The Wonder Years: An Oral History
Paste / Online [View Article]
By Bonnie Stiernberg
August 5, 2014
When Alley Mills answers her phone for our first interview, she asks me to hold on a second so she can switch phones in order to sit down. She’s on her kitchen landline, she tells me, and I immediately flash back to two images from my childhood. The first is, of course, of Mills as matriarch Norma Arnold on The Wonder Years, answering her kitchen phone, cradling it on her shoulder so as not to waste a free hand while making dinner and wrangling a house full of kids.
The second is of my mom doing the same exact thing.
And that’s why, 26 years after it first premiered, we’re still talking about The Wonder Years. The show’s relatability helped it transcend genre—it went beyond being a “family show” or a “late-’60s period piece” and reminded us what we all felt during a very specific time in our lives. It’s unabashedly nostalgic, but it chronicles the ups and downs of Kevin Arnold’s, Winnie Cooper’s and Paul Pfeiffer’s adolescence against the backdrop of the Vietnam era and our nation’s changing social landscape with a maturity most shows geared towards kids lack. The tiny childhood moments that stick with us are treated with the respect they deserve. We laugh when Kevin’s brother Wayne gets him in a headlock and calls him “scrote” for the umpteenth time (try sneaking that by the ABC censors nowadays!) or when Kev squares off with his mortal enemy Becky Slater, and we cry when Kevin’s occasionally distant father struggles to relate to his teenage kids. And sorry, but if you don’t hold your breath when Kevin puts that letterman jacket over Winnie’s shoulders, you’re dead inside. Music geeks will appreciate the incredible soundtrack as well; up until now, the series had yet to be released on DVD because licensing all the songs that appeared on the show (a veritable greatest hits collection from the likes of Dylan, The Beatles and Motown’s finest) had proven nearly impossible.
But thanks to some miracle workers at Time Life/StarVista, that’s all been taken care of, and the entirety of The Wonder Years will be released on DVD for the first time ever this fall (you can preorder the set here now). The cast recently reunited to record commentary for the DVDs, pose for pictures and reminisce about their time on one of the most beloved shows of all time, so we thought the time was right to catch up with our favorite TV family and have them walk us through The Wonder Years. Check out an exclusive clip from the DVD’s special features below, and then—without further ado—enjoy our oral history of the show.
For creators Neal Marlens and Carol Black, finding the right actors to bring life to the show’s Any Town, USA setting was key. Once they started piecing together the Arnold family, things began to fall into place.
Alley Mills (Norma Arnold): I heard from friends that this was one of the most unusual pilots they’d ever read, so I looked at it and it was really weird because of the voiceover—nobody sort of understood how it worked. It wasn’t a full script yet. It was just sort of scenes with this voiceover, and I didn’t really understand what it was. But I did get that it was kind of a period thing, that it took place starting in the late ’60s. And the woman that was casting it, her name was Mary Buck, which is an amazing person. I knew her and I had played always sort of rebels…I was single and kind of a rebel, and I had always played the tough kids. That’s the things I’d been playing in film and television before The Wonder Years and she said, “Put on a pair of Keds and, like, a shirtwaist dress and then be the smartest person in the room” and I said, “What makes you think that this housewife is smart?” She goes, “Trust me. I know what they’re looking for,” and Carol and Neal—Carol’s mother was an incredibly smart woman who just ended up being a homemaker, but she could’ve probably run a company, and so they originally had that in the back of their mind. So I did, I actually asked my mother to send me her red-and-white striped shirtwaist dress from New York because I remembered it from the ’50s, and I wore it and I wore pearls and Keds. And I also remembered growing up at that period, there was a woman that lived next door—my mother was actually a single mother that worked and she was nothing like Norma, but my next-door neighbor and my best friend’s mom—and she’s still my best friend, I’m actually going to leave in the morning and go on a road trip with her for a week—her mom was this character to me, and the key thing that I remembered about Betty Gaylen was that family came before anything, and she was just a generous, you know, sort of huge woman—not, she wasn’t fat, she was just like a huge human being, you know. She just always put family first, and so that’s what I did when I went in and read, is try to sort of channel Betty Gaylen, in being that type of person that isn’t really submissive. It’s a different thing. You know, she’s not really like denying herself or anything like that. It’s just other people are more important. It’s a generosity, you know what I’m saying? And I’d never been like that. I was a big feminist, and I was kind of tough and single…and so Carol and Neal told me that I read this fight scene with the father different than everyone else because she said, “You didn’t want to win the fight. You wanted to win, like, peace or something, you know what I mean? You wanted to make it not a conflict.” And she said everybody else read it modern, and that was sort of what made it period. You know, it was a different way of thinking, that women just sort of…that was what gave them their sort of joy and sense of self was putting other people first, and I just had never thought, you know, because I was a hippie in 1968, so I was more like Olivia’s character. Anyway, so that’s what happened, and I read with Dan Lauria and it was pretty much done. And Carol told me after that, you know, that’s what they were looking for. So I ended up reading with Olivia and Jason. I never met Fred because he was in Chicago. And then after that, I had to actually go to Japan for this big retreat thing, and they just said, “well you know, we can’t say yes yet” or whatever, and then the network reading was when I was in Japan, and they flew me back. And I said, “you know what, I’m on a charter flight, I don’t have enough money to get another ticket,” so they flew me back, and that was that. And I read for the network with Olivia and Dan. And that’s how it happened.
Dan Lauria (Jack Arnold): Well, I knew Neal and Carol from Growing Pains. I had done a part on Growing Pains, and I was going out with Joanna Kerns [who played mom Maggie Seaver on the show] at the time, so I heard about it through her. My agent couldn’t get me in, and Joanna said, “Well, why don’t you call Neal? He likes you, you guys got along.” ‘Cause we both grew up on Long Island, so we would tease each other [about] which school was better at sports. And I said, “No, I don’t want to do that, it’s so unprofessional,” and Joanna went in and actually called Neal, and she came out and said, “Neal said be there tomorrow at 10 o’clock. He thinks you’re perfect.” It was out of sight and out of mind, and as soon as my name is brought up he said, “Okay.” Then I just auditioned with everybody else. The network actually wanted Elliot Gould, I believe. But Neal and Carol were adamant about having a family that looked like next-door, and they didn’t really want any movie stars.
Olivia d’Abo (Karen Arnold): It was pilot season, so I heard about the character, and the show, through my agent. It was one of these things, “this is something you’re going to absolutely love.” There was already really quite a buzz about it. I had worked with Neal Marlens and Carol Black on Growing Pains. I did a couple of episodes playing Kirk Cameron’s girlfriend on that [laughs]. So I knew of them, and I just assumed they were having me in based on that relationship. I just remember reading the script and being completely blown away, really just rocked to the core. I had never read anything like it. It was just such a personal, intimate read. Laugh-out-loud funny, moving—I think it grabbed hold of every possible emotion one could have, as a reader. I completely forgot about being a young actor reading a script. It was so disarming—it was such a disarming read, that I kind of fell in love with the concept of what the show was about. It was not really an era that I knew much about, but I felt like I just gravitated to it immediately. The pilot script is when Winnie Cooper’s brother dies. It very much establishes the era. It opens up with Woodstock footage, all that stuff you ultimately saw in the show in the beginning of the show…All that stuff that is not necessarily the easiest thing to transfer into a script, where it’s so visceral that you immediately get it. It was just one of those things where you think, “well, this doesn’t come along every day.”
Jason Hervey (Wayne Arnold): It really just started off like any other audition. My agent called my mom, and my mom picked me up from school and told me about it. My parents, God love ‘em, did such a great job of making sure I was a normal kid. Acting was just an after-school activity for me. I’d been doing it since I was 4, so it didn’t feel out of the ordinary. You audition three times before they bring you to network, and I have this memory of meeting Dan Lauria right in front of the room we were about to go in for that network audition. We had a really funny conversation. He told me about how you’re not a real actor until you do Broadway theater, and he said “I don’t even really want to do this, but I’m going to get it, and so are you, kid.” It was a very interesting meeting. [laughs] And I went into that audition and all I could think about was what this man just said to me.
Dan Lauria: Oh yeah, Jason was a little upset and I said, “What are you worried about? You go through a million of these.” [Laughs]. And then when he came out he goes, “I felt good.” And I said, “Good, I hope I see you on the set.” And sure enough, there he was. Because we went through the process. We didn’t have a big agent pushing us. We went through the process of auditioning and auditioning and going to network. All I kept hearing was that they wanted a movie star. And I said, “Well, good for them. What am I supposed to do with that information?” [Laughs] So I was telling Jason, “We still have to audition, so just have fun.”
Fred Savage (Kevin Arnold): I had done a movie a couple years, about a year before called Vice Versa, that the people who wrote and created The Wonder Years, Carol Black and Neal Marlens, had seen and liked me in it. And so they, based on that, sent the script, had a casting director send me the script and say “Hey, you know, would you be interested in reading for the part of Kevin Arnold?” And we read the script, my parents and I, and thought it was terrific, and, sure enough, I came to California to read for it and got that part.
Alley Mills: Fred’s parents are wonderful people. Joanne and Louie Savage are great people. They had no idea what they were getting in for when they said yes. They were running a business out of Chicago. Big business. And suddenly their son gets this job in L.A. and they thought, “Oh, it’s just for a couple weeks.” They had no idea.
Fred Savage: We were pretty new in show business. We didn’t know a lot about it. But we did realize that there was a potential in the show for it to run a long time. So I think before we even went out to audition, really, my parents between them kind of weighed the pros and cons and said “How is this gonna impact our family?” There was a lot for them to consider before even agreeing to go in for the audition…and I think that’s why it was so important that the script was so great and that they loved it so much. And they thought, “Well, it feels like such a special project.” If we were gonna uproot ourselves, it had to be for something that felt as special as this.
Danica McKellar (Winnie Cooper): I remember [meeting Fred] very well. I had been auditioning earlier that day in the room, then the producers told us to take a break and have a meal downstairs in the restaurant and come back up after dinner. At that time I didn’t know who was playing the character Kevin, but when we were sitting at dinner there was a really cute boy sitting with his family—and I wondered if that maybe that was him. When I went upstairs to audition, I was excited that it was the same boy. I felt the chemistry right away.
That chemistry between cast members (on- and off-screen) came quickly—and not just between McKellar and Savage.
Fred Savage: I remember meeting Josh [Saviano, who played Paul Pfeiffer]. Josh and I read together; we went in and auditioned together, I think. Or maybe it was once I got the part and then he and I read together. But I remember meeting Josh very early on. And I really liked him. We were very similar in a lot of ways, and we got along very well very quickly.
Dan Lauria: There was instant chemistry between Alley and me. She’s such a fine actress.
Olivia d’Abo: I never read with Dan until I was cast, but he and I definitely really connected. It was really strange, we had all—with the exception of Alley, I hadn’t met anybody. I had met Jason in an audition room—not in an audition room, but he was at a couple of the callbacks I was at. I remember kind of experiencing him as very mature, almost like a little man. Almost the way I experienced Fred in the show. Working with him, he was definitely a kid, he was like, 11 or 12. Kind of in the way Kevin Arnold was, where he had that kind of wisdom and maturity, he kind of went inside everyone’s head, with his reactions. When I met Dan, it was working. It’s like putting together the parts, like the chemistry of a family. There’s very little acting that has to happen because the creators of the show sort of cast it perfectly. And they knew, when they put us all together we would think up all the little aspects of our idiosyncratic behavior. They probably knew within the casting process, “If we cast Dan and Olivia and we put them together at a table”…they’ve done that so many times before that. It’s those two, Neal and Carol, were just geniuses at that…I think my first scene with Dan was me telling him I was going on the pill, and I thought that he should know. There was a locomotive that went off in Jack’s head—Jack had his own theme song, so to speak. You remember, from the first episode, where it goes tch-tch-tch-tch, the locomotive just gets louder and you hear this really loud incoming out of it. “I’m going on the pill dad, just thought you should know,” his nostrils flare! [laughs] I remember doing that scene, and I just thought, “Oh my God, he is awesome, he is so funny.”
And I remember seeing Jason, and I just knew Jason was going to get that role, because having not been in the room and reading with him, he was so sociable and so likable even though the Wayne character had the whole butthead bravado that was up the whole time. Jason as a person, he really had this incredible ability—and still does, that’s part of who he is—to put himself out there and say hi and be very friendly, immediately make you comfortable. He’s always, like I said, had this maturity about him. His sense of social graces are really quite unique.
Alley Mills: You know what, that’s what makes or breaks a television show, is when you all get together and see what the chemistry is. It was weird how everything just fell into place. I mean, they obviously took care in casting, but we had not met. Nobody had met Fred, I don’t think, because he was cast out of Chicago, and he didn’t come to L.A. for the network reading. So yeah, it was definitely instantaneous. The kids and Dan and I got along right from day one. We started fooling around, and it really felt like a family. I mean, it was crazy. I was just thinking about it when we had the reunion. I mean, Fred was like 10. And Josh, and Jason was…I don’t know what he was, but he was very young. 12 or something. So everybody was really young, and they were actual children, and we sort of acted accordingly and tried to mess around as much as we could.
Dan Lauria: [Alley] really was just like this spirit. She never let it be dull on the set.
CAPTURING THE ERA
While the mood was generally light on set, the show often addressed heavy topics like the Vietnam War, or the dead dreams of Jack Arnold (who we see toiling away at work before returning home to gaze through his telescope in “My Dad’s Office”); the important legacy of Bobby Kennedy, or the kind of intense fight between man and wife that hints at real pain and won’t be tied up neatly with a little bow by episode’s end. Sometimes attempts were made to shield the younger cast members from that stuff, but more often than not, the show served as their own personal history lesson—especially thanks to Lauria, whose own experiences as a Vietnam veteran influenced his portrayal of Jack Arnold.
Dan Lauria: A lot of people [ask] “How much did you contribute to the writing?” I really didn’t contribute that much, but the one thing I did contribute to the character is that when we were shooting the pilot I said to Neal, “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 we even finish the pilot, he said, “Well, if we go, Dan, we’re going to make you a Korean War vet to fit the frame.” And so they did, and it paid off. There were a number of episodes where it was mentioned that I was a veteran and when my daughter left for college I gave her my old duffle bag from the service. We always had the Vietnam War in the background on the TV at the dinner table. So there were actual news clips. And that’s one thing that there were plans to delve into more had we not been canceled, that it was the first war to be televised like that. There was going to be an episode where one of the kids would see someone they know die on TV. So, that was going to be used a little more had we come back.
Jason Hervey: We knew what we didn’t know. We knew Dan had served in Vietnam, but we didn’t really talk about it. There were a few times, though, that he pulled Fred and I aside to give us background on a particular scene or episode we were shooting. That’s one of my favorite episodes, the one where my best friend comes home from Vietnam and he’s having trouble re-adjusting.
Olivia d’Abo: There was that whole dinner table scene about Vietnam, who was pro- and anti-Vietnam. Of course, Jack was not very happy when it was brought up at the dinner table. The boyfriend I had brought back to dinner was of course anti, and they sort of went head-to-head, and it was a great scene, and it was very, very powerful. ‘Cause you sort of see Jack’s emotion—it’s not just a man—it’s not just Jack Arnold talking about “well, I disagree.” He caught this emotion about his own personal experience—he’d been a Marine in his own life, and he had lost his best friend, I think, in the Marines. That was an amazing scene.
Alley Mills: When we shot that episode “Pottery Will Get You Nowhere” and we had that big fight about my making pots, that was probably the biggest fight in the show, in terms of a really deep fraction in the family. And actually that episode was one that won the Humanitas Award, which TV rarely does, and a Peabody Award too. Dan and I were sectioned off to have that fight in the kitchen, and the kids were gone, and it was too intense actually. I mean, it was so heavy, his not understanding me and making me cry, and we were yelling at one another. Something was off, and nobody could kind of figure out exactly what it was that wasn’t working because it was really deep and, you know, I was actually crying, and it was just so heavy for the show. And then Carol and Neal went, “I know what it is. Pull—” You know, it was at the very beginning of the show. I think that maybe that was at the first half of the episodes or something, but we were trying to figure out that whole thing, that the entire show is seen through Kevin’s eyes. It’s his remembering everything, which is why they always go to the voiceover, right? So it’s a reenactment of his past, really, is what the show is. And so what they did is they took the camera out of the kitchen where it was in close-up on us and just too intense and they brought it down the hall and around the corner to where Kevin was sitting in the TV room, which was right off the kitchen. And so it was him hearing the fight and then seeing it down the hall. And it was so much more powerful that way. It made me cry just to think about his hearing it, you know what I mean? It’s so heavy, but we’ve all had that experience where we’ve walked into the room where our parents were fighting, and it’s just awful. I don’t know a marriage where that hasn’t happened. And sometimes the parents wait until the kids go to sleep, but somebody always wakes up. And it’s sort of always imprinted in your mind, to see that, to see something you shouldn’t have seen, that gets too heavy. Either the father hits the mother, or something really awful is said, you know? So that was the cool thing about that fight, that they pulled the camera back. It just made it. It was so powerful. When things like that were happening, really emotional stuff, they protected that like crazy.
Dan Lauria: I remember the episode where Fred is in a play about Bobby Kennedy, and Alley and I started talking about where we were when that happened, and then we were all talking about where we were when John F. Kennedy was shot, and Fred asked me “Why is everybody talking about it?” and I said, “Well, every generation has a moment.” Like for my parents, it was “Where were you when Pearl Harbor happened?” or “How do you know about Pearl Harbor?” And I guess the generation before was “Where were you when the stock market crashed.” And I said for us it was when John F. Kennedy was shot and I said, “I hope you never have a moment like that.” And when 9/11 happened Fred—I was actually going to be working for him as a director at the time, and he called me up and he said “That was our moment. Now I know what you guys were talking about.” Because everybody remembers where they were when they saw those towers go down. So that was their moment.
Another way the show successfully captured the era was through its use of music.
Alley Mills: I’m so glad they have the music. I was actually one of the biggest antagonists about that because I was dubbing one day in a place called KO Sound, and I found all these boxes of The Wonder Years, and I said “what are these doing here?” And he looked kind of guilty and he said “Actually, we’re taking out the music.” And I said “You’re what??” And he said “We have to take out the music in order to either make reruns or DVDs” or whatever they were gonna make with them. So I called the president of ABC. I said “You can’t do this. You can’t take ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ out and cover it with something else. You can’t take [singing] ‘I get by with a little help from my friends.’ You can’t take it. It is the show.” The music is so incredible, as much as the acting. It’s like a character on the show. You can’t just take out a character.
Dan Lauria: I’ve heard it a couple times now that The Beatles had never allowed any of their music to be used on television. They did not own the rights at that time. It wasn’t Michael Jackson; I think it was Apple Records who owned it when we did The Wonder Years. But the story I got was that they showed Paul McCartney the pilot with them singing their version of it, and Paul McCartney made a call to Apple Records and said, “If you’re ever going to let The Beatles be used on television, this is the show,” and Apple Records said, “Ya know what, we’ll let them use the song, but we’re not going to let them use the version of you singing it.” So they got Joe Cocker to sing it. Now, I don’t know if Paul McCartney recommended Joe Cocker, but supposedly, and I’ve heard this a couple times, that he [McCartney] was the one that made the call after seeing the pilot before it was put on the air. I’ve always wanted to meet him to find out if that was true and to thank him.
Paul McCartney, in the 1998 biography Many Years From Now by Barry Miles: It has good memories, that song. It became the theme tune to the very good American series about growing up in the ‘60s called The Wonder Years, so it’s been picked up and used a lot, that song.
Fred Savage: There were, of course, so many. It was always the last songs in the episodes were so great. There was a part that had “I Only Have Eyes For You” that I really still love. “Long May You Run” was a great song that they used at the end of the episode where they sold the family car, which was a really resonant episode for me because I remember we had the same car for years, and I cried when we sold our family car when I was a kid.
TIMELESSNESS AND SUCCESS
Although it addressed issues unique to the generation who came of age during the turbulent ’60s, the show’s writing highlighted the universality of adolescence, allowing it to appeal to just about anyone, regardless of whether they grew up in the ’60s or the late-’80s/early ’90s as it was airing.
Jason Hervey: It’s a timeless classic in the way that the stories are relatable. People remember their adolescence, their youth. They remember having that girl just out of grasp, or that friend you grow up with and eventually go your separate ways with as your tastes change and things are different. It transcended anything specific.
Danica McKellar: The emotions we experience as children are extremely strong and all too often discounted by our society as, “well, they are just kids” or “well, they will get over it” when the truth is the hormones rushing through our bodies makes us feel things even more strongly at that age. The Wonder Years was the first show to acknowledge the feelings that kids were having at that age so instead of a show focusing on a family and the kids were just there, this show made the kids’ experiences the priority. Everyone remembers what it felt like to be that age, and in my opinion the show was the first of its kind to honor that. So no matter when you were born or how old you are, watching The Wonder Years brings us all back to our childhood in a very real way.
Fred Savage: One of the big things that The Wonder Years did so well is that the whole show was kind of looking back. So there was a very real sense of perspective and wisdom that came with a lot of the narration of looking back on these moments in your life. But at the same time, they still did it with an eye on how kids would genuinely respond in those scenarios. So a lot of the nostalgia of it or the wistfulness that the narrator had looking back was kind of lost on me a little bit. But what I responded to was just how real the situations felt, and how the kids reacted in a very real manner. It felt very honest to me. But the “Oh, you’ll appreciate this so much when you’re older” and “Oh, this was such a magical time that you’ll never quite get a chance to relive again,” I mean, kids don’t respond to that. I didn’t really get the significance of that, and the characters certainly didn’t. And no one really does, which is why that time is so special. Because you don’t really realize how magical it is until it’s gone, until you’re old enough to appreciate it. So a lot of the wisdom that the narrator looked back with didn’t resonate with me just because I was kind of living those years as opposed to looking back at them and marveling at them. So I feel like my reactions to the scenes as they were written and to the material as we were shooting it was very much in step with the normal kind of reactions that a regular 10, 11, 12, 13, 14-year-old boy, how he would react. I didn’t see the wisdom of the narration until much later, obviously.
There was a great episode where Kevin was wondering whether or not to call a girl on the phone and his parents were watching the moon landing in the other room. Kevin and Winnie and Paul weren’t saying like, “Oh, this is a wonderful time, the ’60s, let’s soak it up.” They were just worried about being kids. And I think Karen the older sister was really the connection to the time period in making it feel very alive, and the importance of the time to high school and college kids. But for Paul and Kevin and Winnie, it was about the school dance and who you’re sitting next to in class and did the girl you like talk to you that day. It wasn’t about the time.
Alley Mills: That’s why certain novels exist for 500 years and certain stories exist for centuries and centuries and centuries. And plays, that’s why Shakespeare exists and continues to resonate with people. ’Cause they’re profound stories. And for some reason, the writers of The Wonder Years were able to write in a half hour a little human story every week…I don’t know how they managed to do that. They made me cry almost every week with one little silly story about maybe a brother or a mother or a girlfriend or the first love or the first pimple. I mean, everybody has a first pimple. Everybody has a first kiss. And the pilot episode was the first death.
Danica McKellar: My favorite episode was the pilot. That was really my first kiss in real life, and overall I think it’s really one of the best half hours of television ever made.
Sometimes the teenage moments we saw on screen were plucked directly from the lives of the cast, particularly Jason Hervey.
Jason Hervey: My brother was the prototype for Wayne Arnold. There’s a lot of Scott Hervey in Wayne [laughs]. There were so many times where I’d be pitching to producers that we include something he’d done to me. Like there’s that episode where Juliette Lewis is playing my girlfriend, and I had just gotten my driver’s license, so of course I wanted to go driving around with her, but I had to take Kevin to the mall because my mom made me. Of course, my job was to harass and embarrass, so I did this thing where I started jerking the car forward every time he got close to the handle to open the door, so he wouldn’t be able to get in. My brother did that to me and my friend on the first day of seventh grade.
The show resonated quickly with fans and critics alike. The Wonder Years took home the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series in 1988 after just six episodes had aired, and 13-year-old Fred Savage became the youngest actor ever to be nominated for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. And although he may have been too young to fully grasp he was making history, Savage’s older castmates always knew the honor was well-deserved.
Fred Savage: When I was young, I mean, I appreciated it and I totally understood the honor of being nominated for an Emmy and what that meant and being recognized for your work. It still gives me chills just thinking about that. But as a kid, I didn’t really, you know, think of the place in history. It just felt very exciting to have your work be recognized and I realized how special that was, but the historical significance, I didn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on it.
Dan Lauria: Fred’s a fantastic actor. I always wished he had done more acting in his later career on top of the directing. I would have loved to see him play John Garfield. I think he would have been great at that.
Alley Mills: He was an old soul at the age of 10. I mean, there was no question about it. It wasn’t even so much about the acting. I mean, like, what is acting at the age of 10? I think it’s just he was this beautiful kid. Certain kids just have that—I don’t know what you call it—but they’re just phenomenal little human beings at a very young age. Fred was one of those for sure…very vulnerable and very truthful and not at all like most child actors who are really fake, you know, and acting cute and all that kind of stuff. Fred wasn’t really acting; he was just adorable and deep. A loving kid. He still is.
THE END AND ONWARD
In 1993, the show was canceled, while the cast was in the middle of shooting the second-to-last episode. It was a sudden end to the beloved series, but the effect of the show on its cast lives on.
Danica McKellar: I was in my dressing room, and the executive producer Bob Brush called me to break the news. I was sad; I remember getting teary, but we all knew that it might happen. When we filmed the final episode we all knew it might be the final one but hoped it wouldn’t be. I always thought the show would go one more year and the characters would graduate from high school, but I think the decision to cancel the show wasn’t made for or by the fans—it was a network thing.
Dan Lauria: We were canceled because of a guy named Ronald Perelman. I know you won’t print it, but that’s the truth, and you can find out that he bought the company and he literally tried to rob ABC. And I think he deliberately screwed up that contract about the music, so we wouldn’t be able to do this, because he was so upset that…He tried to blame Ted Turner for the cancellation, except Ted Turner made an on-camera appeal that said, “Hey, I ordered as many [episodes] as they’ll make,” and then it came back on Ron Perelman, and his office said and I quote, “The amount of profit does not warrant another season.” They tried to say the ratings weren’t there, but that’s not true. We were 27th out of 166 when we were canceled. The show was supposed to end with Fred graduating high school.
We found out as we were shooting the second-to-last episode. And that’s why our only “two-parter” was the second-to-last and the last. They made it into one [episode], and Bob had to capsulize the whole thing in the narration. As a matter of fact, what you were supposed to see…what you hear in that last narration was pretty much the storyline of where it was going to go in the last year. The oldest son was supposed to become pretty good at the business; Fred becomes an uncle because the daughter has a baby and she’s married to David Schwimmer. And the mother is doing well at the executive job, and of course the series was going to end that Fred finally gets accepted to college and graduates and comes home they find me dead on the floor. It was also supposed to be the day Nixon resigned from what I heard. I don’t know how true it is, I’ll have to check with Neal on it. And it was the end of The Wonder Years. And in real life Neal lost his father when he was very young. They were actually playing tennis together and he keeled over and had a heart attack.
Olivia d’Abo: There was a time, toward the latter part of the show—this just happens with everybody, I think—I don’t think you can remain the network darling. It’s just not the way the world works. It’s part of our journey. You have to take the good with the bad when they say, “Oh well, we’re ready to cancel you guys now,” and you just kind of have to go on. But it was definitely a shock because it was definitely a show that we thought could have gone on a lot longer than it did. I know there were certain questions that were bittersweet. There were a lot of answers in the last script. I’d hoped, maybe, it would have ended differently. I think we got pretty hit by finding out it was coming to an end, and how much the network was possibly controlling the show and the scripts and the writing. There are a lot of unanswered questions for us, and maybe not just the public, but the people that were churning them out. So yeah, it was a bit of a shock…I remember shooting that parade, and it was just ironic that we were doing this celebratory scene of a Fourth of July parade and we felt like, “Well what do we have to celebrate about?”
The show was instrumental in preparing its young stars for life after The Wonder Years, whether it was by allowing Danica McKellar—who went on to become a math genius and pen four math books aimed at getting girls interested in the subject—to devote enough time to her studies, or giving Fred Savage (who has enjoyed a lengthy career as a director) and Jason Hervey (who now owns his own production company) the chance to poke around behind the scenes on set.
Danica McKellar: I think of running back and forth between the set and school room. It was an enormous challenge to keep up really good grades in a difficult prep school while also acting. I didn’t go to one of those “actor schools,” but to a very challenging school and there they expected the same level of academic performance out of me as if I wasn’t also acting on a television show. Learning how to juggle acting with academia trained me for the life I have today, juggling my acting career with my career as a math author, inspiring girls to want to be smart and study math.
Fred Savage: [Directing] was something I was always interested in as a kid. I tried to be around the camera as much as possible and just learn everything about it as a physical tool. I loved taking it apart. I loved loading the film. I loved checking the gate. I just thought the camera was always so interesting to me. And it was something I always hoped I’d be able to explore and be a part of.
Jason Hervey: Fred was always looking through the lens, and so was I, but I was more wanting to talk to the writers and the producers and get a feel for how all those various parts of production came together to make the show you see. They were so gracious about indulging all of our curiosity on set. The business side of it was something I was always very curious about, and I was lucky enough to be able to watch how the show came together. I got an idea of what it was like interacting with a network, how that whole side of things was executed and delivered week after week.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about The Wonder Years however, is the fact that it managed to create a real family out of thin air. Much of the cast still keeps in touch to this day, and when they get together after so many years, it’s as if no time at all has passed.
Dan Lauria: I just got an invitation to Danica’s upcoming wedding. Danica’s my girl. Josh, when I’m in New York I’ll do a play and Josh will always come with his wife. He’s got a little baby girl. Jason has an office in L.A., and sometimes he stays at my house. And I go see everything Alley does and Alley comes to see everything I do. I love being with Alley. She’s as nutty as a fruitcake and I love it.
Jason Hervey: I have a tremendous amount of respect for Dan. Dan will tell you the way it is. He was like a second dad to us, a mentor, a coach, a big brother. Always there. He was the Papa Bear on the set. You didn’t fuck with Dan [laughs].
Danica McKellar: Dan is like a second dad to me, and the rest of us keep in touch how we can, whether through social media or over the phone. And we see each other periodically; Dan and Alley came to a taping when I was competing on Dancing With The Stars, and it was great to have their support. When I’m in New York, Josh and I try to grab breakfast. Of course my sister Crystal played Becky Slater on the show and we’re in constant contact.
Fred Savage: You know who really kept in touch was our parents. Our parents really kept in touch. My mom and Danica’s mom and Marsha, Jason’s mom, our parents really stayed in touch, which is so funny. They spent so many hours and so many years on set together that they formed this really close bond. And so over the years, that’s where I’d get my updates on everyone, from my mom.
Olivia d’Abo: We all feel so honored to have had that experience and met each other and still be in contact with each other. I was very proud to see how everybody’s head is so screwed on their shoulders. Very stable. You don’t really get the sense that these are “TV actor people.” When we all get together, we get very excited, because The Wonder Years was such a pivotal time in our lives.
Dan Lauria: No actor likes to hang his hat on one hook, but if you have to, The Wonder Years is an awfully classy hook. To me, you look back at The Wonder Years and it shows you what television could be if they really wanted it to be.