In 1988, The Wonder Years debuted immediately following the Super Bowl, and the classic show immediately introduced viewers to a childhood love between Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper. The characters share a small kiss in that pilot episode after Winnie, played by Danica McKellar, learns that her older brother died in combat in Vietnam.
It was McKellar’s first kiss in real life, as well, and the on-screen romance helped fire an off-screen crush, too.
“I was so excited [about the kiss], jumping out of my skin,” McKellar remembers fondly. “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.
“And I had a total crush on Fred [Savage, who played Kevin]. 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!'”
Unfortunately at that young age, the rush of emotions often flow both ways. Eventually McKellar felt embarrassed by the attention.
“After we had our first kiss, the entire crew erupted into applause,” she said. “And it was just so humiliating. Like, I’m trying to have a private moment here!”
Savage also noted in an interview nearly 35 years after filming the scene that sharing a kiss at such a young age on screen was strange.
“Our moms were sitting up on a hill above us looking down,” Savage said. “I remember being so nervous about that.”
McKellar thinks Kevin and Winnie got together after the events of The Wonder Years
Both child stars admitted that they liked the other; but that the relationship became more like brother-and-sister, given their young ages and close proximity at work.
“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,” McKellar recalled. “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.”
Writers of the show must have understood the dynamic of a youthful crush well, because they managed to write the characters’ relationship as tumultuous, yet full of love throughout the series. In fact, The Wonder Years famously ends with a friendly relationship between Arnold’s Kevin and McKellar’s Winnie, rather than a romantic one. Fans disliked the ending, but the writers stayed true to the nature of early relationships, knowing that these characters would more likely remain friends than become some farfetched example of lifelong, bonded lovers.
“People felt really betrayed,” McKellar said. “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.”
The actress also thinks that maybe Kevin and Winnie find each other later in life.
“In my real life, I married, divorced, and remarried,” McKellar said. “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!”