DANIELLE SPENCER FINALLY BLEW her cover when she asked her boss for a day off last October. Before-then, Dr. Frank McMillan hadn’t a clue that the friendly veterinarian working in the Los Angeles animal clinic he runs had a secret celebrity past. But that day she told him she was going on The Jenny Jones Show to reunite with the cast of What’s Happening!!, the popular sitcom that featured her as bratty Dee Thomas from 1976 to 1979.
“I never made the connection, not because she doesn’t look like Dee, but because she’s so sweet and quiet,” says McMillan. “She’s not obnoxious like Dee was.” Spencer, 29, is used to people flipping out when they put her past together with her present. “Some people,” she says, “just can’t believe that I did that and now I’m doing this.”
To The Bronx-born animal lover, the transition makes perfect sense. Her family raised weimaraners, and she bandaged her first dog at age 6. When she wasn’t tending to sick pups, she tagged along to auditions with her actor-stepfather, Timothy Pelt, who coached her in his own rep company. At 9, she beat out 75 young actresses for the part of the wisecracking kid sister on What’s Happening!! “Danielle was the star of the show that first season,” says Fred Berry, who played Rerun and is now an Alabama evangelist. “Wherever I go, people still ask me, ‘Where’s Dee?’ ”
After reprising her role—on What’s Happening Now!! from 1985 to 1988—Spencer sank her residuals into her education, graduating from Tuskegee Institute’s celebrated School of Veterinary Medicine in Alabama in 1993. “Now I’m having so much fun being a doctor,” says Spencer, who, though single, has plenty of company in her three-bedroom, ranch-style North Hollywood home: Tuffy (a cocker spaniel), Beethoven (a poodle), Gepetto (a cat), Natasha (an albino king snake!) and one other creature: the acting bug. “I keep the door open,” she admits. “If anything comes up, I’m available.” If not, there are no regrets for the happy vet, who, unlike some former child actors, found her time in the spotlight more of a blessing than a curse. “When you’re a child star, you have people waiting on you hand and foot, and you make decent money. My experience was nothing but good,” she says. “When I was young, I was really shy, and the show made me come out of my shell. It put me exactly where I am right now.”