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Danica McKellar looks back on being Winnie Cooper in 'The Wonder Years'

The former Winnie Cooper, actress Danica McKellar, talks about "The Wonder Years"' lasting appeal and how the writers would steal things she said offscreen.

"The Wonder Years" star Danica McKellar arrives 20th Annual Fulfillment Fund Stars Benefit Gala at The Beverly Hilton Hotel. Credit: Getty Images "The Wonder Years" star Danica McKellar arrives at the 20th Annual Fulfillment Fund Stars Benefit Gala at The Beverly Hilton Hotel.
Credit: Getty Images

The mass audition to find a Winnie Cooper, the love of “The Wonder Years”’ protagonist Kevin Arnold’s, eventually came down to two people: Danica McKellar and her sister Crystal. Danica got the part, but Crystal didn’t get nothing. “They told my mom, ‘We’re going to cast Danica because she’s a little older and there’s a kiss in it. But we love Crystal so much we want to write a part for her if this goes to series,’” McKellar recalls.

And it didn’t seem that big a deal at the time: Winnie was not supposed to be a series regular — just a guest spot on the pilot. Midway through shooting they offered her a series contract. Crystal wound up playing Becky Slater, another Kevin love interest. “She’s a lawyer, no longer acting,” she says. “She’s making all the money.” (For the record, McKellar — an accomplished mathlete — has written numerous bestsellers for kids about math.)

Thirteen when she started the show, McKellar gets to look back on “The Wonder Years” — which followed Kevin, a boy living in a 1968 American suburb, over six seasons — for its first-ever, very truant official DVD release. The show, which premiered in 1988, has stayed off shelves due to music rights issues. (When it hit Netflix Instant, many of the songs — including the Joe Cocker one that ran over the opening credits — had to be swapped out for replacements and sound-alikes.)

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How has it stayed so popular? “From my perspective it was the first show that really honored the strength and the emotions kinds have at such a young age. Most TV shows up to that point were all about parents,” McKellar explains. A lot of that had to do with the narration track, performed by Daniel Stern.

“It got into the mind and a heart of a small child,” she says. “We all have such huge emotions and the world doesn’t really honor them in the same way they honor adult feelings, because they’re just kids. You’re not in control of your own lives yet. You can’t make your own decisions. We all have memories of those painful early years and the elation of those early yes The huge, strong emotions — the show honored them and said, ‘These are valid, this is real, this happened.’”

This scene from "The Wonder Years," with Fred Savage and Danica McKellar happened 26 years ago. Credit: Time Life This scene from "The Wonder Years," with Fred Savage and Danica McKellar happened 26 years ago.
Credit: Time Life

The writing staff would even use things McKellar and Fred Savage, who played Kevin, would say to each other when cameras weren’t rolling. She was surprised to find one episode dedicated to the “Do you ‘like’ him or do you ‘like like’ him?” question — something she had been saying.

Of course, “The Wonder Years” was set in the 1960s (and eventually the 1970s), though McKellar thinks that didn’t make it any less universal. “My character was almost acting independent of the time period — except for the wardrobe,” she says. “It dealt with things that are absolutely universal: Did this guy like me or not? Am I popular? My parents in the show separated — things that could happen at any time.”

And the messiness of the emotions — not just Kevin and Winnie’s on-again-off-again relationship — helped prepare her for life. “I learned how to kiss. I learned that things aren’t straightforward, things aren’t black-and-white,” she says. She mentions an episode where the two return to the place where they shared their first kiss — which was also McKellar’s first kiss — and it’s just not the same. “I remember thinking about progress not being a straight line. Sometimes we have to swing back and forth a bit. And that’s OK.”

Bonus thought: So this is depressing: When it premiered in 1988, “The Wonder Years” was looking on a time 20 years prior. Today when we look back on “The Wonder Years,” we’re looking back 26 years. Even worse: In “Back to the Future” Marty McFly time travels 30 years, from 1985 to 1955. Next year the same time gap separates us from 1985.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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