From child star to veterinarian and business woman ...
By Deanna Martin-Osuagwu
Editorial note: This interview originally ran in August before Danielle Spencer revealed her breast cancer diagnosis to Black America Web earlier this week. We wish her a safe and speedy recovery.
In 1976, What’s Happening!! hit the small screen, making a star out of 11-year-old Danielle Spencer with her no-nonsense character Dee Thomas. Today, Spencer is a veterinarian and entrepreneur. JET caught up with the former child actress to hear more about her new projects.
JET: At what age did you determine that you wanted to become a performer? What do you love about acting?
Danielle Spencer: I became an actor at age 8 or 9. I realized early on in my acting classes that it was fun memorizing lines, putting on makeup and pretending to be different characters. Acting really is therapeutic because you’re able to relate to your characters and figure out what makes them tick while also infusing your own personality.
JET: How would you describe your experience as a child star?
DS: Unbelievable. Imagine being plucked from obscurity to star in a TV show. I had never seen any young Black girl in that type of spotlight, so I didn’t have a reference point in the media as to how to deal with this opportunity. I was from the Bronx, NY. What I did was use my own family as the reference on how to portray my character. I also depended on my family members to keep me grounded so I would remember that I was doing a job I was fortunate to have and that they loved me regardless. It was an incredible time in my life that I’m forever grateful for. I learned so much about work ethics and interacting with others that I may have missed had I not had that opportunity. Besides, I loved being spoiled by all of the cast members and crew. And I enjoyed dressing up for the cast parties and other events.
JET: Once you became a household name, how did your life change?
DS: The most challenging aspect of acting back in the ’70s and ’80s was that people would recognize me and I felt weird about that— especially while I was in church service or eating at a restaurant. I was confused as to why people wanted my autograph. I was sometimes unable to go shopping or to amusement parks without someone recognizing me.
JET: Why is What’s Happening!! considered by many to be a classic sitcom?
DS: What’s Happening!! was one of the first mainstream sitcoms to feature Blacks. At that time, it was very much like unchartered territory in respect to the subject matter of the scripts. The writers simply wrote story lines that both Blacks and Whites could relate to. The stories made sense. There was usually a lesson learned by the time the show was over. There wasn’t the reference to sexual content that’s now pervasive in our society. The story lines were fresh, new and funny. Also each of the characters was a familiar type that we know from our own families.
JET: When you reprised the role of Dee in the 1980s sequel What’s Happening Now!!, what new dynamics did you want to bring to the character on this sitcom?
DS: Once Dee was all grown up, I thought it was important that she attend college and experience all those things college students do. It seemed to be the natural progression of the character. Also it seemed inevitable that Dee would be trying establish her own independence from being Raj’s little sister. I was happy that the writers came up with some great scripts to show Dee’s development.
JET: What did you enjoy the most about your time on What’s Happening!! and What’s Happening Now!!?
DS: I enjoyed the relationships and friendships that I made on the show. All of the remaining cast members keep in touch. We are like brothers and sister. The late Mark Warren, our director for the majority of our episodes, was also a great friend for many years until he passed away. I was able to really connect with my character Dee over the years to try and make her more likeable but I couldn’t resist those great jokes, usually at someone else’s expense. In addition, I enjoyed the fantastic lifestyle I was able to have as a result of the show— living in great neighborhoods, attending award shows, eating at fine restaurants and traveling to different parts of the world.
JET: What advice do you have for young people considering a career in acting?
DS: Anytime I’m asked about acting or any career choice I tell the person to think of a career that you would do for free if you had to, or think of the things you are most passionate about. For any career it involves focusing on every aspect of your career choice. Studying is essential to any career. With acting, take as many classes as you can and do theater wherever you can. If there’s no group in your area, then you can be the one to start it up with some friends. Above all, do not give up. The auditioning process can possibly be a humiliating experience only if you let it get to you. It’s best not to take things personally. Perhaps you are just not right for the role. Believe that there will be others if it’s God’s will.
JET: Have you officially retired from acting?
DS: While practicing veterinary medicine for the past couple of decades, I wasn’t able to just leave or come and go as I pleased because the animals were depending on me in certain cases. I dedicated that time to my profession to learn as much as I could. I suppose it was a semi-retirement. The great thing is that I can always change my mind so that I can pursue my other love again: acting.
JET: At what point did you realize that you wanted to become a veterinarian?
DS: I love animals. I’ve wanted to be a vet since I was 5. I always had a cat or a dog at home while growing up. In 2013, I celebrated my 20th year of being a vet and I love it more now than I did when I first graduated. I work at several hospitals in southern California. Also, I wanted to become a vet so that I could save my own animals should they become ill. It’s rewarding to be able to diagnose and treat a pet’s illness so that the entire family can get back to normal.
JET: What inspired you to write your 2011 book Through the Fire…Journal of a Child Star?
DS: In 1977, I was in a car accident, which led to spinal problems. Ten years ago, I had surgery on my upper back that resulted in my being paralyzed from the waist down. After many years of rehabilitation at several places, I am still left with neurological damage to my spinal cord. While at these facilities I would share stories with several patients about their journey/injury. I found that I became more encouraged as I was speaking to them and they also enjoyed our talks. Through the Fire…Journal of a Child Star was inspired by my interactions with fellow patients with disabilities at Kessler Rehabilitation Center in West Orange, NJ. So my goal with the book is to inspire all of those with spinal cord injuries not to give up and keep believing in themselves to accomplish their dreams and goals.
JET: Discuss your current Indiegogo campaign for your project All Grown Up!
DS: All Grown Up! is a reality show I’m developing with my childhood buddies and former child actors James Bond III and Rodney Allen Rippy that will explore our desire to act again or make other career moves while navigating the obstacles we come up against. Each of us has had full lives outside of show business so we will also touch on our personal lives. We want to offer alternative stories to what you hear about some child stars who have had difficulties growing up in the limelight by showing you a cast that has adjusted well both on- and off-camera. We are currently seeking donations from all and anyone who will help us to get the show on the air.
JET: Whose brainchild is All Grown Up!?
DS: My mom and I came up with the idea of the show and since I’ve met or known many of the child actors and actresses of 20 or so years ago I thought it would be great to do a show where we can see what they are up to both career-wise and in their personal lives. Many have had several successful careers as well as those who are acting still. This show is important because it will offer entertainment without violence. You may see some temper tantrums once in a while but it will be low on the chaos scale…that is our purpose as well as to provide some laughter and positivity. There’s certainly room for a show like this and we think it’s time. We envision it as an ongoing cable series. So stay tuned.
JET: Do you have any other projects on the horizon?
DS: I have a women’s clothing line coming out called the Dani Collection: everything from everyday wear, casual wear, dress wear and intimates. And within the year, I’ll have a follow-up to my book Through the Fire and books on home care for pets.
You can donate to All Grown Up! until April 04, 2014 (11:59pm PT). Visit indiegogo.com/projects/all-grown-up.