Danielle Spencer as “Dee”
by Janice Malone
Who could forget the classic hit TV sitcom “What’s Happening,” featuring characters, “Raj” (Ernest Thomas) “ReRun” (Fred Berry), “Dwayne” (Haywood Nelson) “Shirley”(Shirley Hemphill), “Mama Mabel” (Mabel King) and Raj’s little sister, “Dee,” (Danielle Spencer). It was a show with characters that so many of us grew up with and loved watching each week from 1976 – 1979. Unfortunately, Fred Berry, Mabel King and Shirley Hemphill have since died. But Ernest Thomas, Haywood Nelson and Danielle Spencer continue to remain in contact with each other.
Dr. Danielle Spencer-Fields today
Dee Thomas (Danielle Spencer) was the bratty, cute and worrisome little sister, who’s favorite line—“Oooh I’m gonna tell mama,” became a national catch-phrase. Whatever happened to Danielle? We had the opportunity to chat with her recently and we’re happy to report that she’s doing great. She’s been married since 1999 and is currently, Dr. Danielle Spencer-Fields, a very successful veterinarian. In fact, this marks her 20th anniversary as a vet. A few years ago, Spencer-Fields was paralyzed from spinal stenosis, the result of a major car accident when she was a child. But thanks to medical technology, and her faith in God and family, she’s back to helping our furry friends get better again at her Southern California area veterinarian clinic.
After “What’s Happening” ended, Spencer attended the University of California-Davis two years to pursue a degree in veterinary medicine. She later took a break from her studies to participate in the revival of her character, Dee, in What’s Happening Now!! (1985–1988). While matriculating her sophomore year, she pledged and became a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority. Spencer resumed her study Tuskegee University Veterinary School in Alabama. She also portrayed a veterinarian in the films “As Good as It Gets” in 1997 and “Peter Rabbit and the Crucifix” in 2001. Dr. Spencer-Fields and her husband have no children but are proud pet parents to three dogs and one cat. Here, she chats about her amazing life and career as one of the most memorable TV characters from back in the day.
Q: When you were a child star did you have a love for animals back then or years later?
A: Oh definitely. I’ve always loved animals. My family’s always had pets from as far back as I can remember. So as I grew up I just kept in my mind that I wanted to one day do some kind of work with animals. So it was my mom who explained to me that my love for animals would take me into one day becoming a veterinarian. I love trying to heal animals. It’s a lot of fun and very rewarding work.
Q: Over the years have pet owners ever made the connection with you being the “What’s Happening” show child actress?
A: I’ve had people figure it out when they see me on other shows talking about it or if they read an article about my earlier TV career. It usually surprises them that I’m now the same person who’s taking care of their beloved pets. It’s pretty neat when people do that.
Q: I understand that you attended Tuskegee University.
A: Yes, I went to veterinary school there. Attending Tuskegee was such a great experience for me. I am so happy that I was a student there.
Q: Do you recall details of auditioning for the original “What’s Happening” show?
A: I was quite young. I think I was 10 when the show started. I don’t remember every single aspect of the audition but I do recall that I didn’t get the part on the first time I auditioned. The show already had a girl doing the part in L.A. and my family was living in New York at the time. But about a month later we got a call from the show stating they were now interested in me having the part instead. I was flown out to L.A. and I’ve been living here since then.
Q: After the “What’s Happening” shows ended, did you still have a desire to pursue acting and show business?
A: It was a combination. I still wanted to do some acting but I also knew the importance of having a good education, too. So I decided to dedicate more time to my education. I figured that I would give veterinary medicine a good 10-year run, see if I still wanted to do it or not. And it’s now I’m celebrating my 20th year as a veterinarian.
Q: Over the years have you run into some of the former “What’s Happening” cast members?
A: Yes, I have. The only cast members left now are Heywood Nelson, myself, and Ernest Thomas. I just had brunch with Ernest a few days ago. I see him almost once a month. And it’s been about a year ago since I’ve seen Heywood because he mainly lives on the East Coast. But I understand that he’s now here in L.A., so I hope to see him soon. Ernest is still doing some acting but he’s also managing some singing groups, too. And Heywood is really a computer expert. He’s always been involved in computers IT systems and computer animation.
Q: When you starred as “Dee” your character was the cute but annoying little sister that exists in almost every family. Away from the show, were you anything like Dee?
A: I didn’t think that I was (laughing). However, my brother, who’s about 11 years younger than me, seems to think that Dee would come out of me at times. My mom of course wouldn’t allow Dee to come out. But with some of my cousins, I did use to be a little tattler on them at times.
Q: Over the years how often have you watched the old “What’s Happening” and “What’s Happening Now” shows?
A: I’ve seen them quite often, especially since the TV One network started showing the shows. Watching the shows refreshes my memory on so many things that I had forgotten because I was so young back then.
Q: I understand that you released a book a few years ago.
A: The book is titled, Through the Fire…Journal of a Child Star. It’s a very candid book where I discuss the portion of my life of being a child star, going to college and what my life was like after Hollywood. On the other hand, I reveal how this back surgery I had changed my whole life and how my husband and I survived this ordeal.
Q: Do you still have any interest in acting or any areas of entertainment?
A: There’s still an interest in acting. In fact, I’ve been taking acting classes with a wonderful acting coach. Each time I take a class it seems to revitalize my interest in acting even more. I also have a couple of projects that are in development, where I will be the producer once they’re fully developed.
Special to the NNPA form The Tennessee Tribune