She's one of the best natural actresses I've seen in a long time. She has a built-in comedy sense that's rare in someone of any age.

That judgment from Bud Yorkin, no less (the co-producer of TV's formative All in the Family), was very nearly the epitaph—at age 12—of Danielle Spencer, a co-star of his latest network hit, What's Happening!! Just last month she lay six days in intensive care after an L.A. highway crackup that killed her actor stepdad, Timothy Pelt.

Yet four weeks later, mostly recovered from a fractured leg, arm and pelvis and coping with the traumatic loss of the man who taught her the business, Danielle returned to what has become the reigning black series on the air. There has been nearly as much press about the one-week walkout (over "substandard dressing rooms") of two other bananas on the show, Ernest (Raj) Thomas and Fred (Rerun) Berry. But Danielle—though she had lower billing and less dialogue as Raj's smart-ass sister, Dee—is at least as responsible for boosting the show into the Nielsen top ten.

Danielle won that pivotal role in competition with 75 other kids. She started coaching at 7 in a rep company co-founded by her stepfather in her native New York. Though she also did commercials and movie bits (Harry and Tonto, Serpico), she never got away with playing stage brat. Her mom, Cheryi, a college French teacher, sent her to a regular school—in a program for the intellectually gifted.

Now, like all child TV regulars, Danielle has a private tutor, but her mother assures (and ensures) that "at home she is just a nice, normal little girl. She doesn't always come up with wise answers the way Dee does." Basically, Danielle is like any preteen, shy around strangers and a devotee of horror movies ("the gruesomer the better") and candy stores. (Her brands, she meticulously recites, "are Doublemint, Dentyne, Juicy Fruit, Reese Peanut Butter Cups and $100,000 Bars, Butterfingers and Snickers"—complicating her efforts to stay at 100 pounds over her 4'2" frame.) Amusement parks, another addiction, have become a bit of a hassle since her celebrity, which Danielle otherwise pays no never-mind to. Included in what must be one of the world's most complete doll collections are Farrah, Cher and Diana Ross.

With her salary now into four figures per episode, Danielle can afford it. She also helped relocate the family from a modest section of L.A. to five bedrooms on the Pacific at Malibu. Sadly, they moved in just months before the death of her dad, who had eerily told his wife that he ultimately wanted his ashes scattered there in the surf. Danielle was spared news of his death until her own recovery was assured and then, says her mother, "cried a lot and took it very hard." Just prior to the accident he had forecast "a brilliant future for her—she has a very fine dramatic quality that hasn't been seen yet."

What's Happening!! co-producer Bernie Orenstein is a believer who says there's only one problem working with Danielle. "We forget she's only 12 and sometimes lay too much on her, like the time we must have changed her lines a dozen times during rehearsal. 'Wait a minute,' she finally said. 'I'm only a child.' "