• PopEntertainment

Alley Mills, Olivia d’Abo & Danica McKellar – Looking Back in Wonder

Updated: Aug 26

The cast of

The cast of “The Wonder Years” recently reunited to celebrate the DVD release of the series. l to r: Alley Mills, Josh Saviano, Olivia d’Abo, Jason Hervey, Fred Savage, Danica McKellar and Dan Lauria

Alley Mills, Olivia d’Abo & Danica McKellar

Looking Back in Wonder

by Jay S. Jacobs

On January 31, 1988, just moments after Washington killed Denver in Super Bowl XXII, ABC aired the premiere of a new little series about suburban life in the 1960s.

The Wonder Years broke a lot of rules in television, and wrote many to come. It was a comedy, but it was also often quite dramatic. It was a single camera show filmed on a sound stage in Culver City, California, in which they created a dream suburbia of the end of American innocence.

The Wonder Years was created by Neal Marlens and Carol Black. It was the story of Kevin Arnold, played by Fred Savage, who grew from twelve to eighteen years old right before our eyes. Kevin lived in a generic American suburb (very pointedly, the show never said where it took place) during the late 60s and early 70s.

His father Jack (Dan Lauria) was a low-level business exec, mom Norma (Alley Mills) was a stay at home mom. Kevin had two older siblings, a beautiful teenaged hippie sister Karen (Olivia d’Abo) and the bane of his existence, his obnoxious brother Wayne (Jason Hervey). His best friend was the nerdy, hyper-allergic Paul Pfeiffer (Josh Saviano). The girl-next-door was Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar): his first crush, first love, first heartbreak and eventually the one who got away.

The Wonder Years took us through this entire stage Kevin’s life: through junior high and high school, first love and first heartbreak, early jobs, Vietnam and moon shots, his first color TV, and all the other suburban milestones.

After it’s post-Super Bowl launch, the show became a smash success. It was not just popularity, the first six episodes of the first mini-season were as close to perfect as television comes. In fact the first for seasons were quite extraordinary and The Wonder Years was a huge hit during that time. During the last couple of seasons, the quality and the popularity waned a bit, but even in those years there were some wonderful episodes. When the final two episodes aired back-to-back on May 12, 1993, all of America tuned in for the bittersweet farewell to the shows and the characters.

For well over a decade now, The Wonder Years has been hovering right at the top of the public’s wish list of TV series that should be released on home video. However, due to the massive amount of music used on the show, licensing fees proved prohibitive, making it impossible to release at a reasonable cost.

Finally, StarVista, a division of Time-Life, has worked out the legal machinations and has put together a deluxe box set of the entire series of The Wonder Years, complete with multiple extras and a cool school locker packaging.  Due to the licensing costs and the massive amount of content (six seasons on 26 disks), the set is a little pricey, but for a Wonder Years fanatic who has been salivating for this release for years, it’s worth every penny.  For the more budget conscious, individual seasons will be released down the line.

We recently had the opportunity to take part in an hour-long media conference call with the women of The Wonder Years. (Danica McKellar had to leave about halfway through because her son had a doctor’s appointment.) Here’s what McKellar, Olivia d’Abo and Alley Mills had to say about life on the iconic series and the excitement of it finally reaching home video.

The Arnold family from the first season of

The Arnold family from the first season of “The Wonder Years.” l to r: Jason Hervey, Dan Lauria, Olivia d’Abo, Alley Mills and Fred Savage.

How did the time period add to the experience for you guys as opposed to doing the show that would be set in the 80’s? Did you learn anything about the 60’s through the experience?

Alley Mills: I am going to start because I’m the oldest and I lived through the 60’s. That was when I was in high school.  The 60’s were so important in this show. I had the great honor of teaching all of it to Olivia, who kept going that she was the big hippie. I went, “We need to talk.” I got her all these CD’s of the music. Told her everything. Even though her father was a rock and roll guy, she didn’t really know the joy and the hope and the incredible energy behind the movement of the 60’s. I think the whole point of The Wonder Years was this was the beginning of the end of wonder.

The whole series began with the introduction of the Vietnam war into our little TV in the kitchen. It was at that very time that the whole country began to feel the pain of the war and the ramifications of that whole joyous movement. The period was everything about our show. That was what for me gave it all the beauty.

Danica McKellar: From my perspective, my character was almost acting independent of the time period, except for the wardrobe. What I thought was the meaning of the show was that it paralleled with huge things going on in the world. Then, what seemed like a huge things going on to a couple of kids. Their whole life revolved around whether or not they’re about to have their first kiss. Of course, Winnie Cooper’s brother died in Vietnam at the beginning of the show, but he could have died from anything. It’s loss and these very universal things that happen in every time period, which is why I think people can relate to the show even if they didn’t experience the 60’s.

What I am saying is I didn’t have to know very much about the 60’s, unlike these two who I am sitting with, who are more interactive with the world around them. My character interacted with school. Interacted with Kevin Arnold and Paul Pfeiffer. Dealt with things that are absolutely universal. Does this guy like me or not? Am I popular? Doing well in school. All those things. My parents in the show separated. Things that happened at any time.

Alley Mills: Except for go-go boots.

Danica McKellar: I had to wear this pants for the second episode with the flowers in all of them. I was horrified. I hated them like no other pair of pants that I ever wore in my whole life.

Olivia d’Abo: And the pink dress. The pink dress with the go-go boots.

Danica McKellar: That, I liked. I like that outfit.

Olivia d’Abo: Yes. I did too.

Danica McKellar: I love it, but the second episode, I had to wear this awful pants.

Olivia d’Abo: I wonder where it is today.

Danica McKellar: I don’t know. That little dress. Probably some warehouse somewhere.

Olivia d’Abo: No. These two have enamored me so much. I forgot the question you asked…

Danica McKellar: Yeah. How did the period affect the show?

Olivia d’Abo: Alley and Dan luckily lived through the 60’s. I think still to this day, everybody I know – including myself – feels like it was the most pivotal, incredibly exciting, electric time that we’ve had. Probably compared to the renaissance. The period for my character… she was a teenager. She was burst into this incredible time where she was experiencing free love. Tuning in and tuning out. Being very politically proactive in terms of being not pro-Vietnam but anti-Vietnam.

I was really amazed to learn as much as I could in a very short amount of time about the period. I studied. Luckily, I was able to watch it on video. A decade of shows called The Fabulous Sixties, which basically covered Woodstock and every year that transpired between 60 to 1970. I got really a very thorough education. I spent an entire summer with an acting coach of mine at the time at the Actor’s Center. I just studied. It was like going to college for the 60’s. Then, I read Letters to Vietnam, which was incredibly moving. It was a really palpable experience for me because actors are very sensitive and very emotionally connected to stuff that they are playing, if they are passionate about it.

I just digested it. Jumped right in. Immersed myself in music that Alley was kind enough to [give me]. She was a huge anchor for me, by the time I met her and got on set. She was actually a lot like Karen was. It was …

Alley Mills: (jokes) Yeah, we took LSD together.

Olivia d’Abo: Yeah, exactly. (laughs) It was just great to have that camaraderie. To shoot things off in terms of being able to say, “Am I off here? Am I in the right zone?” We had some improvisational stuff which we got to do luckily within the first season where there were no words but clearly the camera was on Fred and there was Daniel Stern’s narration. Those are some really pivotal times where we got the time to explore terrain that was without words but very much about the vibe of the period and the emotion behind [it].

Like when Karen disappears and goes to Woodstock and the car breaks down. Then, there’s a scene between myself and Alley and Dan. Kevin is watching and getting to know Karen a little bit better. Seeing a very different side of her. It was beautiful that those kinds of things were able to be explored without dialogue. Just the fact that we are characters who develop and well established by that stage. We all loved each other so much and work so well off of each other that we just let it rip and worked with the local osmosis between each other.

Fred Savage and Danica McKellar in the pilot episode of

Fred Savage and Danica McKellar in the pilot episode of “The Wonder Years.”

Have you guys missed the characters? Do you ever say, “I wish I could go back and visit them again.”?

Olivia d’Abo: We do every day. They are a part of our DNA at this point. Yes, definitely.

Danica McKellar: Well, every day somebody recognizes one of us on the street. Every day we get to be that character in some form. We get to see people’s looks on their faces. They say, “Oh my gosh, that show I miss so much. My family watched it together.” We get to feel how special the experience was over and over again. They’re both nodding right now.

Was this really a life changing job? There’s many acting job that are just acting jobs, but this is something that really sticks. It’s one of those things that’s not just temporary.

Olivia d’Abo: Yes. I think that every actor’s dream. Every artists’s dream. You want to be part of something that’s cyclical. 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. Hopefully you get into it to really have a purpose and address something out there in the world that’s it’s going to resonate and be memorable and touch people and make them laugh.

Luckily, I think we hit on all of those things with our show. It’s sort of bitter sweet, but there was a lesson in every show that stuck with everybody. When you watch it today, it resonates even more. The world has changed even from the 80’s when we shot it, let alone the 60’s.

Danica McKellar: Now, nobody has to miss the characters because it’s coming out on DVD. (They all laugh.)

Olivia d’Abo: Good answer.

Alley Mills: This is not an answer to the character question but to did it change us? Working on a show, I think it’s very rare. I am the oldest at the group. Once you’ve been around the block, you can see what things resonate. What things resonates and what things stick in the hearts of people. The thing that this show did… nobody really knows what that magic ingredient was, except I always say it starts with writing, probably goes half way with writing and ends with writing. But it was also that we got to be part of it. It was a great gift of that.

Something that can touch every walk of life, every economic background, every color, every nationality. It’s so rare that writing can do that. It’s like any great novel. It’s like Shakespeare in the theater. Those things last and were we luckier than… I won’t say the “S” word because I am sitting here with two young girls… but luckier than anything to be part of that?

Olivia d’Abo: Lucky as shit? I’m sorry, I said it. (They all laugh again.)

Alley Mills: Norma would never say that. Danica was being somewhat facetious about now we get to see it on DVD. But the truth is it’s amazing that right now all of us run into eight-year old Hispanic kids on the street in LA who get to watch this show. I am so thrilled that now, my grand children [can see it], because it’s not probably running anymore on Nick at Nite which they got to see on and it’s running out on Hispanic TV. They’re going to now be able to go on and on and always see this. I think the show is always going to just have that human link that make shows magic. And make them laugh. Long answer. Sorry.

Olivia d’Abo: That’s all right.

Josh Saviano, Fred Savage and Danica McKellar in

Josh Saviano, Fred Savage and Danica McKellar in “The Wonder Years.”

The show has been several years at the top of the list of the shows that people want to see on DVD. To what do you attribute the ongoing popularity of the show? Have you watched it over the years? If so, how does it hold up for each of you as a television show?

Danica McKellar: I haven’t watched it in a while to be honest. I haven’t watched a full episode, although I did watch the first kiss recently because we had the outtakes for the first kiss from the pilot and Fred and I had to give commentary on it.

Olivia d’Abo: How many?

Danica McKellar: There are like six takes. The reason I think is of course is in the writing. Why did the show make such a splash? Why did it resonate so much in people? Why does it still matter? I think it’s because this was, from my perspective, the first show that really honored the strength and the emotions that kids have at such a young age. Most TV shows up until that point were all about parents and the kids were there too. This is the first show that have the narration. You got inside the mind and a heart of the small child. I don’t think that it had been done yet. When we’re little, we all have huge emotions. The world doesn’t really honor them in the same way that they honor adult’s feelings because they’re just kids.

You’re not in control of your own lives yet. You can’t make your own decisions. And, “Oh, it’s puppy love.” “Oh, it’s this.” “Oh, it’s that.” “Come on, buck up or whatever.” We all have memory of those painful early years and the elation of those early years. The huge feelings. Christmas morning is never the same from adult as it is to a child. The huge strong emotions. The show honored them and made [people] say, “Yes, this is valid. This is real, this happened.” So we all get to go back and say, “Oh, yes. I am validated.” As a child, I had these strong feelings and now I see that it mattered. I don’t think any other show had done that before. We got to be a part of something that was ground breaking and gave a new perspective for people on their own childhood. I think that’s why, for kids watching, it mattered. For adults watching it, it mattered. Because we’ve all been …

Alley Mills: We’ve all been there.

Danica McKellar: Yes, exactly. That’s just my long answer in that.

Alley Mills: I have one other answer, I totally agree with Danica about that. I think the fact that the format was in one half hour. A story was told that would make you laugh and at the end, always when I have watched it with my grandchildren recently, make you cry. [It] is another phenomenon that I think is why the show was so successful. Like a little morality tale almost, every single week. [It] transcended barriers somehow that could affect everybody, as Danica just said, young and old. All walks of life were moved by this.

People that didn’t even speak English, that watched it in different language. I think that’s another reason that it does hold up. My grandchildren like things that change every 15 seconds Boom-boom-boom-boom on their little iPads and stuff. But they love the show. That moved me.

Olivia d’Abo: That’s a really interesting point, Alley, in terms of what you see that your grandkids. They like stuff that changes quickly, because their generation is so used to that. I think that the positive thing about that generation now watching this show is knowing that they would love the show as everybody else does. It can rewire their mind a little bit to have the kind of concentration to actually get through an actual scene and be moved by it, which is very rare. In the modern day world, that’s the thing that I think is really exciting and poignant and positive about it being re-released for this new generation of kids.

Danica McKellar: So you’re saying, it’s actually healthy for them.

Alley Mills: It’s healthy. Obviously, it’s healthy.

Danica McKellar: It’s healthy for their brain development.

Alley Mills: It’s like a Mulligan Stew for… It’s almost like, I have taken the kids to the theater and they’re rapt. They sit there like, “Huh.” They didn’t know that they could concentrate for that long in the quiet. It might have that effect on this new generation – [the] tranquility of an actual human story, which is getting lost.

Danica McKellar and Fred Savage in the sixth season of

Danica McKellar and Fred Savage in the sixth season of “The Wonder Years.”

Danica, you mentioned a lot of the universal themes. Kevin and Winnie taught so many of us about love. What have you learned from their relationship that helped you in your own relationships and how would you describe their relationship?

Alley Mills: Oh, girl. She wears go-go boots.

Danica McKellar: What did I learn about love? Well, I had my first kiss. Yes, I had my first kiss on the show. I learned how to kiss. I learned that things aren’t straight forward. Things aren’t black and white. I am remembering in the second episode called “Swingers.” Kevin and Winnie go back to the same place where they had their first kiss. But they don’t kiss, they sit down and swing and they act like little kids again. He said that maybe, I remember just thinking about progress not being straight lined and sometimes, it’s … I don’t remember the quote. We can probably look at it, it’s a great quote.

To be honest, I haven’t even seen this episode for probably 25 years, but I still remember this moment of progress doesn’t always move forward. Sometimes we have to swing back and forth a little bit. That’s a beautiful and important message. Relationships are not straight forward. They’re not black and white. Sometimes things don’t always go in a straight line. And that’s okay. That’s okay.

Love can be very confusing. (laughs) The show was told from the point of view of Kevin, though. So I also learned that women are fickle, and not to be understood. (laughs again) Which I thought was a little strange since to me, we make perfect sense. One thing I will say too is that not even so much me learning from Kevin and Winnie’s relationship. Kevin and Winnie’s relationship was in some ways defined by my friendship with Fred and some of the things that we would say. The writers would actually take lines from things that we were saying to each other off camera and put it in the script. There’s this whole episode dedicated to, “Do you like him?” Or, “Do you like him like him?”

That was the expression that he and I used when we’re talking about some guy that I had a crush on in real life. Then it showed up on the script a few weeks later. There was a lot of blurred lines. The other interesting thing is I broke up with my first boyfriend in real life about a week before we shot the episode where I have to break up with Kevin on the show.

It was fascinating how many parallels there were. Real life informing TV. TV informing real life. It was fascinating.

Have you watched it with your fiancé now and have you guys discussed that?