In 1988, ABC’s The Wonder Years changed the landscape of television with its original format and fresh-storytelling.
The coming-of-age dramatic comedy, told from the perspective of young teen Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage), made household names out of Dan Lauria and Alley Mills, who played parents Jack and Norma Arnold, respectively, for six seasons.
Though both actors are no stranger to the stage, it has taken them 28 years to reunite for their first theatrical production together–an intimate, Off-Broadway revival of Paul Osborn’s classic comedy, Morning’s at Seven, at the Theatre at St. Clement’s.
They chatted with the New York Independent about the unlikely way in which they found themselves back together on stage, while reflecting on their decades-long friendship and pivotal episodes in the Wonderful project that began it all.
New York Independent: How does being on stage with someone with whom you are so familiar compare to working on other theatrical experiences?
Alley Mills: It’s interesting, this is the first time I’ve ever been on stage with Dan after working with him for seven years [on The Wonder Years]; it’s pretty amazing that we never did a play together.
Dan Lauria: We saw each other in plays constantly over the years. Whenever she would do a play I would run down there, and whenever I would do a play [she and late-husband Orson Bean] would both come. I always loved working with Alley. I knew ahead of time Alley is easy to work with. With other people you hope they are, but you don’t know until after you get into rehearsal. With Alley it was always great.
AM: We also have a built-in history. Our characters in Morning’s at Seven also have a secret built-in history that the audience doesn’t really know about until the end of the play. They only get hints of it. When I look at Dan on stage I see our real history. It’s an interesting thing. It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have it with another actor, but it’s different because I really do know him. It’s kind of cool because when we’re looking at each other and I’m pleading and making him remember our history, we actually have one!
NYI: Alley, it is quite incredible that you came in at the end of rehearsals when actor Judith Ivey suffered an injury. You had many lines to learn quickly!
DL: Alley worked her butt off! The rest of the ensemble had over three weeks of rehearsal on the set. I don’t think she had five days of work before she was off book for the first act, and after six days she was off book for all of it. That’s hard to do.
AM: I wasn’t supposed to go on right away; I was supposed to have about nine days before opening to learn my lines and watch the play. Then we lost our understudy, so I literally went on the day I got to New York. They put me in a wig and we all rehearsed, and then I went on with the book in my hand. I have never done anything like that in my life. It was such an impossibility that it became fun! I couldn’t do anything but look at it that way or I would die. It was pretty amazing.
NYI: Morning’s at Seven is a show set in the early 1920s centered on four aging sisters who are forced to confront longstanding rivalries. What drew both of you to the show?
AM: I pretty much jumped! When I read it really fast, there was something about the character Arry that grabbed me. She moved in with this guy when she was 16, and had this kind of an arrested youthfulness to her that appealed to me in a period piece. It was the one thing I grabbed onto. It was something stunted that gave her a life that interested me. It was like she was on a pole on a merry-go-around. And then I held onto that for dear life!
DL: I don’t like to do old plays at all, but when [producer] Julian Schlossberg called me and said everybody’s talking about Broadway reopening, I knew that the best thing for new writers is if we can get Off-Broadway going. I wanted to be part of this cast and part of getting New York back. Off-Broadway is more special to me than Broadway because that’s where the new plays start. The goal with regional theater is not to get to Broadway, but to get to Off-Broadway, get published and get seen. I just wanted to be a part of that happening again.
AM: I also found out who was going to be in it, and they’re all such good actors. [The play also stars Patty McCormack, Tony Roberts and John Rubinstein.] That makes a huge difference when you’re in an ensemble piece like this because you’re so dependent on the family. The actors are so wonderful, they’re vets of the stage.
NYI: What makes Morning’s at Seven relevant so many years after its inception?
AM: The timing of doing this play after the pandemic. New York was a dark ghost town, so I think we need something that’s heartwarming and sort of Americana that reminds us that we’re all in this crazy melting pot of a country. It takes place in the Midwest and it has the heart of an oddball family. It has raised people’s spirits and made them laugh.
NYI: How did you approach the characters Thor and Arry? You seem to take them on so naturally.
DL: We’re not method actors so it’s easy for us. (Laughs)
AM: We’re old and gruff, it’s typecasting! (Laughs) I found that one little thing that sparked me for Arry. The other thing that’s a bit universal that grabbed me about her was fitting into a family. It’s something that everyone relates to. There’s people that fit into a family and there’s people that don’t fit into a family. Arry thinks she does and then she doesn’t. She’s someone who so desperately wants to be wanted and then she isn’t wanted, so I think that makes her more specific. Thor is just in denial and a grump.
DL: It’s very easy when you’re working with such good actors. You just listen and react. We had a good time from day one, as far as working together. The only hard thing for me was when Alley came in she was so under the gun. We had to work every day to get Alley ready. That was taxing. Alley is the hero of the show. The producers told her if she got ready for opening night they would be happy, and she was off book five performances before that!
NYI: Dan, in looking at your lengthy relationship with Alley, how do you think she has grown as an actor?
DL: Alley has always been a good actress. She has that warm heart. Alley, is it true that you may have learned a little more shtick from Orson over the years? (Laughs) The only thing an actor really needs is a little giggle in the heart, and Alley definitely has that. She has always been that way.
NYI: Alley, how has Dan grown as an actor?
AM: I didn’t know that Dan was going to go on to do so much theater. He always talked about it when we did The Wonder Years. I remember Fred [Savage] used to say “theat-ah” whenever the subject of Dan came up. “Mr. Theat-ah,” because Dan always talked about the “theat-ah.” Dan has gone on to do what he loved. Good for him. It was very exciting to see him in Lombardi. Good for you babe, you did what you always wanted to, and what you always said you would do! He’s also a wonderful playwright. He’s really serious about the theater and champions new plays. He’s been doing that ever since I first knew him back in L.A. That’s actually how Orson and I met, it was at one of Dan’s play readings.
DL: That’s right! I don’t remember, was Orson reading and you were in the audience, or were you reading and Orson was in the audience?
AM: Orson was in it. I had never heard of Orson Bean. You told me that he was a wonderful actor but I had never heard of him. We all went out to dinner that night after the play and that was that! He gave me his card. My mother was with us, remember Dan? She came to the reading because I had just bought a house right next to you! Dan had moved into this neighborhood and I went, “Wow! This is pretty!” It was all old Spanish houses and there was one down the street that was available. I didn’t think I would ever live in a fancy house with a pool, but I went, “I gotta grow up one of these days.” It was near the end of The Wonder Years. So I bought this house with a pool the day I met Orson.
NYI: If you could go back and give advice to younger Dan and Alley as they played The Wonder Years’ Jack and Norma, what would you tell them?
DL: I don’t know how to answer that because the writing was so good, and as actors that’s what you pray for. I thought we were as true as we could be to what the writers wanted. It was the best written show on television.
AM: We talked about that all the time, how insanely lucky we were. I don’t know about you Dan, but when I read the pilot it was so weirdly written with this narrator, I didn’t understand what it was! I kept asking friends: “What is this show?” But even in the audition I could feel that there was meat to it that I had not seen. I had been in a lot of sitcoms before it, but they were all those live, really funny ones.
DL: Two-line jokes with no real character.
AM: Comedy comedies.
DL: Alley, one thing I remember is when I said, “This will never go, it’s too good.” And you said to me, “You’re right, it’s too good, but it’s going to go forever.”
AM: I felt that right away. The minute I saw the pilot. There was something very unusual about it.
DL: The chemistry of the cast was there, but we also had the writing.
AM: The writing was really spectacular at The Wonder Years. It won the Peabody Award and Emmy Awards.
DL: I think every year one of our episodes won Best Writer.
AM: The pottery episode [“Pottery Will Get You Nowhere,” season 2, episode 6] won the Peabody Award. That was really beautiful writing. [Jack and Norma] got in this big fight at the end of it when he didn’t want me to do pottery anymore. We filmed it for a whole day, screaming at each other in the kitchen, and then, because it was really early on in the show, we realized the power of the fact that the whole show is about the kid and how he is looking at everything. It’s all told through his point of view. The writers realized the power of seeing your parents have a fight for the first time, so they pulled the camera way down the hall to where Fred was. It didn’t occur to them to do that at the beginning because they were just trying to figure all of that out. He was seeing them fight for the first time, but who knows if they ever fought like that? It’s great when a realization like that happens and you’re there for it.
DL: “You don’t need pottery, you need Pepsi-Cola,” remember?
AM: I think he was jealous of my pottery teacher.
DL: I thought I was just being cheap and didn’t want to pay for pottery classes. Either way, it worked.
AM: It was both, but you did mention the teacher.
DL: You were so hot, I was jealous! (Laughs)
NYI: In the series finale it was revealed that Jack passed away when Kevin was in college. What would Norma and the rest of the Arnold family be up to now?
AM: The jury is out whether or not Jack is in Heaven!
DL: I might get there after you’ve arrived, but I’m not going to get there by myself. I’m hanging in limbo until you get there.
AM: Norma was going to come out of her shell. I got a job at a bank. She had done what most women did and raised a family as a homemaker. She was also super smart. It would have come out if the show had gone on further. I figure she’s like Kamala Harris, maybe a senator or something.
DL: I always wanted them to do a Wonder Years where Kevin is now grown and has a couple of kids. Norma is remarried. We see Kevin go in the backyard maybe once or twice in each episode and look through the telescope and he would see me sitting on a swing saying, “See, you thought I was an asshole, you’re doing the same thing!” I think that would have been a good show. The older brother would have run the business, and he and Paul and Winnie would still be friends. I pitched it to Bob Brush once, and he said, “If we ever did it, that’s the way I’d like to do it,” and then I never heard about it again. I talked to Fred about it and he said he’d rather direct. That was a while ago. I think if the new Wonder Years reboot works, they ought to reconsider the idea.
AM: I love the idea to do The Wonder Years with a Black cast.
DL: I think five or ten years from now they ought to do a Latino one and an Asian one. I wonder why it took them so long. As long as they don’t get into that sitcom mode, they’ll be fine.
Morning’s At Seven is now playing a strictly limited engagement through December 5th at Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 W. 46th Street, NYC. Performances are Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at 7PM, and Saturday at 8PM, with matinees Wednesday and Saturday at 2PM, and Sunday at 3PM.. For tickets and information visit MorningsAt7.com or Telecharge.com, (212) 239-6200.