09/21/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
Sure, it was a kick making Kevin Arnold's heart beat faster every week on The Wonder Years
. But Danica McKellar, who played winsome Winnie Cooper on ABC's beloved coming-of-age sitcom from 1988 to 1993, didn't know what real fun was until recently. McKellar, who graduated summa cum laude from UCLA in June, wrote her senior paper on "Percolation and Gibbs State Multiplicity for Ferromagnetic Ashkin-Teller Models in Two Dimensions." ("It's a characterization theorem," she explains.) The paper will soon be published in a prestigious physics journal. And if that doesn't make you envious, listen to this: She and her cowriter are to be named in a new book on statistical mechanics. "We'll be in the index!" McKellar, 23, says. "It's so cool!"
By her own admission, the doe-eyed stunner who coaxed Arnold, played by Fred Savage, through puberty (and served as crush material for plenty of viewers as well) is now a full-fledged math geek. "It's a really interesting world," insists McKellar. "There's glamor in it." But she hasn't forgotten Hollywood-style glamor, either. Following in the footsteps of onetime child stars Jodie Foster and Brooke Shields
, she's tacking her college diploma to the wall and returning to showbiz.
"I love the challenge of math, but it's also isolating," says McKellar, who has set aside her plans to pursue a Ph.D. "I was missing acting—I missed relating to people." While still a senior at UCLA she not only appeared in an episode of the UPN TV series Love Boat: The Next Wave, but also guest starred on the NBC sitcom Working, opposite Savage. "The audience at the taping went nuts," says McKellar. "They were so excited to see us together."
And to think that one of TV-land's greatest romances almost didn't come to pass. The San Diegoborn McKellar—whose parents, Chris, 48, a real estate developer, and Mahaila, 52, a homemaker, divorced when she was 7—wasn't interested when family friends told her she was cute enough to do commercials as a kid. "I asked her about it and she said no," says Mahaila. "A year later, Danica said, 'You know, I'd like to do that.' "
McKellar, then 10, landed parts in two episodes of the TV series The Twilight Zone. At 12, she beat out her younger sister Crystal for the role of Winnie in the 1988 pilot of The Wonder Years. Her performance so impressed the show's producers that they opted to make her one-shot character the regular object of Savage's adolescent yearning. "Our first kiss on the show—that was my first kiss and Fred's too," says McKellar. "It was the most anxious moment of my life."
Not that she and Savage let life imitate art. "We had this mutual crush in the beginning, but we didn't do anything about it," she says. "And then it just turned into brother-sister." When ABC canceled the series after the 1993 season, McKellar enrolled at UCLA. "At first, I'd get a lot of Hey, Winnies and guys being obnoxious," says McKellar, who got hooked on math after she aced a second-year midterm. "Then I became Danica from the math department."
It was in a third-year abstract algebra class that she met her boyfriend Jason Richard, now 25 and a computer software product manager. "I knew who she was and I was like, 'Wow, she's still cute,' " admits Richard. "Finally I asked her for her notes, and the rest is history." Marriage is a possibility—"someday," says McKellar, who is staying with a friend near UCLA while she hunts for a place, works on a math CD-ROM for kids and maps out her acting career. "I feel like this is a fresh start," she says.
Yet McKellar knows that—future roles and her knack for ferromagnetics notwithstanding—she will always be Winnie to some. Truth is, she often tunes in to Wonder Years reruns herself. "I love getting sentimental about growing up," she says. "Watching the show is the best home video you could have."
Champ Clark in Los Angeles