When Danielle Spencer landed her role in the popular sitcom What’s Happening!! in 1976 when she was ten she must have thought she was the luckiest kid in the world. The show was a hit, and she’s been recognized for it ever since. However, nothing could have prepared her for the challenges that she would have to face later in life.
Between 1976 and 1979 Danielle Spencer played the part of Dee in What’s Happening!!, which ran for three seasons and 65 episodes. The show followed the exploits of three African-American teenagers who lived in Los Angeles. The series was a hit – and has seen frequent reruns ever since.
Dee would frequently catch the three friends out and threaten to tell their parents about what they had been up to. In fact, her catchphrases were, “Ooooohh, you’re gonna get it!” and “Ooooohh, I’m tellin’ Mama!” Indeed, her character would often attempt to sabotage her brother’s plans while making some cash in the process. However, disaster was just around the corner for Danielle.
During the second season of the show, Danielle was a passenger in a head-on car collision. Her stepfather, actor Tim Pelt who was driving, was killed, and Danielle suffered serious injuries. Danielle and Tim had been close – and one can only imagine what it was like to lose him.
Tim had tried to protect his step-daughter during the accident, but her injuries were nevertheless severe. Danielle fell into a coma for three weeks, and it took six months for her to recover from her broken arm, leg and pelvis. It would be decades, though, before she realized the full damage done by the accident.
After What’s Happening!! was canceled in 1979, Danielle pursued her dream of becoming a vet. Always a lover of animals, Danielle had been encouraged to become a veterinarian throughout her childhood by her parents. So, after the production of a 1980s follow-up to What’s Happening!!, Danielle chose to enrol at Tuskegee University, Alabama.
In 1996 the former-child actor completed her veterinarian training and became Dr. Danielle Spencer. Three years later, she got married to Garry Fields at a ceremony in California. For a while, it must have seemed like nothing could go wrong.
But then Danielle’s luck ran out. In 2003, the injuries that she had suffered in the car accident that took her stepfather’s life would come back to haunt her. Her symptoms began when she noticed a tingling feeling in her legs – but it got much worse. When she went to the doctor after three months of pain, she later admitted that she could hardly walk.
Danielle was quickly diagnosed and was told that there was an issue with her spine: a disc impingement. There was no quick fix, and she would have to have surgery to remove the disc. She had the operation – but things didn’t get better quickly.
Danielle was in fact left paralyzed below the waist for close to twelve months. She had to engage in strenuous physical therapy for the entire period of recovery. With determination, though, she managed to make progress.
However, despite her recovery, Danielle will always have to walk on crutches. What’s more, she will continue to experience back pain for the rest of her life. And, speaking to Ebony magazine in 2012, she said that this is something that she now accepts. What she didn’t realize at the time, though, was that more problems were waiting for her.
Indeed, 2014 saw Danielle receive news that once again transformed her life. Having already faced spinal injuries, one can imagine she thought she was through the worst of her health problems. However, that year, Danielle was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Even though it was a disease that runs in her family, it was a surprise for her to hear the news. “With everything that I’ve been through with the spinal cord injury, I said, ‘I know God is not going to give me another affliction,’ so I was completely shocked when the doctors told me,” Danielle explained to BlackAmericaWeb. For a while, she weighed up her options for treatment, with surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy all possibilities. She hoped that if she chose surgery, it might remove the need for further treatment.
And at times, it seemed hopeless, Danielle later recalled. “Looking back a year ago, I didn’t even think I would get here,” she told Hers Magazine in 2016. In the end, she had a double mastectomy and chemotherapy, which, combined, was enough to put her cancer into remission. She does have advice for anyone dealing with a similar condition, though.
“I have friends and family around that really, really helped me get through it,” Danielle told Hers Magazine. And a positive mindset and a recognition of the good things in her life had got her through her ordeals, she said. She also had particular praise for her husband. “He’s certainly been here through all of my surgeries,” she said. “And it’s not something you’ve ever anticipated, especially when you first get married, that you’ll have to go through something like that right away.”
Danielle hasn’t shied away from the limelight in the years since, though. In fact, 2016 saw her being inducted into the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian, in recognition of her performing career. But her reaction to being recognized was a modest one.
“You never think at the time when you’re doing something, first of all, that anyone would even know about it 40-something years later,” Danielle told Hers Magazine. “But also that it’s going to be in a museum-type situation or in a book where people will be able to read about it forever and ever. That kind of blows my mind.” But she’s still not done – and she has plenty more planned.
One thing Danielle wants to do is get back on the stage. She says she prefers theater to TV, now, especially as it is relatively rare for TV shows to be filmed in front of a live audience today. That’s not all she wants to do with her new lease of life, though.
Danielle has also set her sights on a line of skincare products and children’s dolls. What’s more, she intends to return to writing – something she first took up in 2011 with her book Through the Fire: Journal of a Child Star, which detailed how she had overcome her spinal injury.
Danielle’s new book will continue where her previous memoir left off. Today, she is free of cancer and, despite everything, looks at life with a positive perspective. Indeed, she says that she’s thankful that she has the opportunity to carry on doing the things she loves.