November 13, 1955– Whoopi Goldberg:
“Normal is just a cycle on the washing machine.”
Do you recall that cringe-worthy moment in June when Kevin Spacey, who was hosting the 71st annual Tony Awards broadcast, was searching around the stage for help in leading the big opening number, when suddenly, Whoopi Goldberg popped out of a cupboard?
Spacey: “Whoopi, how long have you been in that closet? “
After several seconds of laughter and cheering from the audience, Goldberg responded:
“Well Kevin, it depends on who you ask.”
Goldberg is among the rarified group of people who’ve achieved “EGOT” status, winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award.
She was born Caryn Elaine Johnson in NYC. Goldberg was in a housing project in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, where her single mother worked as a teacher and a nurse. Like me, Goldberg suffers from dyslexia, which affected her studies, which ultimately led her to dropping out of high school when she was 17-years-old.
Goldberg changed her name because she found her given name to be too boring. She claims to be Jewish and Catholic.
In 1974, Goldberg moved to California, for the next seven years including Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. At one point, she worked as a mortuary beautician while looking for acting work. While living in San Francisco, Goldberg developed a one-woman show about pioneering black comic Moms Mabley which won several awards.
In 1983, Goldberg returned to NYC and starred in the popular The Spook Show, her one-person Off-Broadway production that featured her own original comedy material that took on the issue of race in America with wit and style. Her most poignant and typically contradictory characters were “Little Girl”, an African-American child obsessed with having blond hair; and “Fontaine” a junkie who also happens to hold a doctorate in literature.
In 1984, the late, great Mike Nichols had transferred The Spook Show to a Broadway. The next year, Goldberg won a Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album for the recording of the show. Hollywood took notice.
Steven Spielberg cast Goldberg in the lead in his 1985 film version of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. It earned 10 Academy Awards and five Golden Globe nominations, with Goldberg receiving an Oscar nomination and her first Golden Globe Award.
Goldberg’s success with The Color Purple started a nice run of hit films in the 1980s: a spy comedy Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986), directed by Penny Marshall; Fatal Beauty (1987), with Sam Elliott; Clara’s Heart (1988); and the civil rights period drama, The Long Walk Home (1990), co-starring Sissy Spacek.
Since 1985, she has appeared in more than 150 film and television productions.
Her biggest success was starring opposite Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore as storefront medium/spiritual advisor Oda Mae Brown in the hugely popular Ghost (1990). Her performance brought her the 1991 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, making her just the second African-American woman to win an Oscar, plus her second Golden Globe, as well as the Black Entertainer Of The Year Award from the NAACP and the Excellence Award at the Women In Film Festival.
She followed with the equally popular Sister Act (1992) as a world-weary lounge singer disguised as a nun hiding from the mob. Sister Act earned Goldberg an American Comedy Award, as well as another Golden Globe nomination. The surprising success of this film led to Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993), which featured Maggie Smith reprising her role as Mother Superior.
My favorite Goldberg performances from this period is as a savvy detective in Robert Altman’s sharp satire of the Hollywood, The Player (1992), starring Tim Robbins, and as a 1950s housekeeper to a lonely widower played by Ray Liotta in the bittersweet Corrina, Corrina (1994).
In 1994, 1996 and 1999, Goldberg hosted the Academy Awards, the first woman to do so. Beginning in 1986, along with Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, Goldberg hosted Comic Relief, HBO’s live broadcast of comedians doing their thing to raised money for the homeless. In 1997 she was given a special Emmy for her participation in the seven live showcases. In 2006, the trio reunited for Comic Relief Fundraiser for those affected by Hurricane Katrina held at Caeser’s Palace, Las Vegas.
In 1998, Goldberg began appearing on the celebrity game show Hollywood Squares, for which she was nominated for two Daytime Emmy Awards, while occasionally doing film work such as Girl, Interrupted (1999), with Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie.
In 2002 she produced the Broadway musical version of Thoroughly Modern Millie, winning a Tony Award, and that same year winning an Emmy for the documentary film Beyond Tara: The Extraordinary Life Of Hattie McDaniel. She has appeared on Broadway in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (1996), August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2003), another one-person show Whoopi!, (2004), and Xanadu (2008).
Of course, now Goldberg is most noted for being on panel of the daytime talk show The View which debuted in 2007. Never seeming to avoid controversy on The View, on her very first day, she defended football star Michael Vick in his dogfighting case, as a Southern cultural thing. noting that the spectacle isn’t unusual for a Southern native like Vick. Not one to apologize often, Goldberg had to walk back that one. She has had to clarify early defenses of Roman Polanski and Bill Cosby. She has a knack for being uncensored. In 2004, at a fundraiser for John Kerry, Goldberg made a quip about President George W. Bush by waving a bottle of wine, pointing toward her whoopi spot and saying: “We should keep Bush where he belongs, and not in the White House!” Slim-Fast took exception and dropped her from their ad campaign. Oops, Whoops!
I have been a longtime fan of Moms Mabley, who might be one of the most influential comedians you have never heard of, the first successful African-American woman in stand-up and a lesbian. She was always a favorite of mine when she showed up on The Merv Griffin Show. Goldberg produced, wrote and directed the excellent documentary Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin’ To Tell You (2013) for HBO. Goldberg:
“She was never called gay or a lesbian, she was always called “Mr. Moms”.
Last year, Goldberg launched a medical marijuana business focused on helping women with menstrual issues. Insert your quip, but it is no joke. She insists that marijuana was the only way she could find relief, I know it helps me.
Goldberg has been married four times, and although she famously dated actor Frank Langella, Timothy Dalton, and Ted Danson, she has been dogged by rumors of her possible gayness. Goldberg has always been an advocate and activist for LGBTQ community. She joined Cyndi Lauper’s Give A Damn which aims to bring straight people to ally with the LGBTQ community. Her open support for LGBTQ Rights and HIV/AIDS activism goes all the way back to the 1987 March On Washington. She has played a lesbian character in The Color Purple and Boys On The Side (1995). But, Goldberg has stated:
“You’ve never seen me with a woman. I’m straight, but what does it mean? What does it really mean?”
“There are a lot worse things people could have accused me of, things that would really be upsetting! That’s not one of them It never has been. I grew up in the theater. I grew up in a neighborhood where there was always gay folks. You know, no one was trying to claim me, nobody wanted me… Black folks didn’t want me. Nobody wanted me. But I’ve always been claimed by the gay community. Always.”
“People keep trying to divide us up into ‘you’re gay, you’re black, you’re white’, but we’re all one people. What fucks with one fucks with us all. If we don’t recognize that, we’re in deep trouble.”