“Well, I had my first kiss on the show. I learned that things aren’t straightforward. Things aren’t black and white…” Once described as the “coolest girl in any television show ever,” Danica McKellar has proven you can have both beauty and brains in Hollywood after she launched her career as an actress in the mid-1980s and went on to become a skilled mathematician, a published author and a renowned education advocate. Far beyond her knack for solving math problems, however, McKellar is perhaps best known for playing Winnie Cooper in The Wonder Years from 1988 to 1993. And, while The Wonder Years has certainly defined her career, McKellar has managed to leave her mark as a New York Times best-selling author, an education advocate and an actress with starring roles in the Netflix original series Project Mc2 as well as in a handful of Hallmark Channel movies. So, how does the 42-year-old former child star turned math whiz manage it all?
One of two daughters born to a real estate developer and a homemaker, Danica Mae McKellar came into this world on January 3, 1975 in La Jolla, California. Although she and her sister both showed an early interest in acting, they were raised to put their education first as McKellar excelled in mathematics even as a child. Also showing great promise as an actress and excelling in theater arts, McKellar’s parents gave her every opportunity to shine as they moved to Los Angeles when she was eight years old and enrolled her in weekend acting classes at the Lee Strasberg Institute.
McKellar’s hard work finally paid off in 1985 when she made her television debut in an episode of The Twilight Zone. Two years later, she returned to play a different character on the series and took a huge leap of faith when she joined her sister, Crystal, to audition for the role of Winnie Cooper on a new primetime drama called The Wonder Years. “In fact, we didn’t just both audition for the character of Winnie Cooper, but it came down to the two of us,” McKellar recalled. “I still remember that audition. We kept going in, and there were fewer and fewer girls in the room. We went back in again and there were three of us. And then, there were just the two of us. They told my mom, ‘Look, we’re going to cast Danica because she’s a little older and there’s a kiss in it, but we love Crystal so much that we want to write a part for her, if this goes to series.”
With Winnie only meant to be a one-time guest spot on the show’s pilot, McKellar winning the part over her sister wasn’t a huge deal until the pilot was finished and network executives wanted more. “They asked if I could sign a series contract, which was really exciting,” McKellar said. “By then, Crystal knew that they were going to be writing a part for her, and they did. She ended up doing nine episodes. She played Becky Slater, and it all worked out. She’s a lawyer now. She’s no longer acting, and I am, so it all worked out. She’s making all the money.”
Spending the next six seasons on the show before it was canceled in 1993, McKellar experienced a lot of firsts on the series, especially when she shared her first kiss with Kevin Arnold, who was played by Fred Savage. “My first kiss was a pretty nerve-wracking experience,” McKellar admitted. “We were both really scared and nervous and didn’t know what was going to happen or if we were going to do it right… But we never kissed off screen, and pretty quickly our feelings turned into brother/sister and stayed that way.” Although her feelings for Savage were nothing beyond friendship, McKellar herself became the object of affection for many teen boys who tuned in week after week to watch The Wonder Years.
Despite her rise to fame on the show, McKellar struggled to establish herself as an adult actress after the series ended in 1993, even with credits in Camp Cucamonga, The Love Boat: The Next Wave and Walker, Texas Ranger as well as a handful of Lifetime TV movies. This is what led her back to her passion for mathematics as she enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles and graduated in 1998 with highest honors. Coincidentally, one of her scientific papers from undergraduate school was published, which inspired McKellar’s later venture into writing as she published a series of best-selling books to encourage young students to study mathematics. Those titles include: Math Doesn’t Suck, Kiss My Math, Hot X and Girls Get Curves.
Amid her work as a published author and education advocate, McKellar never forgot her love of acting and continued making appearances on popular television series including NCIS, NYPD Blue, Strong Medicine, How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory and The Secret Life of the American Teenager. She’s also lent her voice to a variety of characters including Miss Martian in Young Justice, Sister Leia in GI Joe: Renegades, and Hayley in Transformers: Rescue Bots. Having also put on her dancing shoes for the 18th season of Dancing with the Stars in 2014, her most recent credits include the Netflix original series Project Mc2 as well as Hallmark Channel films Crown for Christmas, My Christmas Dream, Wedding Bells, Campfire Kiss and Coming Home for Christmas.
Today, the 42-year-old actress, author, and mathematics writer no longer shies away from her early fame from The Wonder Years and, instead, chooses to embrace the opportunities that playing Winnie has offered her over the years. “I learned that things aren’t straightforward. Things aren’t black and white,” McKellar says of her time on the show. “In the second episode, Kevin and Winnie go back to the same place where they had their first kiss, but they don’t kiss. They get on the swings and act like little kids again, and he said something about progress not being a straight line, but that we have to swing back and forth for a little bit… Relationships are not straightforward. They’re not black and white. Sometimes things don’t always go in a straight line, and that’s okay. Love can be very confusing.”
While love can be incredibly confusing, one thing is for certain and that’s how blessed McKellar feels especially with all she’s accomplished over the last four decades. “I have the best life ever,” she says. “I’m so happy and excited about every day.”