Goldberg, Whoopi (1949—)

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Goldberg, Whoopi (1949—)

Whoopi Goldberg rose from humble circumstances and a troubled youth to become a highly respected and successful actress. As one of the first African American actresses to maintain mainstream success, she personifies America's growing acceptance of performers from across the racial spectrum. Her outspoken nature and willingness to present her offscreen persona to the public has made her one of the most high-profile African Americans of the 1990s.

Rising to prominence in the mid-1980s, Goldberg became one of the most recognizable faces in the entertainment industry as she moved easily between comedy and drama on both stage and screen. Her outspoken humor reflected her experiences as a former drug addict and welfare mother who had moved from the depths of poverty to the heights of celebrity. Goldberg first appeared onstage at the age of eight but did not gain attention until 1982 with the premiere of Spook Show, a one-woman review in which she played several characters. She made her film debut in The Color Purple (1985). Offscreen, she occasionally found herself at the center of controversy as she sparred with other prominent African Americans.

Born Caryn Johnson on November 13, 1949 (some sources list the year as 1955), the girl who would later assume the name of Whoopi Goldberg was raised in the multicultural section of New York City called Chelsea. She was an imaginative child who was encouraged to become a performer by her mother. Her life took a downward spiral, however, when she dropped out of school in the ninth grade. She began to use drugs, had several abortions, and found herself living on the streets. By age seventeen she had weaned herself off heroin, and she eventually married her drug counselor. The couple had one daughter, but the marriage was short-lived. As a single mother, Goldberg survived on welfare and through a series of temporary jobs such as bricklayer and mortician's make-up artist. Throughout this period she was determined to have a career in theatre. In the mid-1970s, Caryn Johnson decided to change her professional name to "Whoopi Cushion" so agents and audiences would remember her. Her mother suggested she use the last name "Goldberg" because it sounded more serious. Author James R. Parrish notes Goldberg's gimmicky name soon gained her great attention: "Audiences were forever surprised that the owner of this odd Jewish-sounding name turned out to be an African American who had a strange hairdo and a very special look."

Goldberg moved to the West Coast in 1974 to perform with several drama and improvisation groups in the San Diego and San Francisco areas. Her reputation grew with the premiere of Spook Show, which showcased her range of characterizations. Among her most popular personas were "Little Blonde Girl" and "Fontaine," an educated junkie. Goldberg populated each performance with more than a dozen alter egos engaging audiences with their provocative views on contemporary society. In early 1984, director Mike Nichols saw her show and immediately offered to produce it on Broadway. Nichols's interest in the young actress gained her much media attention and shifted her career into high gear. Steven Spielberg cast Goldberg as the abused Celie in the film version of Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Her movie debut won raves, and she was nominated for an Academy Award. After her promising start in film, Gold-berg's career began to skid as she appeared in a series of forgettable and overly-broad comedies like Jumpin' Jack Flash (1986), Burglar (1987), and Fatal Beauty (1988). She rebounded in 1990 as Oda Mae Brown, a storefront medium, in the popular film Ghost. This performance earned Goldberg an Academy Award for best supporting actress and made her the first black woman to win an Oscar since Hattie McDaniel in 1939. Goldberg's subsequent film work offered audiences a strong mix of comedy and drama. In The Long Walk Home (1990) she played a Southern maid in the 1950s, while Robert Altman's 1992 The Player showcased her as a no-nonsense detective. She endeared herself to children as the voice of a hyena in The Lion King (1994) and enjoyed much acclaim for her Sister Act nun comedies in 1992 and 1993.

Goldberg's TV career failed to match the success of her movie work. In 1990 she starred in Bagdad Café, a mediocre sitcom, and 1992 saw her as host of a syndicated talk show. She did, however, find some small-screen success through a recurring role as an alien on Star Trek: The Next Generation and as the center square on 1998 revival of the game show Hollywood Squares. Goldberg twice hosted the Academy Awards.

Goldberg's on-screen persona has tended to be that of a sassy, self-reliant, and always likable woman. Away from the set, however, she became known for being unafraid to court controversy. She angered Jews with several ethnic jokes in her selection "Jewish American Princess Fried Chicken" in the book Cooking in Litchfield Hills. Other high-profile blacks, including Jesse Jackson and Spike Lee, criticized her for her infamous 1993 appearance at the Friars Club with then-companion Ted Danson. Public outrage ensued as Danson appeared in blackface mouthing offensive jokes written by Goldberg. The pair later apologized for the incident. On the other hand, Goldberg has garnered respect for her appearances as a co-host, with Billy Crystal and Robin Williams, at the annual Comic Relief telethons for the homeless.

—Charles Coletta

Further Reading:

Adams, Mary Agnes. Whoopi Goldberg: From Street to Stardom. New York, Dillon Press, 1993.

Bogle, Donald. Blacks in American Films and Television. New York, Garland Publishing, 1988.

Parrish, James. Whoopi Goldberg. Secaucus, Carol Publishing Group, 1997.

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Goldberg, Whoopi (1949—)

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