36 Trivia Tidbits About ‘The Wonder Years’
Forget the Beatles, the absolute best version of “With a Little Help from My Friends” is by Joe Cocker. Not only did it rock way harder than the original, but it was the iconic theme song for one of the best sitcoms of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The Wonder Years was the coming-of-age story of Kevin Arnold, a boy growing up during the Vietnam War. Shot single camera and without a laugh track, the show was unafraid to break the standard half-hour sitcom format. Nor did it shy away from dealing with real issues — both in terms of the time period and the timeless perils of adolescence.
While the series had a somewhat uneven run, its honest, heartfelt depiction of suburban life still resonates today, 36 years after its debut, which is why we’re sharing 36 trivia tidbits about this truly exceptional show below…
The Wonder Years was devised in 1987 by husband and wife writing/producing team Carol Black and Neal Marlens. They also worked on Growing Pains and Ellen.
Finding the kid to play Kevin Arnold was surprisingly simple, as multiple casting directors recommended 11-year old Fred Savage, still hot off his role from The Princess Bride a year earlier.
Savage’s First Gigs
Savage had actually begun acting at six years old, doing commercials.
The Voice of Kevin
Daniel Stern, best known as Marv in Home Alone, supplied the voiceover as adult Kevin. On getting the role, he said, “I went in and did sort of an anonymous reading of the script. I was contestant number six, or something like that. I think they didn’t want to have the baggage of who the person was — they just wanted it to be straight voice, and I got the job.”
Alley Mills played Kevin’s mother. She was kinda dumbfounded that she was cast: “Not only was I not married, but I’d never played a mother. I’d played sort of tough, cuspy, edgy, sarcastic people.”
Little-known theater actor Dan Lauria landed the role of Kevin’s father, Jack Arnold, despite the network’s insistence that the creators go with a bigger name.
“I was a teenager myself, so I was drawing off that kind of innate rebellion that was kind of existing within me at the time,” said Olivia D’Abo, who played Kevin’s older, hippie sister Karen.
By the time Jason Hervey was cast as Kevin’s brother Wayne, he’d already worked in films like Back to the Future, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School. Mills said that Hervey was “completely his character.”
Kevin’s Love Interest
Danica McKellar was still fairly new to acting when she was cast in The Wonder Years, though she’d appeared in two episodes of the 1980s incarnation of The Twilight Zone.
Kevin’s Best Friend
Josh Saviano was asked to wheeze during his audition for the part of Kevin’s best friend Paul Pfeiffer. Unable to wheeze, he offered to sneeze instead, which got him the part.
The First Kiss
McKellar said there were six takes of the famous first kiss between Kevin and Winnie.
Why It Was Called ‘The Wonder Years’
In addition to the first kiss between Kevin and Winnie, the pilot also tackled the death of Winnie’s brother in Vietnam. As Mills explained, “That’s what Neal and Carol said in the pilot — it was The Wonder Years because it was the end of them. It was the end of innocence, to see that war and people dying from our backyards right on television, which is why I think it’s so important that Winnie’s brother died in the pilot.”
’The Wonder Years’ Debuts
Brandon Stoddard, the head of ABC, was so impressed by the pilot that he put it on right after the Super Bowl on January 31, 1988. The reviews and ratings were great, so five more episodes were ordered right away.
Its Near-Immediate Renewal
The six-episode first season of The Wonder Years was the 10th biggest show of the 1987-1988 season, tied with ALF. It was so successful that ABC made the unusual move of renewing it for three additional seasons.
Its Rocky Run
That said, the show had uneven ratings for the rest of its run. It slipped to 22nd place in Season Two, then rebounded to eighth place in Season Three. For Seasons Four, Five and Six, it ranked at number 30 or below, with the final season only making it to 54th place.
Sorry, Mr. Kennedy
John Burroughs Senior High School in Burbank doubled for Robert F. Kennedy High School in The Wonder Years.
The Real School
Savage and the other kids attended school inside of a trailer on set; they’d attend classes in between scenes being shot.
Sweet Home Chicago
Being from Chicago, Savage and his family would return to their hometown when the show was on hiatus.
Boy Meets Brother
Savage’s brother and future Boy Meets World star Ben Savage guest-starred on a Season Three episode of The Wonder Years. He played Curtis Hartsell, a boy who Kevin told to slip his valentine into Winnie’s locker for him.
The Wonder Years purposefully never said where it took place, so that anyone could identify with its “Anytown, USA” feel. The biggest hints to its location, however, are Kevin’s Jets jacket and license plates from both New York and California.
Off-screen, Lauria and Savage bonded over old movies. Savage recalled Lauria putting together double features of Jimmy Cagney movies, in particular.
A Sudden Departure
During the second season, Marlens and Black abruptly left the show, never publicly giving a reason why. Writer/producer Bob Brush took over as showrunner until the series ended.
The third season episode “Good-Bye” focused on a teacher’s death after Kevin had grown close to him. Previous to that, in real life, Savage had recently experienced his own first major death with the passing of his grandfather, which Savage said informed his performance. The episode won an Emmy for Brush and is considered, along with the pilot, one of the best of the series.
Paul’s Growing Pains
Between the fourth season finale and the fifth season premiere, Saviano grew six inches. The change resulted in a new storyline for his character, focused on Paul dealing with hormones in a way Kevin wasn’t yet.
Kevin’s Growing Pains
Heading into the sixth and final season, Savage had his own growth spurt, including his voice changing. Reflecting on this, television critic Howard Rosenberg said, “The kid’s voice is going to change, then the whole patina of the show changes. You can still write good stuff, it can still be a good show, but something is missing and, because, when his voice changes, there’s a sense of innocence that has vanished.”
The Show Got Pricey
Following the show’s cancellation, The Los Angeles Times reported that “as Kevin aged, especially after he got his driver’s license, the producers felt compelled to shoot more scenes on location, away from the Arnold home. Coupled with escalating cast salaries, the budget soared to a whopping $1.2 million per half-hour episode. Many hour-long dramas are shot for less.”
Why It Ended
In addition to declining ratings and increasing costs, The Wonder Years was canceled due to creative differences with the network. The show’s creators wanted the series to mature and change in tone along with Kevin’s age — including his “sexual awakening” — but ABC was reticent because it was a family show that aired at 8 p.m. Eventually, they reached an impasse, and the series was canceled.
Kevin’s Aforementioned Sexual Awakening
The final episode of the series originally saw Kevin lose his virginity, but due to objections from ABC, it was left more ambiguous.
A More Grotesque Reason for Its Cancellation
In 2018, Mills said the original series was canceled “after a former costume designer filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Savage, then 16, and fellow co-star Jason Hervey, then 20. The suit was settled out of court,” The New York Post reported.
The Would-Be Seventh Season
Had The Wonder Years gone on longer, Brush said it would have dealt more with the wind-down of the Vietnam War, which was the originally-intended ending.
The Rushed Final Episode
Following the show’s cancellation, a voiceover was added over what became the series finale. It offered up the summarized futures of the characters, including that Kevin’s dad died just two years later and that Kevin and Winnie didn’t end up together. Many fans of the show revile the rushed nature of the finale.
The Last Voiceover
When Stern recorded his final voiceover, he said, “When I got to the last speech, I went to read it, and it was very emotional. I was trying to not cry during the thing, and Bob Brush was sitting there and he was getting weepy.”
The last bit of voiceover for the series hears a kid asking the adult Kevin to play catch, and Kevin replying, “I’ll be right there.” Stern’s son Henry played the part of Kevin’s son.
It’s a Multiple Emmy-Winner
The Wonder Years was nominated for 28 Emmys, winning four of them. During its debut season, it won for Outstanding Comedy Series, and later on, it picked up two Emmys for directing and one for writing for the aforementioned episode “Good-Bye.”
A Part of History
In 2014, Kevin’s Jets jacket was inducted into the Smithsonian, as Savage’s mother had held onto the jacket for decades for exactly that purpose. For his part, Savage said at the time, “The first day of school was in that jacket, the kiss was in that jacket. All the iconic moments from the first season, those are all in that jacket.”
The Appeal of ‘The Wonder Years’
During the Smithsonian induction ceremony, Savage said, “For six years and 115 episodes, we were all a part of a show that appealed to the hearts and the attention of the TV audience. The show celebrated the achievements and the heroism of everyday life — your first day of junior high, the first time you call a girl, your first kiss, your first school dance, your first time falling in love, getting your heart broken for the first time, playing pick-up basketball in your backyard with your best friend. And this is what our show was about. It was about the characters of the show, but at the same time, it was about all of us and that’s why I think the show connected with audiences so deeply.”