On this day in comedy on November 13, 1955 Comedienne, Actress, Producer, Caryn Elaine Johnson, later known as Whoopi Goldberg was born in Manhattan. Goldberg burst upon the scene in a one-woman show she created entitled “The Spook Show”. Famed director, Mike Nichols took it to Broadway and the artist who could do so many funny characters stole the town. This accomplished, she was then cast as Celie in Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” for Steven Spielberg and in 1985 became ahousehold name. From there Whoopi was making plenty. Besides film, Goldberg had her own NBC sitcom, a late night talk show, co-produced the veteran game show, “The Hollywood Squares”, wrote books, produced plays on Broadway, did voice-overs in classic cartoons (“Lion King”, “Toy Story”), co-founded Comic Relief, was the first black female to host the Academy Awards and co-hosted the morning gabfest, “The View”.
By the way did I mention she won an Oscar (for “Ghost”), making her the 1st African-American stand-up comedienne to receive the award? Goldberg understood the business she was in and how to manipulate it to her benefit, all the way down to her name change. Whoopi was a nickname associated with her for her ability to release pressure from an individual (with laughter) similar to whoopee cushions. However, she adopted the name “Goldberg’ because her mother told her “Johnson” wasn’t Jewish enough to make her a star. And not only did she become that, one year she was recognized as the highest paid actress of all time. Her output was tremendous by any measure. After winning the Academy Award in 1990 for “Ghost” Goldberg has appeared in no less than three films a year, every year with a high count of seven motion pictures in 1998. She did this for 20 straight years. Talk about a role model.
Race and gender were minor obstacles in her approach. From the very beginning Goldberg set her sights on what was normally not considered traditional black casting. This sprung from one of her first experiences seeing this practice. While watching “Star Trek” as a youth she called out to her mother that there was a black woman on TV that was not a maid. Nichelle Nichols portrayal of Uhura on the Starship Enterprise sparked in Goldberg the desire to be all she could be. She even auditioned for the lead in the film, “The Princess Bride”, a role that requested a blond haired, blue eyed single white female. She didn’t get the part, but not due to lack of trying. When she couldn’t win parts meant for men she played men in parts (“The Associate” – 1996). And a white man at that.
Goldberg was also no stranger to controversy. Often criticized by the African-American community for dating out of her race, Goldberg married director of photography, David Claessen and divorced soon after the failure of one of her contracted films, “The Telephone”. That was her 2nd marriage. Her 1st lasted 6 years, her 3rd held on for one.
In 1995 she convinced boyfriend Ted Danson to don blackface at a Friar’s Club eventthat got publicized and scrutinized and in 2004 she lost her SlimFast endorsement after telling an off-color joke about sitting president, George W Bush. She’s been a vocal proponent of whatever she chose to be vocal about as co-host of “The View” and never lost sight of her power in the medium. She knew she was there to entertain; to be Whoopi – and she was all that.
Whoopi took on comedic celebrities. After comedienne Kathy Griffin called Senator Scott Brown’s daughters “prostitutes”, Goldberg said that if anyone insulted her daughter like that “I would beat their ass.” Don’t look so shocked. You hired Whoopi Goldberg. As a veteran comedienne she knew who she was and who was going to be to that audience. As one of the few entertainers to have an Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy and a Grammy, she knew her power and where things stood historically. The woman knew the score and how to keep it.
By Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton