'The Wonder Years' at 30: How the voice of Kevin Arnold was hired, fired, then rehired

·Producer, Yahoo Entertainment

Thirty years ago today, on Jan. 31, 1988, immediately following Super Bowl XXII, America met the Arnold family for the first time on ABC’s The Wonder Years.

While the spotlight shined brightest on young Kevin (Fred Savage), his siblings, Karen (Olivia D’Abo) and Wayne (Jason Hervey), and his parents, Jack (Dan Lauria) and Norma (Alley Mills), all became familiar faces and, in many cases, mirror images, of the average suburban American family of the day even though the show took place in 1968. The all-American gang was rounded out by quintessential girl next door Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar) and loyal best friend Paul Pfeiffer (Josh Saviano).

But arguably the most memorable presence wasn’t physical. Daniel Stern (Home Alone, City Slickers, Rookie of the Year) played the role of the adult Kevin Arnold and narrated the entire show, looking back on his youth with a mix of existential monologues and clever quips. The voice-over was progressive at the time and initially bewildering to the cast, and Stern tells Yahoo it almost didn’t happen. “I was fired!” he admitted in a recent interview.

Daniel Stern voiced adult Kevin Arnold and narrated <em>The Wonder Years</em>. (Photo: Getty Images)
Daniel Stern voiced adult Kevin Arnold and narrated The Wonder Years. (Photo: Getty Images)

In fact, if you were watching the very first episode of The Wonder Years after the Super Bowl in 1988, you would not have heard Stern’s voice as the narrator. “Don’t get me started on Arye Gross,” Stern joked, referring to the actor who narrated the initial airing. Here’s what went down, as Stern tells it:

“Interesting story. I got the part, we did the pilot. And my contract was that I could go do movies, because that’s what I was doing, but I’d make space to record [The Wonder Years]. I had an audition for a movie that took place in Africa and I mentioned it to one of [The Wonder Years] producers … and he goes, ‘You’re going to go to Africa?’ I said, ‘I don’t think so, but, if I get the gig, [sure].’ The next day, I’m fired from the show. Because they’re worried [about] my movie career. They’re worried that I wouldn’t be available. And I’m like, ‘Crap.’ Because not only did I narrate it but I was going to direct [episodes].”

Stern also directed 10 episodes of <em>The Wonder Years</em>. (Photo: Getty Images)
Stern also directed 10 episodes of The Wonder Years. (Photo: Getty Images)

Despite losing the gig, Stern briefly tuned in to the big premiere. He even recognized the voice of his replacement.

“And they aired it, and a dear friend of mine, Arye Gross, did the pilot,” Stern said. “He was fantastic from the little I heard. And then a day or two later, they call up and say, ‘We want you back.’ Evidently, my voice compared to Arye’s voice [was better]. And it was fantastic because I got a big raise … and all this other good stuff happened.”

Daniel Stern, left, narrated <em>The Wonder Years</em> except for the aired pilot, which included voice-over by actor Arye Gross (right). Gross would later star on the sitcom <em>Ellen. </em>(Photo: Getty Images)
Daniel Stern, left, narrated The Wonder Years except for the aired pilot, which included voice-over by actor Arye Gross (right). Gross would later star on the sitcom Ellen. (Photo: Getty Images)

To this day, Stern is unsure of the reasoning behind the last-minute switch-back: “I don’t know why it went back to me. It was such an incredible gift, given, taken away, and given back.”

But once he was back on the show, for good this time, Stern made the unusual choice to go uncredited.

“I never took any credit on the show. I never had a billing,” he said. “Because I never knew what my character was. I mean, to me, my character was Kevin Arnold, just later. It seemed that Fred [Savage] was Kevin Arnold and I was Kevin Arnold at the same time.”

Stern’s career as a film actor, combined with being a newcomer to TV, also played a factor in his decision to go credit-less.

“At the time, I was in movies,” he said. “There was a very strict line between being in movies and being in television. If you were trying to make a living as a film actor, you were trying to stay in your lane.”

Since being “the voice” of The Wonder Years, Stern has found success both onscreen and off (including sculpting). Notably, he played one half of the bumbling bandit duo in Home Alone and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.

And as for that voice, if you don’t think it’s completely essential to The Wonder Years, a clever editor stripped a scene of its narration giving it a much more bizarre, paranoid feel. Yahoo showed it to Stern himself for his expert opinion, watch below:

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