The Coopers. The Pfeiffers. And, of course, the Arnolds. Emmy-winning, coming-of-age dramedy The Wonder Years was all about family.
But not just onscreen.
Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar) had Kevin Arnold's (Fred Savage) heart for most of the series, though one notable rival — Becky Slater — was played by McKellar's real-life sister, Crystal. Fred Savage's younger brother (and future Boy Meets World star) Ben guest-starred in Season 3's "St. Valentine's Day Massacre." The Wonder Years was created by real-life marrieds Carol Black and Neal Marlens. And the Stern family was represented by three men on the series: narrator Daniel, writer David, and Daniel's son, Henry, who was a part of one of the most famous series finales ever.
"I always believe, in any movie or TV series, that the feeling on the set is the [show]," Daniel Stern, who narrated the series as adult Kevin, tells Yahoo TV. "Everybody builds this fantasy together. The leads, the head writers, directors, the grips… everybody buys into this fantasy, whatever it is, and that's how the movie and the TV show gets made. That is so important. Having my brother on the set was so wonderful. And then my son!"
The series' ending came about a year sooner than the cast and crew had anticipated and with little notice for the writers, when ABC pulled the plug on Years after filming on Season 6 had wrapped. Producer Bob Brush turned to one of the show's signature storytelling devices to tie up, beautifully and impactfully, all that would have happened in Season 7 and beyond for Kevin and the Arnolds: Stern's narration. And the actor, who also directed 10 episodes of The Wonder Years, got through the very emotional sendoff with a little help from his son.
"The words they'd written were hugely loaded. Here we are finding out everybody's fate, the fate of something that's so cherished, and I am the bearer of the news," says Stern, who currently stars in the WGN drama Manhattan. "On top of it all, there was this tiny moment at the end of the finale where I, as adult Kevin, finish the narration, and you hear the narrator's son, Kevin's son, say, 'Hey, Dad, wanna play catch?' They asked that I bring my own son to do that. My wife brought him to the recording studio, so she's there, and I was bawling like a baby… those two hours in that booth with the wrap-up of the show and the content of that show and then my son there and my wife's crying… it was just incredibly special."
Stern's personal experience on the show is one shared by other Wonder Years stars, from Dan Lauria and Alley Mills, who played Arnold 'rents Jack and Norma, to Danica McKellar, the epitome of Girl Next Door-ness as Winnie.
Watch the first two minutes from the debut episode:
When Yahoo TV asked Lauria, who currently stars in the TBS comedy Sullivan & Son, what he's most proud of about The Wonder Years, his answer sounded like he was speaking as a pleased papa:
"I always say I'm most proud that all the kids on the show did great. All that stuff you hear about Hollywood and how kids on TV shows do badly… the reality is about 15 percent do badly, but in our business, we [talk about] that 15 percent instead of the 85 percent positive," Lauria says. "But all our kids... Fred is one of the leading directors on TV. He's so busy we can't even get him on Sullivan & Son. We've tried twice.
"Jason Hervey is one of the leading producers of reality shows. Josh Saviano is a big entertainment lawyer. And, of course, Danica has written four books on math."
McKellar — who writes, produces, and hosts Math Bites on Nerdist and is a spokesperson for Colgate's Bright Smiles, Bright Futures campaign aimed at educating children about dental health — says everyone on the show was committed to making sure she and her younger co-stars were allowed to experience life as kids, not just kid actors.
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"There's a lot of rushing around that happens on sets most of the time. 'You have to be over here, time is money!' But they respected us. They never rushed us. If we wanted to rehearse something 10 times, they'd let us," says the actress, who reunited with her cast mates for Time-Life's Wonder Years complete series DVD box set, which includes 23 hours of bonus materials and more than 300 original songs used on the show.
"They also made sure we got exercise. They had a basketball court on set. And they would schedule around my singing recitals. They just did everything they could to keep us well-rounded kids. I think it benefited them on the show, because they got real kids who were having real emotions and shared that on camera."
Mills, who's currently a scene stealer as kooky Pam on The Bold and the Beautiful, says it was a concentrated effort — by her and Lauria, by crew members like key grip Skip Cook (also name-checked by Stern, Lauria, and McKellar as the crew member most dedicated to the kids on set), and by the young stars' real-life parents — that kept the Wonder Years show and the Wonder Years years so family-friendly.
"The Savages and Herveys are phenomenal people," says Mills. "We're all still friends. We bonded together, Marcia Hervey and me and Joan Savage, to make sure things on the set didn't ever get out of control and that the kids were looked after. They were [stage] moms, but the good kind. And you just didn't mess with Marcia or Joan. Once there was a thing where Fred felt embarrassed — I think it was about wearing underpants. He wanted to wear boxer shorts instead. I just said, 'Guys, is it worth making a 10-year-old cry?' As much as Fred was a pro, it was more important for him to be a kid.
"Sometimes Dan and I both… we made some of the directors kind of mad, because they wanted to move as quickly as possible. We would do things like put peas on our nose, and when the close-up was on the kids, we'd blow the peas into our Coke glasses. Put mashed potatoes on our face at the table to crack everybody up. We just wanted to keep it real, like a real family, for everyone."
The Wonder Years: The Complete Series DVD box set is now available from Time-Life.