Dulé Hill on being the cool dad for The Wonder Years and why the role means so much to him
The Wonder Years (2021 TV show)
The "reimagined" Wonder Years pilot begins not with an iconic, era-defining song, à la the Byrds' "Turn! Turn! Turn!" in the original series, but a little-known soul tune called "I Need You More." On the show, it's a song by Dulé Hill's character Bill Williams that his family is thrilled to hear on the radio. But in real life, the song was written by Bill Patterson — father of The Wonder Years' showrunner, Saladin K. Patterson, and the inspiration for the "music professor by day and funk musician by night" played by Hill.
"That alone makes this very special to me," the West Wing alum tells EW. "I'm very aware that I'm not playing Saladin's father, but the inspiration has come from that. As you're endeavoring to bring a new character to life, you're always looking for certain things that you can put stakes down on to be able to create from there."
Patterson (the younger) feels equally fortunate to have Hill on board, especially in a role that shows off the breadth of his abilities. "I know how multitalented he is, but most of America either knows him just as a comedian or just as a dramatic actor," the showrunner says. "The fact that I now get an opportunity to show America that he can do all of the above is a great blessing."
Hill is admittedly still in the process of building Bill Williams (the show's first season is currently in production in Atlanta), but the character that's begun to take shape over The Wonder Years' first few episodes is unlike any he's played before. An occasionally tough but loving father to 12-year-old Dean (Elisha "EJ" Williams) and an ambitious musician with a laid-back charm, Bill is a character with whom Hill, who recently became a father himself, feels deeply connected.
"They say art imitates life, but life informs art," the actor says. "For myself, having a 17-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son, I understand what drives Bill Williams. I can understand, even while trying to reach for his own dreams, the priority being laying a foundation for his family to have the best opportunity of success. Both Bill Williams and I are just running our leg of the race, and we want to make sure that we hand the baton off in the best way that we can."
It was a "no-brainer" for Hill to join The Wonder Years, he says. The actor knew Patterson well — the showrunner previously worked as a writer-producer on Psych — and had avidly watched the original series starring Fred Savage while growing up.
"I don't know if you can be a child of the late '80s without being a fan of the show, or at least having a big awareness of the show," says Hill, who was 12 when the original series debuted. "I grew up in a suburb in New Jersey, so there was a lot in the show that I could relate to. But I was also very aware that I didn't see myself reflected in the show. I realized that it was a world that did not include me, and as much as I love and appreciate the show, that was always lingering in my mind."
So when he heard that a new Wonder Years was being made with Patterson at the helm, Hill turned to his wife and said, "If I was going to be doing a network television show, this is exactly the kind of show that I would want to do."
"Knowing Saladin's sensibilities, I thought that telling this story through his lens, with his point of view being the engine behind it, could be something very entertaining and also very enlightening at the same time," the actor explains. The involvement of names like Don Cheadle (who narrates the series), Lee Daniels (who executive produces), and Savage (who EPs, directs, and advises on the series' tone) — as well as Saycon Sengbloh, a veteran stage actress who plays Hill's onscreen wife — only sweetened the deal.
"I love working with brilliant people, talented people, people that respect the gifts and artistry inside of others," Hill says. "And I love working with people that don't bring ego to the table."
He also has "a growing love" for his onscreen children, Williams and Laura Kariuki, who plays Dean's teenage sister Kim. "EJ is a brilliant young man and a talented artist, and I'm really excited to see what he's going to do as he goes forward — in this role, but also beyond this role," Hill says. "And Laura's the same way. She's extremely talented and knows her craft very well; I love playing scenes with her. I know at some point I'm going to turn around and say, 'Oh yeah, I worked with EJ Williams and Laura Kariuki.' "
What's more, he muses, "It's very interesting for me seeing EJ in this experience, because I started [performing] as a young child as well, so I can see parts of myself reflected in his experience now. Mind you, I was performing for maybe about 500 people, not millions of people every week, but it's causing me to have my own nostalgia about my yesterday."
Nostalgia, of course, was key to the original Wonder Years, and it's key to the "high-wire act," as Hill puts it, that the new show is trying to pull off as well. "Touching on nostalgia but not being too heavy-handed, dealing with issues but not preaching about issues — it's a lot of wonderful ingredients that if you don't get the measurements exactly right, it can spoil the whole batter," Hill says with a laugh. But that mixture, he adds, is especially resonant for our current moment in time.
"If we look at this last year, when the world has been turned on its axis, and there is so much unrest inside this nation, we still had laughter, and we still had joy," the actor reflects. "Within our four walls, it wasn't COVID all the time, it wasn't social unrest all the time, it wasn't politics all the time. And as we look back to the '60s, it was the same thing. It wasn't all water hoses and dogs for Black families in America. Oftentimes we can think this is all it was for this group of people. And it was not. That was a part of it, it was a major part of it, but it wasn't all of it."
And he hopes sharing that story — of a loving and joyful family in a time of upheaval — will prove inspiring to viewers in 2021. "America is full of millions of unique and diverse stories, and this is just one of them," Hill says. "The original Wonder Years was one story, this is another, and there's many more to share after this one. But it's my honor and my joy to share this story with the viewing audience at this time."
Still, there's one person whose opinion is foremost in his mind.
"I hope that Mr. Patterson is very proud of Bill Williams," Hill says with a laugh, "and I'm not talking about Saladin."
The Wonder Years airs Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.
This reimagining of the classic coming-of-age series follows young Dean Williams growing up in a middle-class Black family in 1960s Montgomery, Ala.