One of TV's greatest love stories began right after the Super Bowl in 1988, with the debut of The Wonder Years on ABC. That first episode saw Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) and his neighbor Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar) have their first kiss, beginning an on-and-off romance that would span the series' six-season run.
Behind the scenes, another romance was beginning, too. "I had a total crush on Fred," McKellar tells EW, almost 35 years after filming the pilot. "It was that little-kid crush where it's so innocent and so intense. It's not a little thing — you're like, 'I'm in love!' "
When it came time to film the kiss — which, in the episode, takes place just after Winnie learns that her older brother was killed in combat in Vietnam — she recalls, "I was so excited, jumping out of my skin. I was trying to remain calm and play the scene correctly, but I was about to have my first kiss ever. It was my first kiss in real life."
ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content/Getty Fred Savage and Danica McKellar on 'The Wonder Years'
Of course, it wasn't what you'd call a perfect moment: "After we had our first kiss, the entire crew erupted into applause. And it was just so humiliating. Like, I'm trying to have a private moment here!" (Also, as Savage told EW last year, "Our moms were sitting up on a hill above us looking down. I remember being so nervous about that.")
Still, the then-preteen McKellar and Savage shared a sweet, and ultimately short, romance of sorts. "At that point, [when we filmed the kiss], I kind of thought he might have a crush on me too, but I didn't know," the actress recalls. "Later on, he actually wrote me a love letter in real life, and we wrote each other a couple letters. But then that was kind of it. When we came back to do more of the show, things quickly devolved into this annoying brother-sister relationship. When you're a 12-year-old girl and somebody says, 'Pull my finger,' and then you learn what that is for the first time, you're not charmed."
But even after their short-lived love affair (if you can even call it that) came to an end, "We were always really connected," McKellar says, pointing to the milestone season 4 episode "The Accident," in which Kevin and Winnie say "I love you" to each other through Winnie's bedroom window. It's one of the most memorable and pivotal scenes of the series; as longtime showrunner Bob Brush told EW last year, "At that moment, it seemed like it was the time to say, this relationship, at least in Kevin's mind, is serious, and he at this moment is a serious guy."
And yet, "We were not there [on set] at the same time ever during that scene," McKellar says with a laugh. "As kid actors, you often aren't there for other people's close-ups. If you're not actually on camera, you need to be getting your schoolwork done. I wasn't there for his close-up, and he wasn't there for my close-up. But we both knew each other so well that we didn't even need to be there, which is kind of amazing."
Of course, the romance on the show didn't last, either: The Wonder Years' series finale famously, and controversially, revealed that Winnie and Kevin didn't end up together, though they remained close friends.
"People blamed me for that!" McKellar says. "People felt really betrayed. But the show wasn't trying to show a perfect ending. It was about real life and how you deal with things, and how it's OK if things don't work out the way you thought they were going to."
And besides, you can rewrite the ending if you really want to. "This is what I tell my fans when they ask me about it now," says McKellar. "In my real life, I married, divorced, and remarried. So I'm like, 'Look, I know they didn't marry each other right away, but — just go with me on this — things didn't work out with their spouses at some point, and they ended up together after that.' Sometimes love has a crooked path!"
A version of this story appears in the March issue of Entertainment Weekly, available on newsstands Feb. 18. Read more from EW's celebration of TV's best romances of all time.