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Former Child Star Reveals Why She Quit Acting Right After Hit Show

Danica McKellar went in a different direction when The Wonder Years ended.

When she was over being known as Winnie Cooper, Danica McKellar decided to make a major change in her life. From 1988 to 1993, the young actor starred on The Wonder Years as Winnie, the neighbor and girlfriend of lead character Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage). When the show ended, McKellar was 18 years old, and she decided instead of immediately taking on another role to step away from her acting career.

Eventually, McKellar did return to performing, but she's thrived in another field too. Read on to see what she had to say in a recent interview—with her own son—about her big post-Wonder Years decision.

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McKellar felt she "couldn't get away" from her famous character.

Danica McKellar at the premiere of "Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael" in 1990
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

McKellar's 11-year-old son Draco recently interviewed the 47-year-old for an Entertainment Tonight segment. He asked his mother, "When and why did you decide to take a break from acting and become a mathematician?"

McKellar responded, "I went to UCLA, but when I got to school, everywhere I went, people all over campus would shout across campus, you know, 'Hey Winnie!' [or] 'Hey, loved you on The Wonder Years!' I couldn't get away from it." She continued, "So I needed to find out how I was valuable outside of Winnie Cooper, and math was challenging and I did well at it. And I love this feeling that my value, the important stuff had nothing to do with how I looked or television."

One moment changed everything for her.

During an interview on Steve Harvey's talk show in 2018, McKellar explained why she decided on math as her major.

"I decided to take a math class, and I was so nervous, but I took it anyway because I've always loved a challenge," she said. "And I'll tell you something, I scored the highest score on that midterm out of 133 people—like, by a lot. I was floored. And I had no idea. I studied so hard, but I didn't think I belonged, simply because I didn't look the part."

She had had a surprising interaction with another student the following day.

"The next day, there was this big turning point for me—this is when I knew math had saved me and I was getting a new sense of self," she said. "This guy tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Excuse me, aren't you that girl'—and I swore he was going to say 'from The Wonder Years, who played Winnie Cooper.' Instead he said, 'Aren't you that girl who got the 22 [score on the test]?' And I felt so proud and so good about myself for something that had nothing to do with all that child star stuff."

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She's written 10 educational books.

Danica McKellar at the "Christmas Under the Stars" special screening in 2019
DFree / Shutterstock

McKellar has written 10 books about math, including children's books and books that encourage specifically middle and high school girls who are interested in the subject

"I hate the idea that there are so many kids (and parents) who are just so frustrated and find mathematics scary," she told The Children's Book Review in 2020. "So, I set out to change that mindset and make it entertaining, but educational as well. By writing books, I can reach a lot more kids all over the world."

In addition to her books, McKellar also co-authored a physics theorem called the Chayes-McKellar-Winn Theorem.

She returned to acting after making her name in academics.

Danica McKellar at the Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies and Mysteries 2018 TCA Event
Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock

McKellar told Harvey that she took four years off of acting, but that her math career didn't slow her down when she decided to return. Since making her comeback, she's played roles in The West Wing, How I Met Your Mother, and Inspector Mom, among many characters in many other TV shows and movies. Recently, she's also done a lot of voice acting and has appeared in several Hallmark movies.

Lia Beck
Lia Beck is a writer living in Richmond, Virginia. In addition to Best Life, she has written for Refinery29, Bustle, Hello Giggles, InStyle, and more. Read more
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