It’s been a while since The Wonder Years was on our screens. But back when it was there, it was huge. Indeed, to this day it’s considered one of the best American TV shows of its era. And its stars are still remembered best for being part of the show, even though they grew up and went on to other things.
The Wonder Years follows a young boy named Kevin Arnold, played by Fred Savage, throughout the defining years of his life. The series covers the time period 1968 to 1973 and every year in the series occurs exactly 20 years before it aired on TV. Meanwhile, Kevin’s relationships with his family, friends and crush Winnie Cooper are all important aspects of the show.
An older Kevin, voiced by Daniel Stern, narrates the series by looking back on what he calls his “wonder years.” And these days, the young cast of the show likewise reminiscence about the time they spent growing up on set. Indeed, just like their characters, they too went through teenage crushes and difficult situations before emerging as adults.
For its part, The Wonder Years set precedents in its approach. Indeed, the concept of an older version of the main character narrating about his childhood was a new plot device at the time. Meanwhile, co-creators Neal Marlens and Carol Black, fresh off the show Growing Pains, wanted to do something set around the backdrop of the 1960s, a time where all sorts of major things were happening around the world.
Key to the success of the show was finding an excellent young actor to play Kevin, the person upon whose shoulders the whole show rested. The producers cast Fred Savage on the basis of his other work, which included The Princess Bride and Vice Versa. And it turned out to be absolutely the right choice.
Meanwhile, in 2014 Marlens told Rolling Stone about discovering Savage. He said, “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.”
Another important part of the show was Winnie Zeliger, played by Danica McKellar. When it came to casting the role, the showrunners had to choose between her and her sister Crystal. Eventually Danica was given the role, but the producers liked Crystal so much that they decided to write another part, Becky Slater, for her.
For her part, Danica McKellar was delighted to be picked, not least because she liked her co-star Savage from the moment she first saw him. During an oral history for the show in 2014, she explained to Rolling Stone, “I remember seeing [Savage] 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.”
Meanwhile, the first kiss between Savage and McKellar’s characters in the show really was the first kiss one they shared. The latter told Good Morning America in 2014, “The one good thing about getting your first kiss on camera is that you know for sure it’s going to happen.” And Savage added, “It was terrifying, we were both scared and nervous.”
And a childhood affection actually did develop between the two actors. Savage told People in 2000, “I was in love with her for the same reasons every other boy fell in love with her. You won’t meet a sweeter, nicer girl – and she’s gorgeous.” And McKellar contributed, “In the beginning we had a mutual crush. Then things went into the teasing stuff and then into a more comfortable, brother-sister thing.”
Then as time went on, the young actors of the show witnessed more of life and were able to bring their own experiences to the table. For example, Savage told Equire in 2014, “There was an episode where my math teacher died and I remember at the time my grandfather was very sick and not doing very well.”
Meanwhile, Savage explained how the show ended up mirroring his reality. He continued, “With the math teacher, Mr. Collins, that was first time he lost someone he felt close to. That was what I was going through with my grandfather. The show was right in sync with what I was going through in my life and that episode was very emotionally resonant to me.”
However, it wasn’t just the children who drew on things from their own lives, the adults did too. Kevin’s father Jack Arnold is a former soldier because his actor Dan Lauria was one also. He told Rolling Stone, “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.’”
Meanwhile, as for Alley Mills, who played Norma Arnold, she was inspired by somebody from her childhood. She told Rolling Stone, “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.”
Not all child actors speak with fondness about the shows which made them famous, but the ones from The Wonder Years do. McKellar explained in the Rolling Stone introspective, “The producers made sure that above all, we were kids first. They were very accommodating for important events in our lives.”
However, there came a time when the kids on the show had grown into teenagers, and it was then that things got difficult. The showrunners simply weren’t allowed to show the realistic aspects of teenage life that they wanted to show. So between that and dwindling ratings, it was time for The Wonder Years to come to an end.
Elsewhere, executive producer Bob Brush was impressed the show lasted as long as it did. He told Rolling Stone, “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.”
Meanwhile, the last episode of the series didn’t necessarily please all the fans. In the two-part finale, it transpires that Kevin and Winnie, the characters whose romance had been detailed right from the start, don’t end up together as adults. Older Kevin’s narration also reveals that his father Jack dies in 1975.
And apparently, Brush was surprised that not everyone liked the last episode. He said to Rolling Stone, “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.”
Fred Savage loved the ending, however. He added, “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 [as] that person.” Savage continued, “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.”
Such was the power of The Wonder Years that even long after it finished, people were curious about what the young actors ended up doing with their lives. And sometimes this manifested in slightly odd ways. For years a rumor permeated around the internet that Josh Saviano, who played Kevin’s pal Paul Pfeiffer, grew up to become rocker Marilyn Manson.
The Manson rumor was totally untrue, of course. But it was so pervasive that the cast mentioned it when they reunited on ABC News in 2014. Host Chris Connelly asked Saviano how many times a week he got the Marilyn Manson question, to which the latter responded, “Many.” And McKellar cut in with, “I get asked if he’s Marilyn Manson like every week.”
What Saviano actually ended up doing as an adult was a far cry from the antics of Marilyn Manson – he became a lawyer. This was a case of art imitating life, as in the last episode of The Wonder Years Paul also eventually becomes a lawyer. Meanwhile, Saivano graduated from Yale, while the fictional Paul studied at Harvard.
Elsewhere, the main adults of the Wonder Years cast continued their acting careers after the show was over. Dan Lauria, aka Jack Arnold, has popped up on popular TV shows such as How I Met Your Mother, Grey’s Anatomy, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. He’s also done acclaimed work on Broadway.
In fact, Lauria prefers being on the stage to being on television. He told NBC in 2013, “If I’m the dad on The Wonder Years, that’s fine. But I’ve never gone a year without doing at least one play. There’s no bigger effort when you step on a stage on Broadway than when you step on the stage of a 90-seat theater in Trenton. So as long as I’m on stage, I can try new things.”
Meanwhile, Alley Mills continued to do lots of TV work after The Wonder Years finished. For example, from 1993 to 1997 she was a regular on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Then in 2006 she got the main role of Pamela Douglas on The Bold and the Beautiful. Indeed, she still appears on that show to this day.
Mills talked in 2014 about how proud she was to have seen her young co-stars grow up. She told Collider, “It was so unlike the children that I’ve seen grow up to be adults in this business because it’s a very tough business for children. … I was just so impressed with these boys that have become these amazing men.”
One of the boys Mills was referring to was Jason Hervey, who played Wayne Arnold and grew up to be a producer. Many of his credits revolve around the World Championship Wrestling group. But he’s produced other media too, including some TV movies. You may also have seen him as himself on show such as VH1’s I Love the ‘80s.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t until Hervey and Savage were a little older that their relationship truly blossomed. Hervey told People in 2000, “I took him out for his first legal drink. I got him a shot of Tequila and some beers. People were completely freaking out, going, ‘Look! Look! They’re together!’ It was pretty neat.” Hervey also has children of his own now.
For her part, Olivia d’Abo, who played Kevin’s teenage sister Karen, remained an actress. She’s now known for playing Nicole Wallace on Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Abby Carter in Eureka. She does a lot of voice work as well – she can be heard, for example, in Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
In 2014 d’Abo answered in the affirmative when Collider asked her if The Wonder Years had changed her life. She responded, “Yes. I think that every actor’s dream, and every artist’s dream. You want to be part of something that’s cyclical and that comes around every 20 years. That makes you feel like all of the hard work that you’ve been putting into your craft is actually paying off.”
Unlike some of her co-stars and peers, Danica McKellar didn’t find it easy to keep acting after The Wonder Years finished. She told Paramount in 2007 that she found growing up in the industry “a little bumpy.” But she always had another career to fall back on, namely one in mathematics.
And McKellar’s skill in math is very notable indeed. She went to the University of California and gained a degree in the subject there. While there she co-authored a paper which lead to a complex mathematical theorem being named in part after her. This is called the Chayes-McKellar-Winn theorem.
Furthermore, McKellar also still acts. Appropriately considering her other career, she’s made a guest appearance on The Big Bang Theory. She’s also been in How I Met Your Mother, multiple Hallmark movies and she competed on the eighteenth season of Dancing with the Stars.
So McKellar holds the distinction of being a famous mathematician as well as an actress. She’s published a book, Math Doesn’t Suck, in an effort to get young girls involved in the field. And in 2014 she received the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics Communications Award for everything she’d done to encourage others.
Meanwhile, just like the people who appeared alongside her, McKellar has fond memories of The Wonder Years. And she also credits it with teaching her the discipline required for math. She told Paste in 2014, “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.”
As for Fred Savage, the star of the show, he too has good memories of his childhood on the Wonder Years set. He told Rolling Stone, “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.”
For his part, Savage is a director and a dad. His list of directing credits are long and include many mainstream comedies and children’s shows. He’s done episodes of Boy Meets World, That’s So Raven, The Goldbergs and Fresh off the Boat among others. He also directed the film Daddy Day Camp, though it wasn’t a success.
Meanwhile, Savage told Rolling Stone that he had watched The Wonder Years again as an adult. He said, “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.” He added that though the show first hit TV screens in 1988, “it still feels fresh.”
But will there ever be a sequel to The Wonder Years? Dan Lauria doesn’t think so at least. He told NBC in 2013, “There were talks about making a show around Fred Savage’s character Kevin, as a dad now with a couple of kids. But Neil Marlens just felt like it was a special show and we should leave it as is.”