Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Case (1962)

Hey, Cassettes, and welcome to the first episode of the Christmas Case Diaries! We have a big month planned, filled with all kinds of holiday fun. We all have those Christmas specials that we watch every holiday season, right? I mean, is it even Christmas without the Island of Misfit Toys, or if we don’t watch the Grinch descend from Mount Krumpet to steal holiday cheer from Whoville? 

Animated Christmas TV specials are a holiday tradition that dates back almost 60 years, and while Rudolph has been airing consistently on TV for the longest amount of time, it was not the special that started it all. 

In December of 1962, people all across America turned on their TV sets to watch the first full-length animated Christmas TV special. Keeping with Christmas tradition, the special was an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, but with one notable twist: famous cartoon character Quincy Magoo was playing the part of Ebeneezer Scrooge. 

Boasting colorful and stylish limited animation and songs written by Broadway musicians, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol became an instant holiday classic. Although lesser-known than many other 1960s animated specials, it’s a delightful retelling of a familiar story, packed with great performances and animation, unlike anything you’ll see today. 

So, since this is our first episode of the month, we decided to start by covering the very FIRST animated Christmas special! Grab some woofle jelly cake with razzleberry dressing and come join us!https://www.youtube.com/embed/0y33r9bilw8?wmode=opaque&enablejsapi=1

The first appearance of Mr. Magoo in Ragtime Bear (1949)

  • UPA AND MR. MAGOO
  • So first let’s start by talking about the history of United Productions of America (UPA) and Mr. Magoo
    • If you remember back to our history of animation episode, we talked a little bit about the Disney strike of 1941 and how that shaped animation in the years after. 
      • At this time, unions were an established organization for every other form of work from cameramen to cooks, but not animators. One animator, David Hilberman, realized working for Disney, “You were no longer the individual… you were part of an assembly line.” Many other animators and artists realized this as well, and since job security was not guaranteed, holidays could be mandatory, and overtime could be required without added pay. 
    • Industrial Film and Poster Service
      • After being fired for a second time from Disney in 1941, Stephen Bosustow decided it was time to make an animation studio of his own. His first studio was with animator Cy Young and named Associated Cine-Artists. This studio did not last long and soon he began the Industrial Film and Poster Service in 1943 with Zack Schwartz (fired from Disney in 1940), and David Hilberman (who left the company to gain the union more concessions). 
      • Stephen Bosustow had been fired 8 days before the strike. When one of the other fired employees asked Disney what they should do, Disney reportedly replied, “I don’t know, go start a hotdog stand.” 
      • The three men that founded UPA thought that animation could be used as a tool for social reform. They were unhappy with the restrictive, Academic style of drawing at Disney, with familiar fairy tales and an emphasis on humor. In an article titled Animation Learns a New Language Zach Schwartz and John Hudley, who would become a director at UPA, wrote of the Disney formula, “Select any two animals, grind together, and stir into a plot. Add pratfalls, head and body blows, and slide whistle effects to taste. Garnish with Brooklyn accents. Slice into 600-foot lengths and release.” 
        • In Between Disney and UPA, Zach Schwartz worked for Columbia’s Screen Gems where he had an epiphany. “Our camera isn’t a motion-picture camera. Our camera is closer to a printing press.” 
          • Schwartz explained to his coworkers that animated films are not really films at all but are instead graphic art. Although this revelation did little for his coworkers it affected Schwartz greatly.
    • The first few works produced were paid for by the United Automobile Workers.
      • The first short that the team produced was called Hell Bent For Election in 1944. It was directed by the legendary Chuck Jones and was a video that campaigned for FDR’s re-election. It depicted him and his opponent as trains racing for votes. FDR was a sleek new train and Thomas E. Dewey was older and run-down. 
    • The studio would go on to change its studio name to the much sleeker United Productions of America or UPA and win an Oscar for Gerald McBoing-Boing(1950), When Magoo Flew (1954), and Magoo’s Puddle Jumper (1956).
    • Today we know of UPA for its most popular character–Mr. Quincy Magoo. His first appearance was in Ragtime Bear in 1949. The loveable Magoo’s nearsightedness often gets him in trouble where antics ensue but it all ends up alright in the end.
      • The cantankerous character came to life with Jim Backus’ booming voice. Jim would later be known not only for Mr. Magoo but also Thurston Howell III in Gilligan’s Island.
    • The studio’s influence spread, and before long their use of simpler lines and limited animation techniques went on to be used by Hanna Barbera and even Disney.
  • As the anti-communist movement and publications gained traction, many UPA writers and directors were forced to renounce communism or be fired to save the company. In the end, it did little to save production and by the late ’50s, the creative giant was gutted of most of its most innovative and creative minds. 
    • When Henry Saperstein acquired UPA from Columbia in 1960, production halted on new animation as the medium was losing traction. Saperstein instead decided to license Magoo out for commercials and tv spots. 
      • But, this was not the final chapter for Magoo. In 1961, UPA hired a new director of program development that had a plan for the character: a full-length animated Christmas special complete with Broadwayesque music. 
    • In the ’80s Saperstein looked to sell but could not find the proper amount that he was asking for. By the 1990s he was determined to make a live-action Magoo which would eventually star Leslie Nielson. It was originally set to be directed by Steven Spielberg but the option lapsed. 
  • SYNOPSIS
    • Mr. Magoo is late for Broadway’s opening night of “A Christmas Carol,” where he will play the lead role. As he finally makes his way to the stage, the curtain rises on the set of “A Christmas Carol.” From there, the audience sees a musical retelling, with Magoo giving a straightforward performance as Scrooge. 
The top picture is the original drawing of Belle. The bottom was the last minute re-design from Tony Rivera.
  • THE FIRST ANIMATED CHRISTMAS SPECIAL
  • Just as the TV series “Mister Magoo” had finished production, producer Lee Orgel entered the scene as the new director of program development. According to his wife, Lea, the two of them were out shopping when Lee got the inspiration for Magoo’s Christmas Carol. 
    • Orgel rushed to the nearest phone to pass along his idea. He created a pitch for the special, along with several other pitches that he called, “spectaculars.” 
    • While the other specials did not come to be, Orgel believed in Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol. Although there were some doubts that the project could work–A cartoon character in a serious acting role?–Orgel did everything he could to get the project off the ground. According to Orgel’s wife, the made-for-TV film was his “baby.”
  • This was not Orgel’s first animation project, as he was already the Associate Producer of a Warner Brothers film called, “Gay Purr-ee,” starring Judy Garland and Robert Goulet. That film also featured the work of Chuck Jones and songwriters Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg (the team behind The Wizard of Oz.) 
    • The movie was released around the same time as Magoo’s Christmas
  • Although Magoo was a fairly popular character, there was concern that audiences wouldn’t appreciate seeing him play a serious role. After all, Magoo was a goofball that got into wacky situations. Why would he be the lead in such a beloved and serious story as “A Christmas Carol”? 
    • Barbara Chain, a screenwriter that had collaborated with Lee Orgel on a cartoon called Crusader Rabbit, found a solution to this problem. Instead of Mr. Magoo completely changing his personality to fit the part of Scrooge, the special takes place on Broadway and features a play within a play. That way, the audience can see Magoo and his wacky antics on his way to the theater, and then the character drops all of that the moment the play begins. 
      • Of course, the running gag of Mr. Magoo is that the main character has difficulty with his eyesight. There are a few moments when Magoo as Scrooge also has difficulty seeing what is happening in front of him, since playing a character wouldn’t magically fix Magoo’s eyes. 
      • Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol is a fairly true adaptation, but with some key differences. One of the biggest and most mysterious is the change in the order of the ghosts. We’ve never been able to find the exact reason for this switch, though we suspect it was for story purposes. 
  • Abe Levitow was the man tasked with directing Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol. According to the artists that worked on the special, Abe gave them a lot of creative freedom with their sequences, and he had a tight grip on the production, which allowed it to run smoothly. 
    • Although several animators worked on the project, they hardly ever communicated with each other except through Abe. It really spoke to his ability as a leader and communicator that the final product turned out to be so seamless. 
    • Levitow also directed Gay Purr-ee and The Phantom Tollbooth. 
  • UPA was known for a specific type of style, and Mist Magoo’s Christmas Carol was no exception. The team of artists and animators truly understood how to match the specific look of a UPA film. 
    • Animator Lee Mishkin designed the characters, though some of them did go through several changes. 
      • For example, artist Tony Rivera drew a different design for the character Belle, but it was apparently changed late in production. Author Darrell Van Citters wrote about this in his blog dedicated to the special. He also published a book you can buy that he talks about in his blog! Which you can find—HERE
      • This was a big change, as the scenes that included Belle had already been inked and colored, and it would have been expensive to make that change so late in production. 
    • Gloria Wood and Bob Inman were two key background artists that really brought a unique look to the special. Wood designed the background for the graveyard sequence, which takes place when Scrooge is with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. 
    • Shirley Silvey was a female animation designer in a male-dominated profession. In the scenes with Marley’s ghost, she animated the characters from unusual angles, which drives home the unsettling nature of the moment. 
    • Many of the animators that worked on the production were freelance, as UPA probably couldn’t afford a large number of animators on staff. It’s impressive that the animation is as consistent as it is, as the freelancers had to grasp the style before working on the project. There were a couple of sequences, like the Cratchit Family sequence, that needed to be redone. 
  • Almost 60 years after its release, the lasting power of Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol is largely due to its incredible music. Lee Orgel reportedly wanted Richard Rogers to compose the songs, sending him a copy of the novel and asking him to consider it. Rogers was unavailable, and contacted legendary songwriter Frank Loesser (you might remember him from our Christmas songs episode from last year, he wrote “Baby it’s Cold Outside”.) Loesser was also unavailable, so he contacted Jule Styne. Styne was a former vocal coach and prolific composer, responsible for classic songs that appeared in musicals like, Peter Pan and Gypsy. Styne was in-between projects, as he was about to start working on the Tony-Winning musical Funny Girl with lyricist Bob Merrill. So, Styne and Merrill signed on to write the songs for Magoo’s Christmas
    • Merrill was a prominent lyricist that penned a lot of popular songs like, “How much is that doggy in the window?” 
  • Composer Walter Scharf crafted a score that seamlessly blended the songs while adding some musical magic of his own. Scharf was a prolific TV composer, scoring episodes of TV shows like Hawaii 5-0 and Mission Impossible. He also scored 1955 musical classic The Court Jester, though he was uncredited. 
  • SO LET’S TALK ABOUT THESE SONGS!
  • GREAT TO BE BACK ON BROADWAY
    • The special opens with a musical number, “Great to be back on Broadway,” showcasing the lights, billboards, and traffic of New York City. The challenge for animators in this scene was depicting such a complicated setting using the classic simplified style of UPA. 
    • Bob Singer was one of the layout artists responsible for the scene. He said that UPA was like an animator’s paradise. Even though there was a team of layout artists, the final product looked seamless because they were all able to match the style. 
    • This is the only song sung by Mister Magoo AS Mister Magoo. The rest of the music is the play within the play, which explains why this song has a different overall sound. 
    • As we said before, actor Jim Backus provided the speaking and singing voice of Magoo. 
  • RINGLE RINGLE
    • After Magoo gets pushed onto the stage and the play begins, the story wastes no time getting started. As Scrooge, Magoo begins to count his money and breaks into a song called “Ringle Ringle.” 
    • In order to create an accurate setting, layout artists and “color stylists” (also known as background artists) spent a lot of time researching the furniture styles of the 1840s. They also used a type of splatter technique to make the room look dingy. 
    • This song is the first appearance of Tony-nominated actor Jack Cassidy as Bob Cratchit (he would win a Tony in 1964). Scrooge and Cratchit sing a duet, with Scrooge continuing to count his money as Cratchit shivers in the other room. 
  • LORD’S BRIGHT BLESSING
    • When the ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to see the humble home of Bob Cratchit, the two witness the family sit down to a meager Christmas feast. The family doesn’t have very much but is still very happy. They break into a song called, “Lord’s Bright Blessing,” which perfectly captures the spirit of the holidays, as they dream of a better Christmas but happily accept the one they have now. 
    • The Cratchit House is designed to look run down, with broken furniture. However, it looks much cleaner than Scrooge’s office, showing the pride that the family has in their home. 
    • This song features Jack Cassidy as Bob Cratchit, Laura Olsher as Mrs. Cratchit and the Cratchit son, and Marie Matthews as the Cratchit daughter. Olsher was meant to only play Mrs. Cratchit, but the actor for the other roles was late to recording. Olsher had almost no experience with music, so Jule Styne helped her through the recording. 
      • Laura Olsher also voiced the boy at the end that gets the turkey for the Cratchits. The boy says, “walker,” which was Victorian slang for “humbug.” Olsher’s daughter had just visited the UK and told her mom about the word, and it made it into the special. 
  • ALONE IN THE WORLD
    • When the ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back to his childhood, they see Scrooge as a boy. Together, Scrooge and his younger self sing a song about how lonely they are. 
    • “Alone in the World” was meant to be sung by a little boy, but none of the boys that auditioned seemed to have the sound they were looking for. Marie Matthews was in the room because her son had auditioned, and Matthews’ mother convinced the team to let Marie try singing the part. The songwriters resisted, saying that they really wanted a boy to sing the part, but they let her audition anyway. Matthews happened to have the voice they were looking for and was hired for the role. She said she was very honored to sing such a beautiful song. 
  • WINTER WAS WARM
    • When the ghost of Christmas past takes Scrooge to relive his days with his love, Belle, she sings a song about their lost love. “Winter Was Warm” is one of the most loved songs from the special, serving as an emotional climax as Scrooge sees all that he lost because of his greed. 
    • Jane Kean played Belle, and although she was known as a comedic actress, Jule Styne knew she would be able to handle the song because they had already been working together on another project. Kean later said that the song should have been a big hit if it had been sung by someone much more famous. 
    • There’s a long-standing rumor that the song, “People” in the musical Funny Girl was originally written for Magoo’s Christmas. Kean cleared that up, saying that they were writing that song simultaneously, and she wanted to sing it, but Jule Styne told her no, they had another song for her instead. 
  • WE’RE DESPICABLE 
    • The final song of Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (if you don’t count reprises) is sung by a group of criminals as they pawn stolen items from Scrooge’s home. “We’re Despicable” is many viewers’ favorite part. The song is bouncy and fun, with silly rhymes and gags. 
    • This scene was animated by Gerard Baldwin, who had been given the song and the situation, and built the storyboard from there. Baldwin said it took about two weeks to animate the entire sequence from start to finish after the storyboard had been completed. 
    • This is the only sequence in the entire special where Scrooge has four fingers and a thumb. This was because Baldwin liked to draw hands. This might seem like a continuity error, but it speaks to the charm of the special and the fact that many different people worked on the animation. 
  • ALSO STARRING
  • Royal Dano as Marley’s Ghost
    • Marley’s ghost is introduced with the sounds of dragging chains. Earl Bennett provided the sound effects for the special. 
    • Royal Dano was a screen actor that appeared as Tom Fury in Something Wicked This Way Comes
  • Paul Frees as the stage director
    • Frees was a prominent voice actor, well known for roles he played in other Christmas specials, especially for Rankin and Bass
  • Joan Gardner as Tiny Tim/The Ghost of Christmas Past/Belle’s Speaking Voice
    • Joan Gardner was a prolific voice actor, although she is hardly known today. She was also a screenwriter and composer. 
  • John Hart as Billings
    • Hart appeared on TV shows like Rawhide and Dallas
  • Morey Amsterdam as Brady
    • Amsterdam was a comedic actor that appeared on The Dick Van Dyke Show!
  • Les Tremayne as Ghost of Christmas Present
    • Tremayne worked in radio and had one of the most heard voices in the wartime era. 
  • RECEPTION/LEGACY
    • Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol premiered in December of 1962. According to Lea Orgel, she and Lee rented a color TV and had all their friends over to watch the premiere. In the special edition commentary of the movie, Lea says that Walt Disney called Lee that night and congratulated him. He told him that it would be watched for generations. 
    • For several years after, the special aired on NBC. Sometimes certain songs would be cut for time (usually Winter Was Warm). Throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s, families across the US were treated to this special until it stopped airing. 
    • In 2012, on the 50th anniversary, NBC aired the special once again, and it has aired on TV sporadically over the past couple of Christmases. While it is unlikely that you will catch the special on TV, it’s now streaming for free on Peacock (with ads). 
    • At the time of airing, the special was popular enough that Mr. Magoo got a brand new TV series, The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo, and would appear in more animated specials with literary characters. 
    • Despite getting less exposure than some other more well-known Christmas specials, Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol has no shortage of fans. You can find recipes for Razzleberry Dressing online, along with many testimonials about why this particular version of A Christmas Carol is an absolute classic. 

There’s no doubt that Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol had a lasting impact on TV history. It was the first entry in a decades-long tradition of animated Christmas specials. If you love Rudolph and Frosty, but you’re unfamiliar with this animated gem, go ahead and give it a watch. It’s a unique and entertaining look at an old classic and calls back to a time in animation that is often forgotten. 

Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol is a time-honored tradition. It’s a wonderful look back at the 1960s, a time capsule that brings the viewer to a different age of animation. And in our house, like so many others, it’s not Christmas until this short, bald man sings. 

Before we go, we’d like to thank our Patrons! Joel, John, Jacob, Jacklyn, JD, Anthony, Shelli, Linda, Bob, Carlos, and Jaren!

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The Wonder Case

It’s been a blast going back to school with you all. This week, we’re finishing up Back-to-school September with a very special episode about a very special TV series and its pilot episode. On March 15th, 1988, the world met Kevin Arnold, a 12-year-old suburban boy growing up in the 1960s. Guided by the voice of Daniel Stern, The Wonder Years took audiences back in time to an era of change and uncertainty and reminded them what it was like to be a kid again. 

Throughout its 5 seasons, The Wonder Years connected with audiences in the late 1980s and early 90s, but many of its themes are timeless. It also made its star, Fred Savage, a household name, and forever made a mark on American pop culture. 

This week, we’re discussing the history of The Wonder Years, with a focus on the pilot episode of the show. Because the show starts with the main character going back to school, we thought it would be the perfect topic to close out our series of school-related episodes! 

Before we go into the events of the episode, let’s talk a little about the historical context of the show. 

THE FIRST TELEVISED WAR

  • The late 1960s was a turbulent time. The war in Vietnam forever changed and destroyed the lives of countless people, including those that lived in stucco houses, nestled safely in American suburbia. Between 1964 and 1973, over 2 million American men were drafted to fight in the war. 
  • When America entered the Vietnam war in 1965, it had been less than 20 years since the end of the second world war, and a little over 10 years since the Korean War. The American people were familiar with the pain, anxieties, and struggle of war. Back then, it was common for people to get updates on the conflict through newspapers and newsreels at the local theater. But by the 1960s, a new medium existed to reach wider audiences: TV. 
  • For the first time, the bleak and disturbing realities of war and the names of dead American sons were broadcast daily to audiences across the country. This new exposure further enlightened many to the horror of war, experiencing it for the first time in their living rooms.
  • This and the other major events of the 1960s, like the civil rights movement, the counterculture movement, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr, John F Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy, defined a generation. It was an era of immense turmoil and great change. 
  • Because The Wonder Years begins in this decade, the backdrop of the war is important to the storyline, showing the effect it had on American families directly. The show began less than 20 years after the end of the war, meaning that there were writers, crew members, and even actors that had either fought in the war or knew someone that did. 

MAKING OF

  • Shortly after creating the sitcom Growing Pains in the mid-1980s, Neal Marlens felt like he was done with TV for a while. After working on a film with his wife Carol Black, the two of them decided to make another movie told from the perspective of a little boy. The more they discussed the idea, they realized it would be better suited as a TV show. They wrote the first episode in about two weeks. 
    • Marlens and Black understood that what they were creating was unorthodox compared to the usual TV sitcom, as it would feature a single camera and narration. So, they decided to write the script before pitching the idea, so that the producers would have a better understanding of what they were going for.
    • Using their own childhood experiences for inspiration, the couple set the show in the late 1960s. Carol Black said in an interview that she started her childhood watching shows like “Leave it to Beaver,” but as she grew up, the entire country changed. 
    • Since the beginning of the writing process, the creators were certain they wanted an adult narration driving the story forward, so they could avoid writing unnatural dialogue for the child actors. The narrator also made the show work for adult audiences, so it became a show for all ages. 
    • The show was not autobiographical, but it touched on shared experiences of many Americans, and because of that, it felt very authentic. 
  • The house in the pilot episode was a real house on a street in Burbank, California. It was perfect for the show because all of the trees looked young, just like the trees in the recently built suburban neighborhoods of the 1960s. 
  • Daniel Stern received the script so he could audition for the role of the narrator, and showed it to his brother, Dave. Dave then wrote a spec script for the show, and became the first writer hired by Carol and Neal! Just as the show was starting, there was a writer’s strike, so this script was helpful. 
    • All the auditions for the narrator were blind, meaning that the creators did not know anyone’s name or face. They chose actor Daniel Stern solely on his voice and ability to connect with the character. 
    • The showrunners would talk to the kids and sometimes put stories or lines in the script based on their ideas. 
  • When Carol Black and Neal Marlens were interviewing casting directors, almost all of them told them that no matter what they do, they should audition this child actor named Fred Savage. They saw some footage of his work and mailed him a pilot script. Later on, Savage would say that it was his parents that decided that it was worth it to fly to California for an audition. Fred got the part and became one of the biggest child stars of the 90s. 
  • The creators searched for a month to find someone to play Winnie Cooper, the lead female character opposite Fred Savage. Danica McKellar and her sister Crystal were both finalists for the role. For them, acting was just a hobby and not a career, and their mother would normally not allow them to audition for a pilot episode of a show for that reason. However, the role at this stage in development was actually a one-off, so their mother allowed them to audition. Both girls were equally talented, and the role eventually went to Danica, because she had dark hair that matched Fred Savage’s hair. The writers created another character for her sister to play, as well. 
  • When they were writing the parents, Carol and Neal considered the generational divide that was happening between parents and their kids in the 1960s. It’s something that occurs with every generation, but there had been so much radical change throughout the decade, this issue really affected the family dynamic.
    • For Jack Arnold, Kevin’s father, they cast Dan Lauria. The creators were looking for someone who had an “everyman” feeling, a working-class person that audiences would connect to. Jack is meant to embody the classic 1960s father, a man that had sacrificed everything for his family, and just wants quiet at the end of the day. 
    • Alley Mills was cast as Norma Arnold, the peace-keeping matriarch of the Arnold family. The relationship dynamics between men and women had changed so much since the 1960s, many actresses that auditioned for the role played the character “too modern.” Mills understood that her role wasn’t to win the arguments with her male counterpart but to keep the harmony of the household. Mills also had great chemistry with Olivia d’Abo, who was cast as her teenage daughter. 
  • The Pilot episode was directed by Steve Miner with some scenes filmed at John Burroughs High School in California. 

MUSIC

  • W.G. “Snuffy” Walden composed the music for the show, notably the theme for Winnie Cooper. The music for the show is usually acoustic, giving it a more personal feeling. 

STARS

  • Narrated by Daniel Stern as the grown-up Kevin Arnold
    • According to Daniel Stern, he was hired to narrate the show but got fired after recording the pilot episode. Apparently, the show was concerned that Stern’s film career would make him unavailable to record. In his place, the show hired actor Arye Gross and his narration was heard in the pilot that aired on January 31st. Shortly after the pilot aired, the show asked Stern to return as the narrator.
  • Fred Savage as young Kevin Arnold
    • Fred is an actor and director that you may remember as the little boy in The Princess Bride.
  • Danica McKellar as Winnie Cooper
    • Danica has since done several Hallmark movies but is also a mathematician who has written several children’s books about math.
  • Josh Saviano as Kevin’s best friend Paul Pfeiffer
    • Josh no longer acts and is now a lawyer.
  • Dan Lauria as his father Jack Arnold
    • Dan is an actor that has been in many things such as the tv show Sullivan and Son.
  • Alley Mills as his mother Norma Arnold
    • Alley is an actress and has most recently had a recurring role on The Bold and the Beautiful since 2006.  
  • Olivia d’Abo as his sister Karen Arnold
    • Olivia is an actress that was in Conan the Destroyer as Princess Jehnna.
  • Jason Harvey as his brother Wayne Arnold
    • Jason is an actor and tv producer. He was also in Back to the Future.


THE EPISODE

The pilot episode of The Wonder Years aired on January 31st, 1988, after the Super Bowl. It opened with the song, “A Little Help from my Friends,” sung by Joe Cocker. The show creators felt the song’s combination of vulnerability and levity was perfect for the show. Because they were unable to license anything by the Beatles, they went with the Joe Cocker version. They also felt that Cocker’s version was more emotionally raw. 

  • We see the actors through the silent home movies of the era, introducing the family dynamic and playing on the nostalgia of the 1960s. After the opening credits, we hear, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by The Byrds. Music is often a tool for transporting audiences to specific decades, and that technique is used often in The Wonder Years. For the first time, we hear the narration by Daniel Stern, who introduces the main conflict of the episode: Kevin Arnold’s first day of middle school. He refers to the late 1960s as a golden age for kids. 
  • Eventually, we meet Kevin Arnold, as he plays football on the street with some friends. We’re introduced to Winnie Cooper, the neighbor girl that used to be close with Kevin, and of course, we meet Kevin’s older brother Wayne. In this scene, we also meet Paul, Kevin’s best friend that’s allergic to everything. Paul was based on a real friend of co-creator Neal Marlens!
  • Wayne and Kevin get into a fight, and as Wayne is beating up his younger brother, Winnie Cooper’s older brother, Brian, yells for him to stop. The narration introduces Brian’s character as the epitome of cool, a 19-year-old that never stopped working on his El Camino. Even after he was drafted to fight in Vietnam, the car still sat out on blocks, as a reminder of “who really ran things.” Brian was played by Robert Mitchum’s grandson, Bentley Mitchum.  
  • In the next scene, we see Kevin and Paul eating dinner while we get a glimpse of the news coverage of the war on their TV. We meet Kevin’s mom, who pleads with Kevin not to make his father upset when he comes home from work. Kevin’s dad, Jack, walks in shortly after, exhausted from a long day. Soon we see all of the family at the table, including Kevin’s sister, Karen, and brother, Wayne. Norma, Kevin’s mother, hands his father a vodka tonic as the entire family starts to eat. 
    • Karen breaks the tense silence at the table by announcing that she, a teenager in 1968, is getting birth control pills, and the scene ends with the entire family arguing. 
  • The next scene opens with the song, “Both Sides, Now,” by Joni Mitchell, as we see a montage of Kevin’s summer memories, the last summer of his childhood. The next few scenes focus on Kevin and Paul as they prepare for the first day of school; looking over a copy of, “Our bodies, ourselves,” (while listening to “Crystal Blue Persuasion” by Tommy James & The Shondells) and Kevin attempting to wear the latest styles to the bus stop. Just after, Kevin and Paul encounter Winnie Cooper without her signature braids and glasses, with hot-ironed hair and stylish clothes, and going by the name Gwendolyn. 
  • As Kevin and Paul head into the school, the narrator tells us that the school had recently been renamed Robert F Kennedy High School, as many schools had been rebranded to honor the recently assassinated politician. 
  • Kevin’s first day of school isn’t going very well. In homeroom, a teacher recognizes him as Wayne’s brother, which essentially puts a target on his back. In the hall, a bully tosses a knife and some drugs in Kevin’s locker, threatening him in the process. And of course, his first class was phys ed. 
    • Robert Picardo, a brilliant physical comedian, played Kevin’s gym teacher, Coach Cutlip. He had “the biggest inferiority complex since Napoleon.” 
    • Kevin gets called on to explain the jockstrap, as we hear the sound of a plane crashing in Kevin’s mind. 
  • It’s lunchtime, and Kevin and Paul are sitting together when Winnie Cooper comes to join them. Kevin’s nerves start to calm when his brother Wayne spots him and begins to make fun of him and Winnie. Kevin, angry and annoyed, grabs the apple off his tray and heads out of the cafeteria, when the vice principal stops him. He tells Kevin that if he leaves with the apple, he will get detention. When the vice principal stops him again, Kevin considers what Brian Cooper, Winnie’s older brother, would do in this situation. So, Kevin throws the apple into the cafeteria, landing him in deep trouble. 
  • In the next scene, we see Kevin in the vice principal’s office with his mother. It’s clear that he’s in trouble, but he has a hard time explaining why he did what he did. It isn’t until the end of the scene that we find out that Kevin’s father, Jack, is also in the room. Jack cracks his knuckles and says, “I’d like to take him home, now.” 
  • As Kevin rides home with his parents, he considers the fact that a physical punishment is in his near future, and he resolves to imagine that he’s his brother as his dad inevitably hits him for what he did. 
  • When the family arrives home, Karen and Wayne come out the front door to greet Kevin and their parents, looking distraught. There’s a long pause before Karen says the words, “Brian Cooper was killed.” The family stands in a moment of shocked silence, and Kevin’s father, who moments earlier was considering Kevin’s punishment, firmly places his hand on Kevin’s shoulder. 
  • Kevin decides to go for a walk at dusk, and as he heads to the woods, he comes across Winnie, sitting alone on a big rock. Kevin sat down and told her he was sorry. He pulls off his jacket and places it around her shoulders as the song “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge begins to play. Kevin and Winnie then share a kiss and a hug as the camera zooms out. The episode ends with the narration: “Whenever some blowhard starts talking about the anonymity of the suburbs, or the mindlessness of the TV generation, because we know that inside each one of those identical boxes with its Dodge parked out front, and its white bread on the table, and its TV set glowing blue in the falling dusk, there were people with stories, there were families bound together in the pain and the struggle of love. There were moments that made us cry with laughter, and there were moments, like that one, of sorrow and wonder.” 
    • It was the first kiss for the characters and the actors. They were both incredibly nervous, and they had to do six different takes. Someone on the set clapped when the kids kissed, which made them feel even more self-conscious. Danica McKellar says that they used the 6th take because it was the only take when Kevin gently stroked Winnie’s hair. 
    • Fred also noted that he was so nervous that he was picking at the fake rock they sat on for the kiss.

HOW IT WAS RECEIVED

  • The very first episode aired after Super Bowl XXII on January 31st, 1988.
  • The show was so well-received that even more people tuned in the next week to watch the second episode! In 1988 The Wonder Years won an Emmy for best comedy series, and it had only released six episodes. The first episode was so well written that the network wanted to order 13 episodes, but the creators knew they could only handle six. 

THE NEW REBOOT ANNOUNCEMENT

  • In August, ABC released a trailer and officially announced that The Wonder Years was getting a reboot! The reboot is heavily influenced by the original series and takes place in the 1960s. However, the main difference is that the show centers around a black middle-class family in Montgomery, Alabama, and their 12-year-old son Dean. It has Don Cheadle as the narrator and also stars Dulé Hill. It will be released shortly on September 22nd.

Over thirty years later, The Wonder Years continues to connect with audiences. When the show aired in 1988, parents watched it with their children, and today those children are sharing it with their kids. Every actor in the show has expressed nothing but affection for their time on the sitcom, especially Fred Savage, who feels lucky to have been part of something that is so special to so many people. 

The Wonder Years ran for five seasons, but the pilot episode is one of the show’s most iconic moments. The show found a way to appeal to every generation, not just the people that remember the 1960s. All of us can watch The Wonder Years and remember that confusing, magical, strange, and painful time in our lives; when we realized that the world just doesn’t make sense sometimes. We all know what it’s like to grow up, and when we watch The Wonder Years, we’re reminded that we didn’t have to grow up alone. 


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