It was a simpler time, filled with so much wonder. But there was also a nation in turmoil, torn apart by a war half a world away and social issues that divided young from old, black from white. And one television show contemplated it all.
For six seasons, beginning in 1988, television viewers faithfully followed the weekly exploits of the Arnold family — via that suburban, middle-class slice of Americana known as “The Wonder Years.” The world as seen through the coming-of-age eyes of an 11-year-old touched the hearts of young and old alike.
The series (which was set in 1968 for the first season) starred Fred Savage as the young Kevin Arnold, along with Alley Mills, Olivia D’Abo, Dan Lauria and Jason Hervey as the rest of the Arnold family, all dealing with life’s ups and downs in the shadow of the Vietnam War, and the “Flower Power” and Civil Rights movements. Josh Saviano and Danica McKellar co-starred as Kevin’s best friend Paul Pfeiffer and Winnie Cooper (Kevin’s dream girl).
The show’s pilot aired after Super Bowl XXII, and clicked with viewers right out of the gate (nearly 28 millions viewers tuned in), remaining in the Nielsen Top 30 for nearly all of its six seasons, and winning an Emmy for best comedy series.
What helped to set the series apart from other nostalgia-based shows was its incomparable integration of music of the period. Classics from Joe Cocker (“With a Little Help From My Friends” was the show’s title song), Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and the Supremes, The Everly Brothers, The Who and countless more served as the soundtrack for each episode. The entire series was just released by Star Vista Entertaiment, which needed to secure the rights to more than 300 songs as they were featured in the show’s original broadcasts.
Savage, who was born in north suburban Highland Park, grew up in Glencoe (as did his wife Jennifer Lynn Stone) where he attended Central School.
“I would have gone on to New Trier [High School] had we not moved out to Hollywood,” Savage said in a recent phone conversation.
“But we come back to Chicago at least once a year because my two brother still live there and my nieces and nephews are all there. By wife’s best friend lives there.”
The Wonder Years Complete Series is available at timelife.com/wonderyears ($249.95). The 26-disc set (houses in a replica school locker) features all 115 episodes, 15 hours of bonus materials including a reunion interview with the entire cast, outtakes (including all six outtakes of Kevin and Winnie’s first kiss scene), a specially designed yearbook, 10 new featurettes, Wonder Year magnets and more.
Savage went on to Stanford where he majored in English.
“I was very excited to attend college because I had been in and out of the regular school environment since I was in 2nd or 3rd grade,” he said. “I loved working and having those experiences, but I was very excited to throw myself into the world of being a student full-time.”
Savage was 11 when filming began on “The Wonder Years,” and said his relationships with his co-stars were close in both the real and reel worlds. When it came to Fred, Danica, Jason and Josh, their onscreen friendships were a reflection of their off-screen/on-set lives.
“We’d go together to the same school trailer. I’d play basketball or baseball with Josh in between school breaks. Jason was just like a real older brother to us. He got his driver’s license first so he’d drive us places. Ali was such a wonderful, nurturing person, supporting us at every turn. Dan really took me under his wing and tried to expose me to theater and films, especially old movies. We really just all were close.”
How much of Kevin was Fred, and vice versa?
“I think there was a little bit of everyone in Kevin, that’s why kids and adults responded to him in such a powerful way, responded to the whole cast that way,” Savage said. ” [Viewers] could see themselves in the characters. I saw a lot of myself in Kevin and brought a lot of myself to him. We were the same age and going through the same things.
“I think they did a great job on the show writing episodes about unique characters with very specific memories that we all kind of had,” Savage said. “They were experiences we all went through.”
“I lived through the ’60s. That was when I was in high school,” Mills told reporters in a separate interview. “I think the whole point of the one period [setting for the show] was this was the beginning of the end of Wonder. The whole series began with the introduction of the Vietnam war into our little TV in the kitchen and it was at that very time that the whole country, I think began to feel the pain of the war and the ramifications of that.”
“I think that ‘The Wonder Years’ was a time in your life,” Savage said. “The series had a distinct beginning and end. The show was about a time in your life when you’re seeing the world for the first time through adult eyes. What the world had to offer in terms of love, laughter, triumph, tragedy – a wide-eyed perception of all these things. At a certain time you stop seeing things for the first time. That’s why people look back at that time in their lives with such awe. That’s a time in your life that’s finite. If the show had followed the kids going off to college that’s no longer a time in our lives that’s the ‘wonder years’ anymore. So the series ending when it did made perfect sense.”
“I think that [it’s] every actor’s dream that you want to be part of something that’s cyclical, that comes around every 20 years and … it’s going to resonate and be memorable and touch people and make them laugh,” Olivia D’Abo, told reporters in a separate interview.
Savage said he has many episodes that he would consider his favorites, but two of them touched him deeply.
“I love the episode where I visit my father’s office because I had really fond memories of going to work with my dad.”
“And I also really loved the episode where the math teacher [Mr. Collins] passes away. That was just so beautifully done.”
Since “The Wonder Years,” Savage has worked primarily behind the scenes directing television series episodes including “Modern Family,” (“It’s the best show on television”), “Boy Meets World” and “Hannah Montana,” and his feature film debut, “Daddy Day Camp.” Feature film roles most notably include the grandson in the 1987 hit “The Princess Bride.”
So what was it like to direct Miley Cyrus?
“She was very subtle,” Savage recalled. “She was so hard working an dedicated and a real professional. She knew her lines the first day and knew all her blocking. And she did all this while she’d be recording an album or rehearsing for a tour at the same time.”
When Savage and his wife return to the Chicago area, their favorite haunts include the Art Institute, Michael’s Hot Dogs in Highland Park and Chin’s Chop Suey in Glencoe.
“We always hit Michael’s,” he said. “It’s worth the trip out to the ’burbs.
Does watching the show 25 years later as an adult make it a whole new experience for the 38-year-old actor?
“The thing I love about revisiting the show as adult is that it takes on whole new meaning now,” Savage said. “I got to experience the show as a kid, but now as an adult I see the show not really through Kevin’s eyes as much as I do Norma [Alley Mills] and Jack’s [Dan Lauria’s] eyes. “I’m a father and a husband now, so I can understand why Norma was heartbroken when she saw Kevin ride away on his two-wheeler for the first time. How Jack found it hard to be at work so many hours. I think a lot of people are now sharing episodes with their kids. It shows how timeless the show really is.”