By turns wistful and sweetly sarcastic, The Wonder Years captured suburban America in the 1960s as seen by an adolescent boy. The show earned a Golden Globe and four Emmys, including outstanding comedy series. “It was about coming of age when the world was changing so rapidly,” says co-creator Carol Black. “But because it’s told from a kid’s point of view, kids today can still relate.”
Inside the Wonder Years time capsule it was the ’60s: The Vietnam War raged, students protested, man landed on the moon. Amid it all, little Kevin Arnold was growing up and, with him, Fred Savage, who was 11 when he became the earnest Everykid, enduring mortifying rites of passage before millions of viewers. “Most of the embarrassment involved kissing girls,” says Savage, 23, whose nerve-racking first kiss with Danica McKellar was a real-life breakthrough for both (and earned a standing ovation from their moms). “I was a young guy, I wanted to be a good kisser, you know, but at the same time I wanted to be a professional.” McKellar remains a close friend. “I will always adore Fred,” she says. “I know all the freckles on his nose.” Though Savage had made some 50 commercials prior to The Wonder Years, “what made Fred so incredible was that he was a real boy,” says Alley Mills, his TV mom. He studied for his bar mitzvah on the set, survived being only 4’10” during McKellar’s growth spurt and was known to fling his share of mashed potatoes during food fights. When the show ended, Savage spent his senior year at L.A.’s Brentwood School before going to Stanford, where he joined a fraternity and majored in English. Graduation was delayed a year until 1999 so he could star in two seasons of the now-defunct sitcom Working. In March, Savage directed the first part of the series finale of Boy Meets World (starring his brother Ben, 19) and is “so in love,” he says, with “my first real girlfriend,” Jennifer, who’s in commercial real estate. “When I think of The Wonder Years, I think of contentment,” says Savage. “I get a feeling of happiness, security and safety. It was a wonderful place to go every day.”
One of TV’s most touching romances had its basis in preteen truth. “I was in love with her for the same reasons every other boy fell in love with her,” says Fred Savage of Danica McKellar, whom his character courted for all six seasons. “You won’t meet a sweeter, nicer girl—and she’s gorgeous.” The relationship changed as the stars charged through adolescence. “In the beginning we had a mutual crush,” concedes McKellar, 25. “Then things went into the teasing stuff and then into a more comfortable, brother-sister thing.” The serious McKellar was an easy target. Between takes, “she’d be studying, posture perfect, pencils sharpened,” says Savage. “All I wanted to do was irritate her.” But McKellar never lost her focus, graduating summa cum laude from UCLA in 1998 with a degree in math. While edging back into acting with voice work on an upcoming WB cartoon, she started a Web site (www.danicamckellar.com,) offering advice on everything from romance to calculus. When she or Savage tunes into a Wonder Years rerun, “we can get sentimental and call each other,” says the single McKellar, who lives in L.A. “He’ll say, ‘I just saw an episode, and you were so cute, and I just had to say hi and that I miss you.’
In the ’60s I was a hippie, and I just loved it,” says Alley Mills, 49, who never imagined herself playing a square suburban housewife. “I just wasn’t the mother type,” she says. “Not only do I not have children, I wasn’t married. And here I was representing a whole generation of mothers who stayed home.” Her TV spouse, Dan Lauria, wasn’t sure she was the mother type either. “I wondered, “How are they going to make her look like the average wife?’ he recalls. All it took was some pedal pushers, a bathrobe and what Mills labels “a dorky Doris Day” hairdo that needed bleaching so often that “if they weren’t really careful it would just fall out.” Mills’s only talent in the kitchen proved to be shoving dinner-scene peas up her nose. “There’s a fine line of insanity that runs through Alley,” says castmate Josh Saviano. “She’s a great, offbeat woman.” A week after taping the show’s last episode, Mills wed actor Orson Bean, 23 years her senior. The couple lives in an arty Venice, Calif., house next door to Bean’s daughter and two grandchildren. “My whole life changed,” says Mills. “I never expected to have a family. I feel blessed.” Although she keeps in touch with her Wonder Years pals, Mills rarely sees the show’s reruns. She doesn’t have cable. “Orson doesn’t like more than one clicker,” she says.
At age 10, recalls Josh Saviano, “I was all eyes and nose, about 5’1″ and so skinny I was blown backward when I walked into the wind. I was just a frail little boy with a lot of personality.” The Wonder Years creators wanted Kevin Arnold’s nerdy best friend to be asthmatic too. “They kept asking me to wheeze, and I couldn’t do it,” says Saviano, 24. “But I used to pretend I was sick when I didn’t want to go to school and had a good fake sneeze down. When I did it, they went, ‘That’s it! That’s it!’ They loved the sneeze.” Once cast, Saviano and costar Fred Savage were inseparable. “Josh is much cooler than people gave him credit for,” says Savage. The boys shared a passion for Nintendo and baseball cards. “Fred went on The Tonight Show and announced he was a collector,” says Saviano. “People started mailing him cards, so he totally beat me.” Saviano can claim the most original rumor, though. While at Yale, where he earned a degree in political science in 1998, the Internet began buzzing that he was shock rocker Marilyn Manson. “I’d get 20 e-mails a week, and it still hasn’t died!” says Saviano, who is a consultant at an Internet firm until he starts law school, probably in the fall. Although his family and friends, including girlfriend Jennifer, 28, an attorney, know the truth, Saviano isn’t concerned about setting cyberspace straight. “What would you rather have, people thinking you’re a dorky kid from The Wonder Years or a satanic rock star? It’s way cooler for me.”
Jason Hervey arrived on the Wonder Years set with “a Rolex and a Corvette, even though he couldn’t drive,” remembers his Wonder Years mom, Alley Mills. “He was a real wheeler-dealer and a little devil.” What the hyperconfident Hervey, now 28, didn’t have was a pal in TV brother Savage, whom he tortured weekly onscreen as the obnoxious Wayne. “He was a Mr. Know-It-All, and I was like, ‘You’re 10!’ says Hervey. “The first half of the first season, it was hard for me to separate Jason from Wayne,” admits Savage. Throughout the show’s run, Hervey provided some unforgettable moments. “Jason would drive us around on his Harley,” says castmate Josh Saviano, “and they would yell at him, ‘Don’t take the kids on the bike! Don’t kill the talent!'” Within a few TV movies of Wonder Years‘ demise, Hervey changed careers. Married to second wife Shannon, 30, and the father of 3-month-old twins Shaina and Samuel (and stepdad to Shannon’s son, Tyler, 10), Hervey is now copartner of a company that produces TV movies and videos for World Championship Wrestling. “It wasn’t until we both got a little older that Jason and I got along very, very well,” says Savage. They still do. At 12:01 a.m. on July 9, 1997, Savage’s 21st birthday, “I took him out for his first legal drink,” Hervey says. “I got him a shot of Tequila and some beers. People were completely freaking out, going, ‘Look! Look! They’re together!’ It was pretty neat.”
What kids couldn’t relate to a big, gruff guy with a face like a bulldog and a heart made of Jell-O? Certainly not the Wonder Years bunch. They figured out right away that Dan Lauria, the former Southern Connecticut State University football player and ex-Marine playing beleaguered father Jack Arnold, was “a sweet and gentle man,” says Josh Saviano, who played the Arnolds’ nerdy neighbor, Paul. Lauria, 53, calls the cast “a pretty good team” to replace those he’d known on the gridiron. “When the sport’s over, you miss the camaraderie, and that’s what acting is.” His TV wife, Alley Mills, “had an instant thing with Dan,” she says. “I just love him. He’s so generous.” Lauria, who lives in L.A. with his charity-fund-raiser wife, Eileen, and has no children of his own, is determined to broaden Fred Savage’s interest in theater—through the play-and screenplay-reading series he runs at L.A.’s Coronet Theatre. “Dan’s always been a really big influence in my life,” acknowledges Savage, who makes about three appearances a year there. Lauria has worked steadily since the show wrapped: He recently died on both ER and Providence within a month. But he believes that The Wonder Years will be his TV legacy. “When I’m old and gray on my deathbed, kids will still identify with it regardless of what time period it is,” he says. “We’re part of a classic.”
They made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: voice-over of a generation. When film star Daniel Stern read the part of the gently wry narrator of The Wonder Years, “I thought it was the most beautifully written thing I’d read in a long, long time,” says Stern, 42. “The poetry hooked me in.” It kept him there through all six seasons, during which Stern chose to remain uncredited as well as unseen. “Danny had the best job in Hollywood,” says Dan Lauria, who jokes, “He got paid as much as me and worked 15 minutes a show.” Indeed, Stern found time to make City Slickers and two installments of Home Alone, and to direct 10 episodes of The Wonder Years. “He’d show up in flip-flops, a flannel shirt and sweatpants,” recalls Jason Hervey. “We had Daniel Stern Day, and every one of the crew showed up wearing that.” Stern’s next venture into TV, the aborted 1999 CBS sitcom Partners, ended disastrously. Producers filed a $25 million breach-of-contract suit claiming Stern had backed out; the actor countersued, asserting the show wasn’t what was promised. Both suits were settled out of court. “It was a very scary thing to be caught up in,” says Stern, who lives in Malibu with his wife, Laure, 49, and their three children, and is now the voice of UPN’s Dilbert. “It was some sort of bizarre sidetrack in my life.” The Wonder Years‘ melancholy finale was sweet by comparison. Stern tied up loose ends in a heart-tugging epilogue. “When I finished the last speech—which I started crying in the middle of about seven times and had to keep doing over—a little boy says, ‘Dad, wanna play catch?’ and I say, ‘I’ll be right there,’ recalls Stern. “My son, Henry [who heads to Harvard in the fall], did that line. That was a beautiful ending for me.”
To win the part of The Wonder Years‘ free-spirited American flower child, British actress Olivia d’Abo, now 31, “read up on Vietnam and watched a whole series of videotapes called The Fabulous ’60s,” she recalls. Then, as a true hippie might, she went braless to her audition. “I actually blushed during the scene,” says Wonder mom Alley Mills. “The chemistry was really hilarious.” D’Abo became fast friends with Mills and won over her other costars as well. “She was this cosmopolitan bohemian, and I was like, ‘God, she is the coolest girl in the world!’ says TV brother Fred Savage. It didn’t hurt that d’Abo’s boyfriend at the time was rocker Julian Lennon. But for all her exoticism, the actress was also able to charm the cast with a repertoire of funny accents. “My voices!” she says. “Fred would just fall off his chair. Jason Hervey and I would make up rap songs. Among d’Abo’s favorite episodes were those with David Schwimmer, who played her boyfriend and then husband. “The wedding was a very psychedelic scene,” she says. “David and I couldn’t keep a straight face.” Now a single mother of 4-year-old son, Oliver, d’Abo, who lives in L.A., has roles in three upcoming movies and is newly engaged to actor Thomas Jane (Deep Blue Sea). “Things have been good,” she says.