018, Alley Mills said the “completely ridiculous” lawsuit was a significant factor in the show’s cancellation.
Fred Savage Was Scared of the Female Guest Stars
A number of famous faces showed up on The Wonder Years, including Juliette Lewis, Jim Caviezel, Alicia Silverstone, Giovanni Ribisi, David Schwimmer, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Carla Gugino, Robin Thicke, Breckin Meyer, Soleil Moon Frye and John Corbett.
The funny thing is that Savage was intimidated by the famous women who showed up on set. He admitted to having been afraid of them. Less scary were the male guest stars that came through, like David Schwimmer and John Corbett. He says he even tried to impress them. “I just thought they were the coolest,” Savage said.
He’s a Real-Life Veteran, but From a Different War
It was Dan Lauria’s suggestion that Jack Arnold be a veteran. Lauria admitted that he “really didn’t contribute that much,” but one thing he does get credit for is making Jack a war veteran. When they were shooting the pilot, Lauria told Marlens, “Look, I’m a vet. I’m a Vietnam veteran and a Marine, and I think if the story is that I’m a vet, that’d fit the character.”
Before they even finished the pilot, Marlens told Lauria that they were going to make him a Korean War vet “to fit the frame.” There were episodes in which it was mentioned that Jack was a veteran.
Some of the Dialogue Between Kevin and Winnie Was Real
Kevin and Winnie’s relationship was, in part, defined by their real-life friendship and some of the things they would actually say to each other offscreen. The writers would sometimes take lines from things they saw the young teens saying to each other and put them into the script.
There was a whole episode dedicated to “Do you like him, or do you like him, like him?” according to McKellar, which was the expression they used when they were talking about some guy that she had a crush on in real life. It then showed up in the script a few weeks later.
Talking to a Hanging Tennis Ball
Since so many of the cast members were minors and thus had restricted work hours because they had to complete three hours of school per day, many scenes were “assembled” in post-production. Mills recalled that in any scene where she was in the kitchen, and the kids were at the table, she was actually talking to a piece of tape with a smiley face or a hanging tennis ball.
Savage and McKellar even had scenes that they had to shoot alone. Ironically enough, in the scene where Winnie and Kevin say “I love you” for the first time, the actors had to shoot the scene separately.
Jack Arnold Dated Maggie Seaver, and She Got Him the Role of Jack
Before The Wonder Years, Marlens and Black created Growing Pains. It was how Lauria heard about the role of Jack Arnold. Lauria had actually appeared on Growing Pains and was dating Joanna Kerns at the time (who played mom Maggie Seaver on the show).
He heard about the new show through her. But since Lauria’s agent couldn’t get him an audition, Kerns suggested he call Marlens directly. “He likes you; you guys got along,” she told her then-boyfriend. Both Lauria and Marlens grew up in Long Island, so they would tease each other about which school was better at sports. Long story short, he got the audition and the gig.
The Case of the Narrator
Daniel Stern wasn’t the show’s original narrator. Although his voice is the adult Kevin Arnold that we all came to love, it was Arye Gross who narrated the series’ pilot episode. Eventually, they re-recorded with Stern.
Oh, and the little boy’s voice in the series finale is Stern’s son. If you remember, the series concludes with the voice of Kevin’s son asking his dad to come outside and play catch with him. Stern also directed some episodes, so he was around set. But when it came to his voiceovers, they were recorded in a separate recording studio.
Fun (and random) fact: According to Savage, Daniel Stern always wears sweatpants.
Josh Saviano Today
The Wonder Years was actually Saviano’s first role and ended up being his last significant one. One of his few other credits is the 1990 TV movie Camp Cucamonga. His character’s career choice was a nod to the actor’s real career. Saviano decided to retire from acting in real life to pursue a law career.
The now 45-year-old attended Yale and became a lawyer. After 21 years, he returned to acting for a three-episode part on Law & Order: SVU. Yes, he played a lawyer named Don Taft. What’s nice to hear is that Saviano and Savage are still friends today.
Fred Savage Today
Savage was 12 when he was cast as Kevin. He’s now in his mid-40s! The year before the show debuted, Savage appeared in The Princess Bride as the grandson. He was also in The Twilight Zone. The actor made a move to behind the screen as a TV director, though he occasionally acts as well.
He’s directed dozens of TV shows, like Phil of the Future, Unfabulous, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Modern Family, and Black-ish, to name a few. More recently, he’s acted in Netflix’s Friends From College and the parody after-show What Just Happened??! with Fred Savage.
Danica McKellar Today
The Wonder Years was McKellar’s big break. Before that, her only credits were two episodes of The Twilight Zone. She also appeared in Camp Cucamonga alongside Saviano. Believe it or not, McKellar is a published mathematician.
The 46-year-old said she found it difficult to switch from child to adult roles. She’s best known for her Hallmark and Lifetime TV movies. She starred in Netflix’s educational kids’ series Project Mc2. She’s written several math books for young girls to encourage them to pursue STEM careers. One of her books is called Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle School Math without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail.
Dan Lauria Today
Before The Wonder Years, Lauria appeared in a number of ’80s shows, including L.A. Law, Growing Pains, and Cagney & Lacey. But it was his role as Jack Arnold that made him big. Lauria is still acting, too, and just recently appeared in 2020’s The Way Back (by Ben Affleck).
The 74-year-old went on to play other grumpy father figures throughout his career, from Party of Five to Law & Order to This Is Us (as Toby’s father). Lauria scored a recurring role in Blue Bloods as the FDNY commissioner. Oh, and to go full circle, he appeared on Broadway’s musical A Christmas Story.
Alley Mills Today
Before the show, Mills was in plenty of TV movies and shows like Newhart, Moonlighting, and Punky Brewster, to name a few. Her first acting role on TV was in the comedy show The Associates, where she played a lawyer opposite Martin Short.
After The Wonder Years, Mills, now 70, got a recurring role on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. But her most famous role of the last 20 years has been playing Pam Douglas on The Bold and the Beautiful, which she did from 2006 through 2019.
Olivia D’Abo Today
D’Abo dramatically changed her hair for The Wonder Years. In real life, she had short hair, so they needed to put extensions in to pass her off as a flower child. D’Abo appeared in major movies like Conan the Destroyer and Bolero before she joined the cast of The Wonder Years.
Afterward, she became a popular voice actor. The now 52-year-old continued acting in films and on TV, but it’s her voice that took her places. She was the voice of Jane in The Legend of Tarzan and even Jedi Master Luminara Unduli in Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
Jason Hervey Today
Before starring in The Wonder Years, Hervey had a number of recurring roles in Diff’rent Strokes, Fast Times, and Wildside. Hervey is probably best known for playing himself in shows like I Love the ’80s, Battle of the Network Stars, Confessions of a Teen Idol, and Scott Baio Is 45… and Single.
Hervey, now 49, acted on and off until 2004. Like Savage, Hervey also went behind the scenes and started producing. He got into public relations for a few years and founded a production company called Bischoff Hervey Entertainment in 2003 (it closed in 2019).
Daniel Stern Today
Stern voiced adult Kevin throughout the show, but he was uncredited. He was credited, though, for the 10 episodes that he directed. Of course, we know him from his role as Marv, one of the two dim-witted home invaders in Home Alone.
His role as Phil in City Slickers is also widely known. In 1989, Stern and Savage co-starred together in the film Little Monsters as father and son. Stern is also a writer and sculptor. The 64-year-old recently appeared in Shrill. He also popped up in Netflix’s Love, Game Over, Man! and even Workaholics.
The Wonder Years Reboot
The Wonder Years is working on a reboot, but it’s going to be different from the original. The reboot is going to focus on a Black family in Montgomery, Alabama, but in the same era. ABC already has the pilot in the works and has rounded out its new family.
Neal Marlens will be a consultant, and Savage will direct the pilot, as well as serve as executive producer. Who’s playing the lead? Elisha “EJ” Williams will play Dean, a 12-year-old who is trying to figure out his place within his family as well as in the world.