Whoopi Goldberg Biography

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Birth Name: Whoopi Goldberg
Born: 11/13/1955
Birth Place: New York City, New York, USA


Born Caryn Elaine Johnson on Nov. 13, 1955 - though some sources place the date at 1950 or even 1949 - in the Chelsea public housing projects in New York City. Raised by a single mother, Goldberg's affinity for performance was developed at an early age through theater work at the Helena Rubenstein Children's Theater. Dyslexia and a lack of teacher understanding forced her to drop out of high school after just two weeks, leaving her to struggle to make ends meet with odd jobs like make-up artist at a funeral parlor. Goldberg also dealt with drug addiction during this period, and ended up marrying her substance abuse counselor, Alvin Martin, in 1973. The couple separated and divorced by the following year, but produced a daughter, Alexandra. The 19-year-old Goldberg and her daughter next migrated to San Diego, CA, where she pursued her dream of acting, quickly gaining citywide notice for performances in stage productions of "Mother Courage," as well as comedy with an improvisational group called "Spontaneous Combustion." During this period, Goldberg also adopted her stage name, which began as Whoopi Cushion, but later adopted the "Goldberg" surname because her mother felt the original was not "Jewish enough" to make her a star. According to Goldberg, the "Whoopi" part came from a lifelong habit of flatulence.

While in San Diego, Goldberg began honing a series of character monologues that came together under the umbrella of a one-woman production called "Spook Show" in 1983. The show, which tackled issues of race and urban life through uncanny and moving portrayals of young children, genius junkies, and other eccentrics and savants, took Goldberg to San Francisco before settling off-Broadway. "Spook Show" caught the eye of famed writer/director Mike Nichols of "The Graduate" (1968) fame, who helped her remount "Spook Show" - now simply titled "Whoopi Goldberg" - for Broadway audiences the following year. The show earned almost universal acclaim for the versatility of her acting and writing, as well as a Grammy for the show's album. Goldberg returned to the Bay Area to mount another one-woman show, "Moms," based on the life of pioneering black female comedian "Moms" Mabley. She then returned to New York to continue with her self-titled smash hit, which was broadcast on HBO in 1985. Among those impressed by Goldberg's skills was director Steven Spielberg, who was about to begin filming an adaptation of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple. Spielberg offered Goldberg the film's key role, that of the saintly Celie, who survives abuse and separation from her children to find true happiness. The 1985 film was a box office hit, and Goldberg found herself on the receiving end of the lion's share of accolades, as well as a Golden Globe Award for Best Leading Actress.

The projects that followed in "Purple's" wake, however, rarely matched that film's standard of quality or depth of character for Goldberg. "Burglar" (1987) and "Fatal Beauty" (1987) were boorish attempts to inject her salty but cerebral comedy into witless action pieces. "Homer and Eddie" (1989) was a ghastly road picture/tearjerker with Jim Belushi as her mentally-challenged best friend. She briefly married David Claessen, the cinematographer on one of the most ill-fated projects from this period, a dismal comedy/drama titled "The Telephone" (1986) which was directed by actor Rip Torn and written by counterculture firebrands Harry Nilsson and Terry Southern. But Penny Marshall's broad action-comedy "Jumping Jack Flash" (1986) and the sweet period drama "Clara's Heart" (1988) had their fair share of ardent admirers. Goldberg also became a seemingly ubiquitous presence on TV, racking up over 80 appearances in specials (most notably HBO's "Comic Relief" and its follow-ups); several memorable guest spots (including a 1986 Emmy-nominated turn on ABC's "Moonlighting"); in addition to a stint co-starring with Jean Stapleton on "Bagdad Cafe" (1990-91), a short-lived CBS comedy series based on the 1987 feature film of the same name. An avowed "Star Trek" fanatic, Goldberg jumped at the chance to play a likable if rather modest recurring role as Guinan, the enigmatic alien bartender, on the hit syndicated series "Star Trek: The Next Generation" (1988-1994), and reprised the role in the feature "Star Trek: Generations" (1994).

In 1990, Goldberg captured the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in the lachrymose supernatural fantasy "Ghost," once again finding herself on a career upswing with her hilarious portrayal of the obnoxious fake psychic, Oda Mae Brown, who must help Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze) protect his girlfriend, Molly Jensen (Demi Moore), despite the fact that he himself is dead and only Oda Mae can hear him. Goldberg's win made her only the second African-American woman to win an Oscar for acting - with the first being 50 years prior, with Hattie McDaniel's win for "Gone with the Wind" (1939). Coming off the heels of her important and some said, surprising win - as comedic actors had rarely won at Oscar time - she went on to a dignified dramatic role in the pre-civil rights '50s-era film, "The Long Walk Home" (1990) and a comic part in "Soapdish" (1991) before starring in the surprise blockbuster comedy of 1992, "Sister Act." The film, which grossed more than $300 million worldwide, starred Goldberg as a Reno lounge singer who impersonates a nun in a San Francisco convent when a mob boss puts her on his hit list. She ended 1992 with a strong supporting role as a cop in Robert Altman's "The Player" and the lead in "Sarafina!" (1992).

At this time, Goldberg also began hosting her own late night one-on-one chat show, "The Whoopi Goldberg Show" (syndicated, 1992-93). Though the informal show featured major stars, Goldberg was more of a gushy friend than a probing interviewer. Lackluster ratings led to a quick cancellation. She returned to films with "Made in America" (1993), a comedy co-starring Ted Danson, and the inevitable sequel, "Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit" (also 1993). The former project attracted more attention for her offscreen romance with Danson, which culminated in a near lethal career decision by the actor to appear in blackface at a tribute for Goldberg. Like many of her relationships with actors - including Timothy Dalton and Frank Langella - the couple quietly split after a brief affair. A more impressive highlight from this period came in 1995, when she added her handprints, footprints, and impressions of her trademark braids to the historic sidewalk outside Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood - a dream realized for someone born into poverty and hard times.

Far from making her difficult to cast, Goldberg's unusual and considerable talents and her earthy, straightforward persona kept her extremely busy, from hosting the Academy Awards ceremonies numerous times, performing in the low-key romance "Corinna, Corinna" (1994); voicing Shenzi, a manic, scheming hyena in "The Lion King" (1994), or playing a lesbian in the road film, "Boys on the Side" (1995). She was all-but-inescapable in 1996, prompting her to quip in 1997 that most of her 30 movies were "released last year." She starred in the passable comedy "Eddie," as an ardent basketball fan who wins the chance to coach her favorite team; the whimsical misfire "Bogus," about an orphaned boy who creates an imaginary friend to help him cope with his mother's death; "The Associate," a remake of a 1979 French/West German comedy, portraying an investment banker who furthers her career by employing male drag and "whiteface" to personify a fictional white male CEO; and Rob Reiner's "Ghosts of Mississippi," a return to civil rights-era drama, as Myrlie Evers-Williams, the wife of slain NAACP officer Medgar Evers. She also made her third attempt at marriage in 1994 by wedding union organizer Lyle Tractenberg, whom she met on the set of "Corrina, Corrina." The couple split the following year.

Perhaps watching those four movies rack up disappointing to outright disastrous grosses made Goldberg hungry for a change, so she returned to the Broadway stage, replacing Nathan Lane in a gender-switching turn as Pseudolus in the revival of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" - her first attempt at a book musical. Never mind that the show's leering combination of vaudeville and Plautus presented a somewhat dated attitude toward women, Goldberg made the role (originated by the great Zero Mostel) her own, identifying particularly with the Roman slave's thirst for freedom. After appearing as herself in two 1997 features - "Burn, Hollywood, Burn" and "In & Out" - and writing a book of observations, simply titled Book, she played Delilah, a woman dying of cancer in "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" (1998) and a gay detective in "The Deep End of the Ocean" (1999). For the former, her death scene was touching but in a way extraneous to the adaptation by Ron Bass and Terry McMillan of McMillan's novel, which yielded thinner material than the duo's previous "Waiting to Exhale" (1995). As for the latter, her detective seemed gay only for the sake of political correctness, and not for anything directly connected to the ponderous story itself.

Goldberg saved some of her best work at the end of the 1990s for the small screen. She appeared sparingly in Christopher Reeve's movingly acted "In the Gloaming" (HBO, 1997) as the live-in nurse of AIDS-stricken Robert Sean Leonard, who had come home to die. She acted in two spare-no-expense extravaganzas, ABC's multiracial "Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella" (1997) as Queen Constantina, and NBC's "Alice in Wonderland" (1999) as a laid-back, marvelously made-up Cheshire Cat - both of which were sandwiched around another "Wonderful World of Disney" presentation (fulfilling her contractual obligation to the Mouse), "A Knight in Camelot" (ABC, 1998), a remake of Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court." That year also saw her executive produce and occupy the center square for a new version of "Hollywood Squares" (syndicated, 1998-2004), which earned four Emmy nominations. She found time to squeeze in a role on the Lifetime medical drama, "Strong Medicine" (2000-06), for which she also wrote several episodes. She also continued to lend her voice to quality feature animation projects like "A Christmas Carol" (1997), "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie" (1998) and "The Rugrats Movie" (1998). In addition to gracing the cast of "Girl Interrupted" (1999), starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie, Goldberg executive produced and starred in "Kingdom Come" (2001), an amusing black family drama about the unions and crises that erupt after a much-disliked relative passes away. Offscreen, Goldberg earned her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles in 2001.

Goldberg subsequently busied herself primarily with cameos and voiceover appearances in films of widely varying quality, with more notable leading appearances on the small screen in telepics including the Christmas-themed "Call Me Claus" (2001) and opposite her "Color Purple" co-star Danny Glover in "Good Fences" (2003), a TV movie about an upwardly mobile, 1970s-era black family struggling to adapt to their new posh Connecticut neighborhood. Her 2003 NBC sitcom effort "Whoopi," which cast her as opinionated ex-lounge singer-turned-hotelier Mavis Rae, debuted to promising returns but was subsequently cancelled during its first season. She was also a pitchperson for the Slim-Fast weight loss system in 2004 until her salty political comments bashing President George Bush at a Democratic fundraiser prompted the company to drop her. More roles as herself and animated voiceovers followed, including the children's TV series "Littleburg" (2004) as Mayor Whoopi, "The Lion King 1 1/2" (2004), "Pinocchio 3000" (2004) and (as Franny the Goat) "Racing Stripes" (2005). She also netted a Daytime Emmy in 2002 as the host of "Beyond Tara: The Extraordinary Life of Hattie McDaniel," about the "Gone with the Wind" actress who had preceded her as an Oscar winner.

Meanwhile, the actress continued to do much of her best work in the theater, receiving a Tony Award for best musical as one of the producers of "Thoroughly Modern Millie" in 2002 and playing the title character in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" by August Wilson at New York's Royale Theater in 2003. Two decades after her acclaimed one-woman show took Broadway by storm, Goldberg revived and updated her performance in 2004 for "Whoopi: The 20th Anniversary Show" in a 12-week run at New York's Lyceum Theater, revisiting characters Fontaine, the Surfer Chick and adding Lurleen, a middle-aged character who talks about topics like dieting and menopause. The show was later broadcast on HBO as "Whoopi: Back to Broadway" in 2005. Goldberg continued to spread her attentions across multiple media in 2006, serving as executive producer on "Just for Kicks" (Nickelodeon, 2005-06), a children's series about a girls' soccer team; and hosting a syndicated morning radio talk show, "Wake Up with Whoopi," which earned headlines for the good-natured manner in which she handled some on-air attacks from crass shock jocks, Opie and Anthony.

In 2007, Goldberg once again vaulted to the top of the pop culture register by ending months of speculation from TV critics and bloggers by being named as the moderator for "The View" by executive producer and co-host Barbara Walters. As a hoped for less-combative host than her predecessor, Rosie O'Donnell, she began her tenure at the show in September of that year. While serving as co-host of "The View" - which often earned her headlines for her disagreements with her politically opposed fellow couch sitter Elizabeth Hasselbeck - Goldberg remained active on television and in film, voicing Stretch for "Toy Story 3" (2010) and joined the ensemble cast for Tyler Perry's adaptation of "For Colored Girls" (2010), which also starred Janet Jackson, Thandie Newton and Phylicia Rashad. On the small screen, she had a small guest appearance as an NA sponsor on "The Cleaner" (A&E, 2008-09), while landing episodes of comedies like "The Middle" (ABC, 2009- ) and "Glee" (Fox, 2009- ), where she was hailed for her performance on the latter as the dean from the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts.

By Paul Gaita




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