GOLDBERG ,WHOOPI (Caryn Johnson) (ca. 1955– ) Actress, Comic, Talk Show Host
With her offbeat humor and looks, Whoopi Goldberg is perhaps the film industry’s most unlikely star. A native New Yorker, she was born Caryn Johnson on November 13, probably in 1955. Though raised in poverty in a housing project, she was ambitious and self-confident, sure that one day she would achieve her dream of becoming an actress. Her early ambitions were fueled by watching movies on television, often three or four a day. At eight, Caryn began her performing career with the Helena Rubinstein Children’s Theater. Caryn found school far less satisfying. Undiagnosed dyslexia made her such a poor student that she was labeled retarded. Discouraged, she dropped out and drifted into drugs, eventually becoming a heroin addict. By her late teens, she had kicked heroin with the help of drug counselor, whom she married. During their brief union, she had one child, Alexandrea. Still determined to act professionally, Johnson moved to San Diego, California, in 1974. She joined Spontaneous Combustion, an improvisation troupe, and was a founding member of the San Diego Repertory Theater. To make a living, she worked various jobs, including hairdressing and making up corpses in a funeral parlor. Raising her daughter alone, she was forced to go on welfare for several years, an experience she remembers as humiliating. Yet, her confidence in her talents never waned. She later recalled, “Even when I wasn’t making any money, I always knew I was good.”
Johnson adopted the stage name Whoopi Cushion (pronounced kush-ON), but when her mother complained that it was undignified, she began using the surname Goldberg, a name from her family tree. She first used this billing in a twocharacter show she performed with the comedian Don Victor. Goldberg took the show to San Francisco, where she soon began working with Blake Street Hawkeyes theater troupe. There, she developed The Spook Show, a one-woman production in which she played a variety of characters, including a junkie and a nine-year-old African-American girl who dreams of becoming white. While performing The Spook Show at a workshop in New York City, Goldberg drew the attention of director Mike Nichols. Nichols
offered to produce her show and bring it to Broadway. Retitled Whoopi Goldberg, the show opened to admiring reviews on October 24, 1984. A videotaped performance was aired on HBO the following year. One of Goldberg’s new fans was Steven Spielberg, who hired her to star in his film The Color Purple (1985). Goldberg’s quiet, subtle performance won her a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar nomination. The movie, and by extension Goldberg, were criticized by many African Americans, who took exception with the movie’s unfiattering depiction of its black male characters. In 1986, Goldberg used her newfound fame to relieve the plight of the homeless. With Billy Crystal and Robin Williams, she began hosting an annual comedy benefit concert, Comic Relief. Goldberg has campaigned for many other social causes, including abortion rights and services for people with AIDS.
Although pronounced a new star after The Color Purple, Goldberg had trouble finding good parts. She made a string of movies—including Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986), Burglar (1987), and Fatal Beauty (1987)—in which her performance far outshone the mediocre material she was given. After appearing in several commercial failures, she was written off by many Hollywood insiders. Goldberg proved them wrong with Ghost (1990), in which she played a supporting comic role as a phony psychic. The film became a surprise hit and won Goldberg a best supporting actress Oscar. She became the first African-American actress since HATTIE MCDANIEL to receive an Academy Award. Her stardom confirmed, Goldberg threw herself into a wide variety of projects. On television, she appeared in Bagdad Cafe (1990), a shortlived situation comedy, and became a regular cast member of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In 1992, she became the host of The Whoopi Goldberg Show, a half-hour late-night talk show that featured one-on-one conversations between Goldberg and her guest. The show was soon canceled due to poor ratings.
In film, Goldberg scored a critical success with The Long Walk Home (1990), a drama set during the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott of the 1950s. Two years later, she again proved her ability to attract a wide audience with Sister Act (1992), in which she played a nightclub singer masquerading as a nun. Goldberg earned $8 million for its poorly received sequel, Sister Act II (1993). While filming Made in America (1993), Goldberg began a widely publicized romance with her white costar, Ted Danson. To satirize the hate mail the couple was receiving, Goldberg wrote a vulgar comedy routine that Danson delivered in blackface at a Friars Club “roast,” a comic tribute to one of this entertainment organization’s members. Few found the performance amusing. Goldberg and Danson were slammed by offended critics.
The incident did little to dull Goldberg’s popularity, however. In the late 1990s, she was chosen to host the Academy Awards several times, becoming the first African American to do so. She continued to be a sought-after film actress, appearing in Corrina, Corrina (1994), Boys on the Side (1995), and Ghosts of Mississippi (1995). On the set of Corrina, Corrina, she met union organizer Lyle Trachtenberg, to whom she was briefiy married. In 1998, Goldberg returned to theater, taking over the role of Pseudolus in the Broadway revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. She also became a regular on the television game show The Hollywood Squares. Once dismissed as too unconventional for stardom, Goldberg has become one of the hardestworking women in the American entertainment industry. As she told an interviewer in 2000, “You know, I was supposed to be a fiash in the pan. I’m the longest fiash Hollywood’s ever seen.”
Goldberg, Whoopi. Book. New York: Rob Weisbach Books, 1997.
Parrish, James Robert. Whoopi Goldberg: Her Journey from Poverty to Megastardom. New York: Birch Lane Books, 1997.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
The Color Purple (1985). Warner Home Video, DVD/VHS, 1997/1999.
Ghost (1990). Paramount, VHS, 2001.
Sister Act (1992). Touchstone Video, VHS, 1996.