How Danica McKellar Learned to Embrace Her Wonder Years Past

After taking a break from acting, Danica McKellar explained to E! News how she ultimately discovered who she was outside of Winnie Cooper from The Wonder Years.

By Tierney Bricker Jul 12, 2022 3:49 PMTags
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Danica McKellar knows you want to ask her about The Wonder Years. And she also wants you to know it's okay.

When the star was on stage at RomaDrama Live!—a three-day convention in Palm Beach, Fl. for fans of Hallmark, Lifetime and GAC Family TV movies—several attendees approached the microphone, hands shaking, to say how much the classic sitcom, and more specifically, McKellar's character Winnie Cooper, meant to them. 

McKellar happily answered all of their questions, even getting up at one point to give one guest a big hug, a moment they had likely envisioned for years. 

"It's incredible to be part of a show that had that kind of impact," McKellar told E! News after the panel. "It's something that I never want to take for granted."

But that doesn't mean the 47-year-old was always comfortable with her early brush with fame.

"Right when the show ended, I thought, 'Okay, I am moving on and so will the rest of the world,'" McKellar, who was 13 when the show began airing in 1988, said, "and the rest of the world didn't move on." 

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So, when The Wonder Years ended in 1993, McKellar chose to take a break from acting to go to UCLA and pursue a degree in mathematics—and a minor in learning more about herself.

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"I really wanted to find out what was my value in regard to my brain and not fame," McKellar explained. "I needed to find out who else I was So I threw myself head-first into math. I didn't wear any makeup, I always put my hair up in a ponytail, t-shirt and jeans. A lot of my professors at UCLA had never even owned a television. I got a chance to redefine myself."

For a long time, especially when she was a teenager, McKellar wanted to completely shed her persona as one of TV's most iconic girls next door. But over time, she said she learned to embrace how meaningful Winnie Cooper was to so many people. So yes, like we said, feel free to approach her.  

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"Now, I get it," she said. "Me as a person doesn't matter to that person. What's so meaningful to them is the character I played, so there's no reason to try to get them to see me instead. This is their moment."

And McKellar is all about creating feel-good memories, which is why, after graduating summa cum laude, she returned to acting and, in 2015, began starring in a yearly holiday movie for the Hallmark Channel, becoming one of the network's most beloved stars. 

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"I just wanted to put good energy into the world by doing movies like this," McKellar, who has appeared in 16 Hallmark movies, said. "It's extraordinary how much these movies mean to people. It's telling how much positivity is needed in the world and that we can provide that."

But in October 2021, she surprised fans when she left the network for a four-picture deal to star in and executive produce original films for GAC Family. (It's the new destination for family-friendly content being run by Bill Abbott, the former CEO of Crown Media Family Networks, a.k.a. the parent of Hallmark Channel.) Other talent that have made the transition include Candace Cameron Bure and Trevor Donovan.

While there were a lot of factors that went into her decision, a major point was the "multi-picture deal offer at GAC that I never had at Hallmark and I had the opportunity to truly produce and help create in a way that was very limited before," McKellar explained. "That's been incredibly gratifying. And I had worked with Bill Abbott for forever and a lot of the executives moved over, so it feels more familiar than if I had stayed at Hallmark."

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But viewers can still expect the same feel-good romantic comedies from the New York Times bestselling author of children's books, as McKellar is just as much a fan of the genre that highlights "uplifting, showing characters struggling with real dilemmas that they can come out stronger in the end for," she said. "I love when characters are challenged to walk through their fears and be brave and one of the things that takes the most courage is falling in love."

And doesn't that does sound pretty wonderful?

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