“It’s funny: Someone could do a True Hollywood Story of Small Wonder.” — cast member Emily Schulman Webster (Harriet)
Looking back, a lot of the TV shows we watched as kids in the 1980s don’t hold up all that well. Live-action shows like The Facts of Life and Punky Brewster were corny and preachy, and cartoons like G.I. Joe and Transformers were marred by crude, lazy animation. But one show from that era consistently gets singled out as maybe the worst TV show of all time: Small Wonder.
Debuting in first-run syndication on September 7, 1985, Wonder starred 10-year-old Tiffany Brissette as Vicki, a robot made to look like a girl who lives with her inventor Ted Lawson (Dick Christie), Ted’s wife Joan (Marla Pennington), and his son Jamie (Jerry Supiran). Vicki was supposed to blend in with the rest of the family as Ted’s adopted daughter, but she also possessed special powers like superhuman strength and Mr. Fantastic-like stretching ability.
So yes, the show’s off-the-wall premise (and diabolically catchy theme song: “She’s fantastic/Made of plastic!”) make it a ripe target for mockery. But the real story behind the making of Small Wonder might be even stranger than the show itself. With Wonder turning 30 years old next week, Yahoo TV spoke with cast members Marla Pennington Rowan (who played mom Joan) and Emily Schulman Webster (who played nosy neighbor girl Harriet) about their memories filming the show, and how they respond to it being labeled one of TV’s all-time biggest disasters.
“Oh, I thought it was strange, yeah,” Rowan says of her initial reaction to the Small Wonder script. “It was a kids’ comedy, and kind of science fiction. I was just happy I didn’t have to say all those long words that Dick had to say.” But Webster’s father was a “huge tech guy,” she says, and he saw Small Wonder as a glimpse at our inevitable future: “My dad was reading this script and saying, ‘This is going to happen! We’re gonna have robots.’” (We’re still waiting for our Vicki, by the way.)
The role of Vicki would be a large undertaking for any child actor: Not only did she have to carry the whole show, always in her trademark red-and-white pinafore dress, but she had to remain robotic at all times, speaking in a monotone and betraying no emotion whatsoever. Rowan and Webster both say that was tough on young Tiffany Brissette. “I know she got frustrated that she couldn’t wear different clothes, and she had to talk in the monotone,” Rowan says. “That was a big frustration for her. But she was a pro.”
A veteran of child pageants, the multi-talented Brissette could sing, dance, ride horses, do gymnastics, play the piano — but she wasn’t able to display any of those skills as Vicki. “I really respected her… she was brilliantly talented,” Webster remembers. “She could do everything. She was like a little machine. But it was very challenging for her. The better she did at portraying a robot, the harder it was for her… I do remember that she had to bite the inside of her cheeks to keep from smiling. That was tough. My heart sort of broke for her.”
Another difficult aspect of shooting for Brissette: the show’s numerous (and onerous) special effects shots, which saw Vicki’s head spinning around or her effortlessly lifting Jamie off the couch with one arm to vacuum underneath him. Every Thursday morning on the Small Wonder set was devoted to these shots, using a primitive version of green-screen technology. “Again, that was something Tiffany had to endure,” Webster says. “It would take a lot of trial and error.”
In fact, if you’ll notice, most of the special effects shots on the show are of Vicki alone — and that was no accident. “You were just trying to stay away from her, so you wouldn’t have to get in hair and makeup to be in that shot,” Rowan remembers. “When Tiffany was going to do something special, we’d just be like, 'Oh, I think I’ll sit over here!’”
Behind the scenes, things didn’t get any easier. The cast members got along great — as Rowan says, “we were just one big happy family” — but the parents of the child actors, well, did not. Webster says the show actually had to employ three separate tutors for the three child actors, because their parents couldn’t agree on one. “It was like Clash of the Titans,” she remembers. “None of the parents got along… and it wasn’t like it was always fun and games for us kids. There was definitely tension between us.”
Rowan sensed the tension, too: “The parents thought they were the stars. So it was just like, 'Oh, my goodness.’ I’d just stay out of it.” Brissette’s mother Diane was involved in many of these backstage squabbles, often pushing producers to let her daughter show off more of her skills. “Her mother was a great — and this is a very nice way of saying it — advocate for her daughter,” Webster says.
Despite all the personality clashes and technical difficulties, Small Wonder proved to be wildly popular with young audiences. (It helped that it ran on Saturdays, against very little competition.) Webster remembers being mobbed by fans while picking up her sister from school: “Anytime I would go out in public, I felt like a major celebrity.” And it was a hit internationally, too: “It was dubbed in, like, 52 different languages,” Rowan says.
By the time Small Wonder reached its fourth season, though, the fact that Brissette was aging — and growing — became harder to ignore. “I remember lots of talks about, 'What are we going to do when she hits puberty?’ and 'How are we going to make it make sense?’” Webster says. In the later seasons, the show explained Brissette’s growth spurt by saying that Ted had lengthened Vicki’s joints, and the production often skipped hiatuses as well, Rowan remembers: “They were so aware that the kids were going to be growing, so we just did as many shows as we could before they started seeing it.”
Ultimately, a power struggle at the corporate level sealed the show’s fate, Rowan says: “We were actually owned by five different companies: Metromedia, and Fox, and Rupert Murdoch had some money in it. And after a while, they just didn’t agree… And they knew that they got enough shows to do syndication, so why produce anymore?”
Small Wonder finished its four-season run in 1989 with 96 episodes under its belt — and a series finale that didn’t really wrap anything up, as Webster recalls. “Nobody knew if we were going to get picked up or not. So we didn’t have the big send-off where everybody gets a nice, clean ending to their story.”
But the show continued to run in syndication for nearly two decades after that; even today, Small Wonder can be seen on retro-TV provider Antenna TV. And of course, it lives on in infamy, as Webster knows all too well: “I had people come up to me all the time and say, 'You were on one of the worst shows of all time!’”
Rowan shrugs off the show’s detractors: “It doesn’t hurt me one way or the other. It was a job. I got paid. I have a nice savings account… It’s certainly not my best work. I don’t think anyone would say it was their best work. But it was fun, and I don’t think it really harmed anybody.“
But the backlash did take a toll on Webster, especially in her teen years; she remembers being teased mercilessly by her peers for being a part of Small Wonder. "I know that was also hard for Jerry and Tiffany,” she says. “I wish that we had been close, then, so we could have had a support group! Because that was really, really, really hard. That’s how all of these child actors succumb to the evils of the world, because it’s the transition that’s so tough.”
After Small Wonder ended, Brissette appeared on a handful of TV shows, but then left acting altogether to go back to school; she now works as a registered nurse in Boulder, Colorado. (Yahoo TV reached out to Brissette for comment, but never got a response.) “Tiffany, I think, just wants to step back and live a more normal life,” Rowan says. “She was pushed a lot. Her mom just pushed her too much. Way too much."
Jerry Supiran, who played Jamie, made headlines in 2012 for telling the National Enquirer he was broke and homeless after dating a stripper and being bilked by a financial advisor. But thankfully, Rowan reports that Supiran is doing much better today; in fact, she just had dinner with him and his fiancée a month ago. "He had some hard times,” she admits. “But this woman seems really good for him, and I think he’s in a really good place.”
As for Rowan, she left showbiz after Small Wonder to start a family; she had a son, Stan, and then, she says, “I just didn’t have that drive anymore. I just wanted to stay with my baby.” Today, she’s an avid cook, with a series of hand-written cookbooks that her friends and family love, and she’s looking to get back into acting: “I have a commercial agent, and I’m going out on some things. We’ll see.”
Webster followed up Small Wonder with appearances on ALF and The Wonder Years and a role on the CBS period drama Christy, then transitioned to become a Hollywood talent agent, which she did successfully for twenty years. Now she’s a theater director for a Connecticut boarding school: “It’s very healing and rewarding for me to take my experiences in the industry and apply it to the actual craft and catharsis of theater and drama,” she says.
And of course, Small Wonder is never that far behind her: “I was at the pool this summer when someone came up to my seven-year-old daughter and said, 'Oh my gosh, she looks just like that annoying girl from Small Wonder!’ Finally, I walked by them and said, 'I’m her mother… and that was me!’”