It wasn’t Marilyn Monroe but Whoopi Goldberg, hair tumbling over her forehead, standing on the Radio City Music Hall stage facing the president of the U.S. at his 50th birthday party and threatening to sing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.” “I was going to wear a blonde wig,” she joked, “but I see that Jack Kemp already has the wig.” The crowd—including Bill Clinton—roared.
Clinton has long been one of Goldberg’s biggest and most public fans, especially of her movie Sister Act. (“I wanted to be in that choir so bad I could spit,” he said.) Besides hanging out with the Clintons and roasting Republicans on his behalf (a typical preelection one-liner: “Will someone please introduce Lorena Bobbitt to Bob Dole?”), Goldberg has, for the better part of two decades, been working nonstop. During the past year alone, she released three movies and served a second tour of duty as emcee of the Academy Awards ceremony. Her Oscar night performance was vintage Goldberg—provoking equal parts applause and outrage.
Wearing a black gown that won her top honors in one poll as worst-dressed woman, Goldberg set the tone at the best Academy Awards ceremony in years with a pointed and hilarious monolog. She immediately took aim at some sacred targets. “I want to say something to all the people who sent me ribbons to wear,” she said. “You don’t ask a black woman to buy an expensive dress and then cover it with ribbons.” She then fired off a list of ribbons that she chose not to wear: “I got a red ribbon for AIDS awareness. Done. I got a purple ribbon for breast cancer. Done. I got a yellow ribbon for the troops in Bosnia. Done. I got a green ribbon to free the Chinese dissidents. Done. I got a milky white ribbon for mad-cow disease. Done. Done. Done again.”
She also ribbed actor Charlie Sheen, who gained attention for being a frequent ($50,000) customer of Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss’. Goldberg noted that three actresses who were nominated for Oscars—Sharon Stone, Mira Sorvino and Elisabeth Shue—portrayed hookers in the year’s movies, and asked, “How many times did Charlie Sheen get to vote, anyway?”
But the most contentious part of the show came when she took on the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who had called for a protest against the Academy Awards ceremony, complaining that there was only one black nominee. “I had something I wanted to say to Jesse right here, but he’s not watching, so why bother?” she said. In fact, she treated him and his protest with such thinly veiled disdain that a political firestorm ensued. She was sharply criticized by minority organizations, as well as by some producers and directors, who said that her remarks marginalized and belittled Jackson and the issue he raised: racism in the motion picture industry. But Goldberg also had her supporters, who thought the protest was inappropriate at an awards ceremony that was hosted by Goldberg, produced by Quincy Jones and featured other prominent African Americans, including Laurence Fishburne and Sidney Poitier.
As always, the attacks rolled off her back. A veteran of controversy, Goldberg has frequented the tabloids since her painful, tumultuous and well-documented affair with Ted Danson. The “tabloid twins,” as Goldberg dubbed them, suffered a barrage of bad publicity when Danson left his wife and children for Goldberg. Things began to disintegrate for the couple after Danson made his infamous appearance at a Friars Club roast of Goldberg in 1993. Reciting material he and Goldberg wrote together, Danson, in blackface, told jokes that many denounced as racist. Several guests, including talk-show host Montel Williams, walked out. Others, such as New York mayor David Dinkins, Jackson and Dionne Warwick, attacked Goldberg and Danson in the press. The couple suffered a bitter and highly publicized split soon after.
Goldberg, who is 41, then wed for the third time—there were two brief marriages before, one in 1973 and the other in 1986—to union organizer Lyle Trachtenberg in 1994. After announcing their engagement, the couple married at her Los Angeles home, where the words fuck off were painted on the roof to frustrate airborne media. The marriage ended a year later, and Goldberg is now in a relationship with Frank Langella, whom she met while filming the basketball movie Eddie, one of this past summer’s quiet successes. As she has said, “It’s been a hell of a time.”
Goldberg was born Caryn Johnson in 1955. Raised by her mother, a nurse and Head Start teacher, Goldberg grew up “poor but never hungry” in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City. At the age of eight, she acted in children’s theater and took the bus to museums, the ballet and plays. Despite her mother’s best, efforts, Goldberg could not escape the influences of her neighborhood. She admits she did “every drug” and dropped out of high school (“I couldn’t pull it off”). At 18, she married her drug counselor and got pregnant soon after—her daughter Alexandrea, age 22, has her own daughter, and Goldberg is the proverbial doting grandmother.
Goldberg made her living at a number of jobs—including doing makeup and fixing hair in a funeral parlor—and survived on welfare after heading to San Diego, without her first husband, in 1974. She then moved to Berkeley and joined the Blake Street Hawkeyes Theater. It was there that she changed her name. (Her first name derived from whoopee-cushion jokes and her last was suggested by her mother to honor Jewish ancestors. The name led to a classic Milton Berle line: “A black woman with a Jewish name. She doesn’t do windows because she’s got a headache.”)
In the early Eighties, Goldberg developed The Spook Show, a one-woman tour de force with such unforgettable characters as a junkie with a heart of gold and a surfer chick who, in Valley Girlese, tells about her coat-hanger abortion. There were other theater pieces, including a brilliant tribute to one of her heroes, Moms Mabley.
Goldberg was discovered performing in New York by director Mike Nichols, who brought “The Spook Show” to Broadway in 1984. It led to a Grammy-winning comedy album and a private performance for Steven Spielberg and some of his friends, including Michael Jackson. That, in turn, led to Goldberg’s first film role as Celie, the abused but ultimately triumphant main character in Spielberg’s version of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. The performance earned Goldberg her first Golden Globe and an Academy Award nomination for best actress.
There have been more than 30 movies since. They have varied widely, from forgettable comedies to poignant dramas, including Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Burglar, Fatal Beauty, Clara’s Heart, The Long Walk Home, Soapdish, The Player, Made in America, Naked in New York, Moonlight & Valentino, Theodore Rex, Sarafina!, Boys on the Side, Corrina, Corrina, Bogus and Eddie, as well as her role as the voice of the head hyena in The Lion King. There have been blockbusters—Ghost, for instance, for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1991, and Sister Act, which led to a record-setting salary of $8 million for the sequel (a box-office disappointment). She also had a recurring role as Guinan, the psychic bartender, on the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation and in the 1994 movie Star Trek: Generations and hosted her own syndicated TV talk show, The Whoopi Goldberg Show. In her most recent movie, Ghosts of Mississippi, she plays Myrlie Evers, wife of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, in a drama directed by Rob Reiner.
Goldberg, who divides her time among a New England farm, a Manhattan apartment and a Hollywood home, was between films when Contributing Editor David Sheff sat down with her to begin the interview. Here’s Sheff’s report:
“Because her Manhattan apartment was being renovated, I met Goldberg at a hotel on the Upper East Side where Paul Davis, the artist and photographer, was taking glamour shots of her for a fund-raising performance. Goldberg batted her eyelashes at him and made self-effacing jokes about how she might have broken his camera. Although no one would describe her as a classic beauty, she nonetheless looked gorgeous, with her large brown eyes, crown of hair and smile that could melt ice.
"Goldberg was in a great mood after hanging out the night before with her pal Bill Clinton at his 50th birthday celebration. After the photo session, when we sat down in a private room at the hotel restaurant (where she indulged herself with bacon and Marlboros), she mused aloud about the unlikely company she now keeps. ‘I’m exactly the kind of person the Secret Service is paid to keep away from most presidents,’ she said. I mean, this is the president we’re talking about. Not the president of the PTA, either.’”
Does Clinton have a good sense of humor?
He has a great sense of humor—he’s hysterical. I’m convinced he wants to be a comedian.
Could he make it on the circuit?
I’d pay money to see him. And the First Lady—she is very funny, too. We laugh a lot when we’re together. I genuinely like them. I like them because they are real. I don’t care about anybody’s skeletons, you know, because I’m so busy holding back my own. But from my limited view, they are people who believe there is a better way. I trust them.
How does it feel to be friends with the president?
Shit, I get to talk to the president of the United States and have opinions that people are actually interested in. It is pretty groovy.
Yeah, I’m a hippie. Can’t help it.
Oh, all that good hippie stuff. I mean that I believe one person can make a difference, that we are responsible for other people. You know, peace and love. It’s out of fashion, but it’s really a great way to live. I believe in peace and brotherhood and all that stuff.
Are you trying to communicate these values in the movies you choose?
When I can, though I do all kinds of movies.
In Ghosts of Mississippi, you play the widow of NAACP leader Medgar Evers. Was that a labor of love?
Yeah, definitely. It’s a true story that many people don’t know about. Evers was killed in 1963 by a man named Byron de la Beckwith, who was tried twice by white juries and got off both times. I get to play Evers’ widow, Myrlie. She’s an incredible woman. She kept the flame of her husband alive for 30 years to make sure that the guy who murdered him—who shot him in the back—went to jail.
Do you find it tough to play a living person?
Sure is. Myrlie was as much of a stretch for me as anything I’ve done. I kind of roll along down the street, carrying four bags at one time, a mess, and Myrlie Evers glides into a room. She is a presence. She lives in Oregon now, and I really wanted her to like the movie. She is happy with it, which was like, whew. You can’t take a whole lot of liberties with people who can knock on your door and tell you how badly you screwed up the whole thing. Her response and the response of their children meant more than that of any others. Evers was murdered in front of those kids. He was shot and crawled to the front door and died in his wife’s arms with the children standing there crying, “Daddy, get up. Daddy, please get up.”
Some people would say that Rob Reiner, who directed the movie, was not the one to tell this story, that stories about black people should be told by black people. Do you disagree?
I do. One reason black filmmakers tend to bring black stories to the forefront is that those stories aren’t often told. But filmmakers should be able to tell whatever story they are inspired to tell.
You’ve been through this before. Steven Spielberg was criticized for making The Color Purple. Yeah, and that’s just as crazy. The fact is that Steven Spielberg [she gets a huge smile]—I think he’s the cat’s pajamas. He is the best person and he made a beautiful movie. It is not about being black or white, it’s about being a good storyteller. He is. So is Rob Reiner. Reiner is a king in my book. He’s a joy to work with. I’m very lucky because now I’m working with more directors who know what they’re doing.
As opposed to?
Let’s just say that some of the directors I have worked with haven’t known much of anything.
Can’t you pick and choose the directors you work with?
Yeah, right. [Laughs] Unfortunately, I’m not in that position.
Doesn’t clout come when you’re a big box-office draw?
I do get more money, but the attitude becomes, “We’re paying you all this money, so shut up and do the work.” Which is why it has been said that I’m difficult. The best directors will tell you that I’m a pussycat. [Smiles]
Then what happens?
I just have ideas about the way things should work. I’ve been doing this awhile now, and I occasionally do have a good idea. The fact is, I’m a collaborator. I’m from the theater. The theater is based on collaboration. So I’ve learned to collaborate a lot more quietly.
Do movies suffer when directors don’t listen?
Sister Act 2 is an example. I knew that you couldn’t make that movie unless you had the nuns from the original movie in it. They were the driving force; people fell in love with them. I fought and fought and fought and fought to have them in the story, which contributed to my bad reputation.
Yet for that movie, you set a record for a female actor in Hollywood at that time—making $8 million.
Maybe if I were more consistent, making lots of movies that made $100 million, directors would listen. But my movies tend to be great movies that are critically acclaimed and make no money, or movies that aren’t so critically acclaimed and make a ton of money, or those that aren’t so critically acclaimed and don’t make any money. Arnold’s movies make a zillion dollars no matter what he does, so he can do what he wants. Sly’s movies tend to make a zillion dollars and he can do what he wants. Other people get paid a lot of money sometimes, and then get a lot more leeway than I get. But you can’t spend time saying, “She has it and I don’t.” You just can’t.
Do you always go for creative control?
I always ask. The bottom line is that directors find I really do know a lot in terms of what needs to happen. I know how to fill the holes. I have turned a lot of shit into sterling silver.
So you agree with a critic from Time magazine who wrote, “She has the ability to turn a routine flick into a pretty good movie entirely on her own.”
Yeah. And imagine what I can do with a really good flick. But it goes back to how people visualize the world. They may think of me when they need a maid.
Didn’t you once say that you would never play a maid?
No. I never said I wouldn’t play a maid. I said that I wouldn’t just play maids. But in the words of Hattie McDaniel, “Better to play one than to be one.” She used to get a lot of shit for the roles she was playing, too, but people don’t realize that she wasn’t turning down Scarlett O'Hara. Nobody said, “Hey, will you do Stella?” to which she said, “No, I’ve got to go play this maid!” In my case, I’ve never played a maid who wasn’t a lead in the movie. And the story of these women, who clean other people’s houses and take care of their children, is a worthy one to tell. Whether it’s Corrina, Corrina or others, though, there are people who say, “Oh, she’s playing a maid again.” I am happy to play a maid if the movie is good. In general, good movies don’t always come to me—in fact, I go out and find work. I call people. I say, “I hear you’re doing this movie and I want to be in it.”
Who have you called recently?
I’ve been calling Clint Eastwood. He’s getting ready to do a movie of a book that I thought was extraordinary, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I would love to play the drag queen, Lady Chablis. He’s probably going to end up using the real Lady Chablis, but I called. I said, “I can play a man playing a woman, and I would love to do this. I can pull it off.” Whatever he decides, I will continue to actively look for good roles. I want to make a movie about a really bad person. One of my favorite performances was Anthony Hopkins’ in The Silence of the Lambs. At first you think you might want to get to know this guy, and then he says something that makes you back up and realize he will bite your face if you get close enough. Would I be somebody’s first choice for a character like that? No. I wanted to do Cutthroat Island because I think I would be a great pirate—I could get real dirty and fight with a sword and still be sort of charming, I think. But I’m not statuesque and beautiful.
You mean, like the star of that movie, Geena Davis?
[Smiles] No, though I am very attractive and get cuter the older I get. I’m even getting—well, not statuesque, but I’m growing. [Laughs] I’m expanding. That’s the best way to put it. But still no calls.
You’re probably lucky that you didn’t do Cutthroat Island. It flopped.
But it might have been a different movie, you know.
When are you thought of for movie roles?
I don’t know. I’ve gotten a lot of movies when other actors dropped out. Burglar was for Bruce Willis. Jumpin’ Jack Flash was for Shelley Long. Fatal Beauty was for Cher. Most of my career consists of movies that were meant for other people. I mean, thank God Bette Midler didn’t want to do Sister Act.
Was it a letdown to go from serious works such as The Color Purple and your one-woman show, which touched on many social problems, to your next movie, Jumpin’ Jack Flash?
No. It is a piece of fluff, but people still tell me how much they loved it. I’ve done some wild films, you know. Some weren’t financially successful, but there are none I would hang my head to. That one and Fatal Beauty are mind candy. They’re not going to fix the Bosnian problem, but they don’t set out to. Also, everybody says, “Well, why aren’t you doing more Color Purples?” But that’s not what people are asking me to do. It’s not like somebody handed me another Color Purple and Jumpin’ Jack Flash, and I said, “I choose Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” At the time, however, I was just amazed to be doing what I was doing. It was other people who were criticizing me. I took heat for the movies I did; there were about four or five years of intense heat.
The gist of it was what?
That I didn’t have it. That I was a flash in the pan. But I kept working. I tried to get other movies. When I heard they were making The Princess Bride into a movie I said, “Let me audition for that.” It was a big lesson for me about how it works and what you’re supposed to look like. They laughed. “Is she crazy?” I said, “But the book is about a princess who doesn’t look like anybody else, who has a very different attitude. So why not me?” It hurt my feelings because I thought, Are you telling me that because you think I couldn’t be a princess that all these other doors are going to slam too? Basically, yes. So I took the stuff that nobody seemed to have a problem with me doing.
That was my macho period. I had the best time: motorcycles and leather jackets and blue contact lenses! Though when I did it I was criticized because I didn’t turn out to be the female answer to Eddie Murphy.
Yeah, which was fun and silly, too. That was my macho period. I had the best time: motorcycles and leather jackets and blue contact lenses! Though when I did it I was criticized because I didn’t turn out to be the female answer to Eddie Murphy.
Meaning the movie didn’t do Eddie Murphy business; it didn’t produce tremendous amounts of money at the box office.
Sister Act did, though. How did that change things?
I received lots more money for some of the big movies, but great movies still didn’t come flying at me.
After that movie, it was reported that you sent Jeffrey Katzenberg, the Disney executive in charge, a hatchet in the mail. Did you?
Yeah. Because he and I didn’t click immediately. There were things about Sister Act that weren’t as good as they could have been, and I tried to make them better—and Jeffrey thought I might have overstepped my bounds.
By giving ideas to the director?
Ideas? Yeah. And they weren’t really as open as I hoped they would be. I just wanted to make things better. I don’t know what their experience had been with other actors, but we had an antagonistic relationship. I finally said, “This is ridiculous.” I sent him a hatchet and said, “Let’s bury it,” and he sent me back a present. [Smiles broadly] A pair of brass balls. And that began our friendship.
Ghost was another big success. How did that one come to you?
I heard about it and said I wanted to try for it, but my agent said they didn’t want me. “But why not? What did I do?” I said, “At least let me read for it.” “Well, they feel you would bring Whoopi Goldberg baggage.” “What is Whoopi Goldberg baggage? What does that mean?” So they wouldn’t see me. Eventually I got a call, though. Patrick Swayze insisted they call me. He said he did it because he was a fan. Two weeks later I had the part.
The movie launched Demi Moore and brought you an Oscar. Did you expect it?
No. The statue came and it was pretty groovy, I have to say. Movies I thought would have gotten me nominated just fell by the wayside, such as The Long Walk Home, which is some of my best work. But nothing—nothing, nothing, nothing. So you just kind of go, “Oh, well,” and move on. But this was nice.
You’ve played more than one psychic. Are you interested in that world?
Oh, yeah. I’m a big believer that people are still here. They aren’t forced to stay, they’re here by choice—they’re here just watching. Some people were miserable in life and they’re miserable in death, which is why we have loud and angry ghosts—their essence stays. A ghost to me is like perfume. Many people can dab it on and you get different wafts and different smells at different times. People who worked in this profession are with me at times.
John Garfield is with me. Parts of James Cagney, some Bette Davis. Moms Mabley is with me all the time. A great much of her is on my shoulder. Periodically, I feel wafts of Dorothy Dandridge. I mean, you look at me and think, Why you? My crossover has been pretty big—worldwide, in fact. So you have to believe that a whole lot of folks are behind you, helping you break it out.
Is it incomprehensible that you’ve accomplished what you’ve accomplished yourself?
I’ve always felt that smatterings of other people have made my path easier. Basically, I’ve had it laid out on a silver platter; I mean, really. It’s been placed in my hand, and I’ve been ushered into a foreign land and treated rather well, you know. In hindsight, I’ve done a lot better than a lot of people with a lot more talent, and I didn’t self-destruct.
But where does talent come in?
Jack Nicholson is talented. Brando. De Niro. I’m nothing compared with great actors like that. There are a lot of talented actors out there, but maybe the camera doesn’t like their face or, you know, they’re not good at auditions, or whatever. I just know I’m one of the luckiest people on earth.
Did The Player sum up your view of Hollywood?
It was Robert Altman’s view, but it’s about right. It’s that silly sometimes. Not quite murder, but you never know.
In Boys on the Side your character is a lesbian. Was it gratifying that the lesbian community applauded your portrayal?
Yeah. I did an interview with Lea DeLaria for The Advocate. She said, “You were in, girl, you were in. We loved you.” That was good to hear. People have asked, “Was it difficult to portray a lesbian?” No. It was just like I portray anybody else. I don’t have to walk around in muscle shirts with a pack of Marlboros rolled up in my sleeve. The faces of lesbians have changed. They are no longer only short-haired, cigar-smoking, motorcycle-riding women. These are real women. And I’m an actor. I can become whatever is required.
Including an elderly man in The Associate.
I play a woman who is really, really good on Wall Street—she takes care of all the business and is in a high position. But because she’s black and a woman, she ain’t going any higher. So she creates this man and suddenly everyone wants her—or him.
Though you’ve made hits and misses, is it still risky to be in a movie that bombs as badly as Theodore Rex, which went directly to video?
It seems it would be, but my career doesn’t make much sense as it is. I should not have had the career I’m having. Normally, two or three box-office flops can murder a career. But I’ve had a few more of those. Yet despite everything, people seem to know that my potential is long-range. So they put me in movies. And people go to see my movies. Eddie opened in the middle of Twister, The Rock and Independence Day and did well. It didn’t feature bombs exploding. It didn’t have a shot of breasts. Nothing but silly fluff comedy, and it lived. That says something.
Were you a Trekkie before you joined the cast of Star Trek?
Oh, yeah. I love Star Trek, always have. I love science fiction, especially horror science fiction. I praised the heavens when the science fiction channel finally came. I love James Whitmore, the giant ants under L.A. I love Them! and Village of the Damned and Planet of the Apes and The Omega Man, which is one of my favorites. And Soylent Green. I love any of the old Universal horror stuff. I loved Thriller, the Boris Karloff TV show.
How about The X-Files?
I love The X-Files. I’ve been on Chris Carter for the past couple of years to do that show. He told me I have to find time. I just love the idea that there is this group in the government that knows all these strange things are happening. You know David Duchovny knows and is trying to find where his sister went in the link. It’s just the best. The best.
Did Star Trek bring you a new type of fan?
Oh, yes. I get a lot of mail from Trekkies. They send me pictures of themselves dressed as me. People put down Trekkies because they don’t really understand what they are. The thing is, they are people who want this idea of the future to be real, where there’s a united front and a future where all types of people hang together and fly through the galaxy and it is very hip.
As opposed to the Independence Day view of the future, in which aliens attack Earth?
Yeah, and this is what I have to say about Independence Day, though it is very unchic to say: I didn’t care for it at all. It really bugged me. I was glad to see all those actors working, but if you’re going to do War of the Worlds, then do it. Do it right. Pay attention. Don’t put bucket seats with seat belts in an alien craft. Don’t have a lady running down a tunnel with a fireball chasing her, and have the fireball pass her by and she doesn’t even break a sweat. I mean, come on. Jeff Goldblum comes in drunk—he’s throwing stuff around and his father says, “Get up off the floor, you’re going to catch a cold.” Goldblum gets up and says, “Catch a cold?” and he’s sober as all get out. Wait a minute, you were drunk as a skunk a second ago! I want to know where all the clothing came from that the women were changing into once they got into the bunker. Was there a Gap down there? When Bill Pullman comes back and his little daughter is waiting, there is a woman holding her, and she gently thrusts the little girl toward Bill. The woman is wearing pearls—double-stranded pearls. And her outfit is newly pressed. I’m looking at this woman thinking, Where the fuck did you come from? I was very bummed.
Would you like to travel in space?
Ooh, yeah. But I have to do more to prepare. Right now I can barely operate a computer. I’m very slow. I just play Jeopardy.
Have you been on the Internet?
The Internet is one of those things I’m not sure about. I just don’t get it. And technology is moving at such a rate that I can’t really keep up with it. I was in London recently, reading about these chips they want to put into little children. I’m not sure. I’m just not sure. I don’t trust bar codes. Why can’t I read them? Why can’t I know what that bar code says? It’s a secret code and we’re kept out of the loop. Scary.
Have you seen any of the sites on the Web that cover you?
No, though I’ve heard it’s all over the place, especially Star Trek stuff. And let me remind everybody who does those things that my birth date is November 13, 1955. For some reason, everybody has my birthday wrong in every biography. Let’s get it right, y'all.
What was it like turning 40?
If you read stuff about me, I’ve been 40 for ten years. I’m almost 60 in some circles.
Is the confusion based on your attempts to shave off a few years like other actors have been known to do?
I used to make myself older, not younger, because people would always tell me I was too young for the parts I was going after. So I gave myself two years. Now those two years have multiplied into eight or ten or 20. In some reports I’m 48, some I’m 51, some I’m in my 30s. I’m 41.
Was it psychically difficult to hit 40?
No, I was so happy. I finally felt like I was growing into myself. I’m now growing into my face and growing into my thoughts, and I’m clearer about a lot of things. Everything is pretty great.
It’s been written that you met Frank Langella on the set of Eddie—and he’s your boyfriend of the moment.
“Your boyfriend of the moment.” Now does that sound trite or what? How about, “The man with whom I’m living and sharing my life.” That’s more elegant.
Do you plan to get married?
No. I’m just happy to be with him. He is wonderful. He is funny. It’s one of the great things about our relationship—we get to laugh a lot. But I also have a great deal of respect for him. He is about the finest American stage actor we have. His work, since I was a young actor, was kind of like a goal. Design for Living, Booth, Dracula, The Father. Just endless. When I first met him on the set of Eddie, I said, “Why are you doing this movie?” He said, “This is probably the only way we’ll ever get to work together.”
So there was romance from the start.
[Smiles] Hoo-ha. But it was more about working together then. In my mind, I had to come up to his level. He’s extraordinary and a really good guy. Which is not to say that the other men in my life haven’t been. They were nice men, but somehow there’s something extra extraordinary about this one. I’m taking it a day at a time. And, by the way, he’s cute. I had to add that. He’s fine, as my daughter would say.
By now, are you used to questions about your relationships?
I’m not used to it at all. It wasn’t always like this. The public didn’t really care until I got involved with Ted Danson. Since then it has become a real thing in my life. It just doesn’t go away.
How does it affect you?
It’s hard enough to have a relationship, but to have a relationship under a microscope is harder. You always want to rebut everything you see that isn’t accurate. I don’t mind if you think I’m an asshole, but I want you to think I’m an asshole for the right reasons. It’s hard on everyone around me. When it’s really inaccurate it bugs the shit out of me.
Was the scandal over the Friars Club roast the low point for you and Ted Danson?
I had a good time at the Friars Club. It was funny.
Not everyone agreed.
No, but people who didn’t get it were people who didn’t understand what a Friars Club roast is. No one warned us that they had opened it to the public and that the people on the dais had no idea what the hell we were doing. I feel like we were set up. If people understood what a Friars roast was, they wouldn’t have been shocked at all. And this was one of the funnier roasts that had been done. But sadly they chose to take something that was done in fun and turn it into a lot of bullshit.
Do you think people were genuinely offended, or was the reaction built up by the media?
I think they were genuinely offended.
Roast or no roast, do you disagree that blackface is simply bad taste—and is a form of true racism?
I do. Was it in bad taste? The Friars Club is in bad taste. That’s the idea. It’s about, “Your ass is so wide that—” or “Your mother gave head to—” That’s what it’s about. RuPaul came out and talked about how he taught me how to give head. We were making a point.
What exactly was the point?
Even in hip Hollywood, there are people who are uncomfortable with a white man and a black woman. The stereotypes prevail. So I took them on. Ted and I used to get a lot of really hateful mail. We took it and pushed it to the limit. That was the point of Ted wearing blackface. Instead of people understanding, they looked at it as something they could jump on. I said then, as I say now, fuck them.
Fuck the black leaders as well as the black and white press that criticized you?
Fuck them. What makes me sad is that it made Ted very uncomfortable. For that I’m sorry. But I’m not sorry at all that we did it, nor that I encouraged it.
Do you think Ted is sorry that he did it?
Yes, I do think he’s sorry he did it.
Because he cared what people thought?
He cared very much that people said he was a racist. I wish him well. I hope his new show works and that his new marriage is happy. I hope one day we’ll be able to sit down and talk about it with some laughter.
You don’t speak now?
No, and I’m sure we won’t for a very long time. I don’t have any problem with what happened. But he does.
Did the hate mail come mostly from white extremists?
Them, and also from lots of black people. Black people were incensed. Again, I’ve never been politically correct and never will be politically correct, and I will go where I want to go.
Since the incident, have you spoken with any of the people who criticized you publicly—Montel Williams or Dionne Warwick?
I spoke with Dionne. I said, “Look, you know what the Friars Club roast is.” She said, “Yeah, but it got out.” I said, “But that’s not my fault. If you have a problem you should talk to the Friars Club.” She said, “You’re right.” I don’t have anything to say to Montel because Montel went out for himself. He got the publicity he needed. He used us as a soapbox. I think in retrospect that he’s unhappy he did it, because I think he’s had a little firestorm of his own, and suddenly it occurs to him that that’s what happens when someone puts your business in the street. Hey, it’s OK. I’m going to piss people off again. I hope I’m not going to piss people off throughout my life.
Do you have a lot of time for your family?
More and more. I’m a workaholic, but I’m trying to take some breaks. We’ve been spending more and more time together. I’m cleaning baby spit off my shirt and playing with my granddaughter and watching her cannonball into the pool.
Your daughter’s father was your first husband as well as your drug counselor. How did you meet and fall in love?
I felt I had better do something because I didn’t know what was coming. I got married, but it wasn’t particularly right for either of us. I got pregnant and had this little baby, and I left my husband and went to San Diego. I had a couple of relationships and then didn’t have a relationship for, like, six years. I met another man and had a five-year relationship, and he helped me raise my daughter. Then I came to New York and did my show, and it was tough on him, so he went away. And then I didn’t get married. I went out with a couple of people and then slipped back into a little drug haze and woke up married to somebody else.
And that was your second marriage?
Yeah, and it took me about a year and a half to get out of that, and then I went into another really bad relationship. I then went into what I thought had the potential of being a good relationship, but it didn’t work out, and I met another guy and got married, and then I realized I had made a mistake and said, “I’ve made a mistake. I’m really sorry,” and was in the process of getting out of that when I met Frank. So, you know, it’s kind of normal, except that maybe I got married a few too many times. It’s because I love a good party, but I have recently realized that I can actually just throw a party and not get married. I think I’ve learned that. Now I’m more interested in a caring, loving relationship, which is what I have now.
Are you more capable of having one now?
Yes. You start telling yourself the truth, you know. You start facing reality. Being in love with someone and being with someone is work, and it’s daily, and it’s not a Band-Aid.
Did relationships used to be Band-Aids?
Oh, yes. I thought that they would make me feel better. I thought they would protect me.
Protect you from what?
The world. But now I know you’re only better if you feel better inside. You have to do the repair work that’s required.
Were drugs other Band-Aids?
Yes. Band-Aids that don’t work. They were a way not to feel pain or mistakes.
What drugs did you do?
How much time do you have? I did everything.
Was it difficult for you to stop?
It was difficult until I figured out why I did them. You don’t want to hurt, but the wound gets bigger and festers. So I stopped doing all drugs and I faced those wounds and felt the pain. It hurts, but it does heal.
What advice did you give your daughter when she got pregnant at 15?
I understood why she had done it, which was to have some identity other than being my child. At 15 you want your own identity.
Were you upset that she was having a baby that young?
Yes, but I would support her no matter what came along. I practice what I preach: You have to support your children. I wasn’t going to turn her out or make her feel bad. She was scared. That let me know that our relationship was still good, even though it’s inevitably in that mother-daughter tunnel. But she came to me first and she said, “Mommy?” And I said, “What?” She said, “I’m pregnant.” I said, “Well, what do you want to do?” She said, “I want to have it.” I said, “OK. You know it’s a lot of work. It’s not easy and there will be times when you’re not going to want to be bothered.” She said, “I’m ready.” I said OK, knowing full well that this was a task for the family. Now her baby, born on my birthday, is seven—and fantastic.
Didn’t you advise her to have an abortion—to wait to have a child?
You can’t tell kids much these days. They’re much older than we were. All we can do is try to create environments for those who choose to have their children. And there will be more of them if the extreme right gets its way. If they abolish or make it harder to have an abortion, there will be more children with babies. But if our kids have children, we have to help them through it. We’ve got to hunker down and make the best of it and not let them go by the wayside. We ought to be giving some of these young boys an education, too. Where are they all? If they are going to have children, they need to be prepared for the responsibility that comes with fathering. We need to start making the boys as accountable as the girls are. I think if there were more guidance and money in the programs that the Republicans want to cut, we’d find fewer babies in garbage cans. We’d find fewer parents snapping under pressure, and there would be a lot less child abuse.
As a former welfare mother, do you support the welfare bill?
I worry that there are too many children who are going to fall by the wayside. Listen, I know welfare. It is very degrading. And people don’t go on welfare because they want to, despite what the Republicans say. I raised my child partially on welfare and know how much it can help, even if it is degrading. It gave me some breathing space and gave me a little bit of dignity. It needs to be fixed, but there must be a safety net. It was degrading, but not as degrading as going out and prostituting yourself. I mean, that’s the bottom line.
Literally prostituting yourself?
Absolutely, because when you are trying to raise a child and you have no job or a chance of a job, there aren’t many alternatives. In every system there are people who abuse welfare. But they are not the majority. And they are not all black. And they are not all without education.
You can get pregnant. You can get sick. So why not teach children about masturbation?
How do you feel about limits on welfare so people will be required to return to the workforce?
I’d be fine with it if there were jobs out there. Most people do not want to sit home. So sure, make people go back to work, but train them and offer them good jobs. Corporations, in exchange for tax breaks, should have to provide training and meaningful child care. Then we can talk. They want to stop abortion, yet they are against sex education? What fucking hypocrisy. Sex education is important. I was very distressed when Joycelyn Elders lost her job. Kids have to know. Would you rather have people masturbate or have abortions? It’s the safest sex you can have. Mutual masturbation is the safest sex you can have with somebody else. Oral sex is out. Penetration is out. You’ve got to be careful. You can get pregnant. You can get sick. So why not teach children about masturbation? They’re going to do it anyway.
You have raised these issues at the Academy Awards ceremonies. How much free rein do you have?
Quite a bit, as you may have noticed.
Why did you decline to return for this year’s show?
I just know that I can’t be any better than I was. I learned from the first time, and I don’t think I can surpass the second time. There’s a lot of pressure.
Last year you took on Jesse Jackson, who called for a protest against the program because so few black actors were nominated for awards.
Don’t get me started.
We’ve all known and been working with and struggling with the problems Hollywood has with black actors. We knew it much better than he did. Yet I was hosting the awards, Quincy Jones was producing them, black acts such as Stomp were on, so it was the wrong place to complain. Besides, Jackson never asked what we—black actors—thought. But because he said he was boycotting the show, all I said was, “Since you aren’t watching, I ain’t going to deal with you.” This created a big old stink, too. Ooh, people were so pissed off.
When Jackson called for the protest, did you and Jones sit down and discuss what your reaction would be?
I was ready to rip him a new behind. But Quincy said that he didn’t want me to do anything.
We take it that you couldn’t help yourself.
[A particularly sweet, innocent smile] That’s right. Listen, Quincy has been fighting this battle for 45, 50 years. Harry Belafonte has been fighting it for 60 years. Sidney Poitier for years and years. So I just had to quietly deal with it. A lot of people were very angry. They thought I insulted Jackson.
And marginalized him.
Marginalized him? He basically put me and Quincy in the position of choosing to do this thing we wanted to do and felt was a very positive thing to do, or to stand up alongside him. He put us in the position of looking like we were kissing somebody’s ass.
Do you agree that black actors were underrepresented in terms of the nominations?
Maybe, but not in terms of that show. I mean, it was the wrong show to point to and say that blacks are being blocked from participating in Hollywood. People seem to forget that the mere fact that I’m still here is a huge statement. So is the fact that a lot more people look like me than they did 12 years ago, when I started—I mean, this hair! And I never have to be anybody except who I am. In a previous generation, a black actor might have had to fit a mold. But this is me. These are my lips, my nose, my hair, my butt—spread, un-spread, spread, unspread, depending on the season. I have to hold my temper.
Is Hollywood still racist? Does it downplay the work of blacks?
No. Because if you look at the past five years of the Academy Awards, one or two of us have always been nominated. I have been nominated—what? Twice? And won once. But are things perfect? Hell, no. It ain’t perfect in the world.
Have you talked with Jackson since then?
Oh, yes, yes. He said [imitating him] “Well, you know, we’ve got to get together.” I ain’t heard from him since. Yeah, that’s Jesse. He’s basically full of shit.
A character in your Broadway show was a black girl who wanted blonde hair because everyone on TV was blonde. Did you feel that way when you were little?
I guess I did. When I was growing up, you looked at the back of a magazine and saw the Breck girl. And you just knew it wasn’t going to happen. You’d take the magazine to your mother and she would just say, “Ain’t going to happen.”
Is it fundamentally different for a black girl growing up now?
Oh, yeah. I mean, this is very egotistical of me, but look at me: I’m here. I’m here and I’m here in a big way. In little kids’ books, in magazines, in movies, on television, on the Academy Awards ceremony, on Star Trek, in reruns forever, God bless them. I am a presence. There was no one until I became a teenager, and then Diahann Carroll came on in a big way with the TV program Julia. Now there are shows with entirely black casts and commercials with black actors.
For similar reasons, gays complain that they are portrayed as homicidal maniacs or stereotypical queens. Are you sympathetic?
Of course. America has been in the closet for a long time. We are behind in our thinking in so many ways. Sexual revolution or no sexual revolution, the bottom line is that we are still very uncomfortable when it comes to sex. Anything we don’t understand, we want to eliminate. But I think people have to recognize that there is nothing you can do to stop people from living their lives. Either adapt or walk away. Move to another place where people will continue to be intolerant. Move to Iran.
That’s basically what you said to white supremacist Tom Metzger when he appeared on your talk show.
That’s it. He said that the races should be separate and I said, “So where are you going, Tom? Because I’m not going anywhere.” This is why the immigration issue is making me insane. Immigration is the backbone of this country. Immigrants built America. I look at the last names of a lot of the people who are speaking about the terrible problem with immigration and think, How long ago were you an immigrant?
What were the high points of your talk-show experience?
Getting to sit down with some wild people—Alexander Haig and asking him, “So what should I call you? Should I call you 'General’?” “Call me Big Al.” Gordon Liddy—talking to him was a hoot! Whatever he is, he’s a great conversationalist. We disagree on just about everything. Same with Charlton Heston, but talking to him was a thrill.
Didn’t he give you a big kiss?
Yeah. I asked him if there had been an uproar when he did The Omega Man and had this great interracial kiss with Rosalind Cash. It was one of the first big, swooping smackaroonies that we saw. He said, “No.” Then he leaned closer to me and said, “Are people really upset by that in this day and age?” And I said, “Oh, yeah! I’ve had them cut out of movies.” And he leaned closer and said, “Really?” And I said, “Yeah,” and he leaned closer and gave me a big old kiss! And there were other good moments, too. I have a tattoo of Woodstock on my breast, and Charles Schulz asked if I wanted him to sign it. It was wonderful. When Tom Metzger was on, he asked for my autograph for his kids.
In that case you were criticized for being too nice.
My job on that show was to listen. I never said I was going to fight for causes. I knew how I felt, and I thought I was very clear about it. People were angry because they wanted me to voice their opinion. But one of the reasons they yanked the show is that I wouldn’t get into fights, wouldn’t do a monolog and wouldn’t put in a band. The show was about conversation.
Would you have had Newt Gingrich on your show?
I would have enjoyed the opportunity to talk with Newt Gingrich. I have always said it is hard to take someone named Newt seriously, but this is coming from someone named Whoopi. Gingrich, with his loose-lipped contract, is a small-minded man. Yeah, it would be great if taxes could be cut. I would be so happy if welfare could be eliminated. I would be thrilled, you know, if big business really embraced the country. I would be thrilled if we didn’t need affirmative action. But we do. At least Colin Powell acknowledged the need for affirmative action.
Do you admire him as a black leader?
He is for a woman’s right to choose and for affirmative action—the latter because he knows it works. He backed the wrong horse, though. Clinton really does believe in affirmative action. I wouldn’t be here, and neither would any other person of color. Before, it just wasn’t working. We have had to take sterner actions to ensure that all Americans get their due. American, not African American. I won’t let anyone call me African American.
I’m not an African American. I’m purebred, New York-raised. Calling me an African American divides us further. I am as American as baseball. I don’t have to excuse the fact that I am black-skinned.”
Because I’m not an African American. I’m purebred, New York—raised. I’m not from Africa. Calling me an African American divides us further. It means that I’m not entitled to everything an American is entitled to. My roots go back longer here than a lot of those folks who have nothing in front of “American.” Some of those folks came on the Mayflower, but we were under the Mayflower. We were here. I am just very, very insulted by what that does. I don’t have to excuse the fact that I am brown-skinned or black-skinned. I don’t have to explain that. I was born here. I am as American as a hot dog. As baseball. [Laughs] I can feel the teeth in my ass right now as we’re talking [laughs]—just feel it. Chomp. Chomp. Chomp.
The people who feel they have the divine right of kings to speak for me and every other black person. Fuck 'em.
You take on social issues in your annual Comic Relief benefits. After ten years, how has the experience changed?
It’s more fun than ever. It’s a reunion.
Is it occasionally difficult to hold your own in the company of Robin Williams and Billy Crystal?
The boys have sort of nurtured me along, and now I’ve finally come into my own with them. They’re a tough duo. They are so fast. It took me until three or four years ago to just bust in. They were always really good to me, encouraging me, going, Pow! you’re on. I always considered myself the Vanna White of Comic Relief, because I do all the serious stuff—the information, the phone numbers. I finally busted loose with them. Now we run wild. These boys are always talking about their genitalia, and I finally said, “Look. Explain this to me. What is it about your dick? Why are we talking about it, yet again?”
You’re also on TV commercials now. Did you have qualms about becoming the MCI spokesperson?
No, because MCI really does a better job.
You sound like a paid flack.
They asked me if I wanted to be their spokesperson, and I made them jump through hoops. I said, “I want to see your paperwork. I want you to prove to me that you are the better company.” They did. I believe they are cheaper and their service is better. Having me as their spokesperson actually helped MCI, which I’m kind of proud of. It’s why I will speak out for the things I believe in. People seem to listen a little bit. And I do want things to get better.
Well, things got better and then they got worse. As far as I’m concerned, the Reagan years did more to destroy the fabric of the nation than anything. Dismantling a lot of those programs with no safety net destroyed the morale of folks who were working so hard and struggling so long to make something happen. My daughter would come in from the park and I’d say, “Well, you’re home early,” and she’d say, “Yeah, some guy was driving by and shots were flying.” I would be in conniptions because I grew up in a time when shooting went on only in the movies. This idea that life doesn’t mean anything anymore comes from the top. Treat people as if they matter, care for them, tend them, help them grow up strong, give them good schools, child care, make them feel as if you care about them and show them that they are valued. Then they will be valued and will feel valued. The government has to get in there and roll up its sleeves.