"Actors have no color. That is the art form. I'm not colorless--I'm black. It's not something I consciously think about. It just is. It's like having a dick. You don't think about having a dick. You just have one."
"This is a motherfucker of a business. People say, 'You're in magazines, you're making movies and you're complaining!' I'm not. I'm freaked because I'm in the middle of it and I can't tell what I'm doing."
"I was born a hippie and will be till I die. When I say hippie, I mean humanist. Environmentalist. Someone who wants world peace. Zen politics. Sunshine, rainbows, God. But that was not cool in my neighborhood."
It's a safe bet that anyone even near a TV set, movie theater or magazine during the past three years has on more than one occasion seen a black female face, topped by a dread-locked coif, staring back with a street-wise grin and wondered, Who or what is a Whoopi Goldberg?
Good question, and one that until now has been only partially answered. Unless you had caught her critically acclaimed one-woman Broadway show in 1984, had seen it as an HBO special or had bought her album, you might have thought that Whoopi appeared overnight. And although she gave interviews, she was stingy with biographical details--including her real name and age. Personal history was most often relegated to a few terse sentences. The past didn't matter.
In fact, although her experimental-theater credentials were first-rate, Whoopi was mostly the secret darling of the aesthetic cutting edge--until Steven Spielberg tapped her to play Celie, the central character of The Color Purple. That bit of inspired casting earned her an Academy Award nomination for best actress--and ensured that when Milton Berle told his Whoopi Goldberg joke ("A black woman with a Jewish name. She doesn't do windows, because she's got a headache"), only the media-deprived wouldn't know whom he was talking about.
Today, Whoopi is having a love affair with the public. Her second and third films (Jumpin' Jack Flash and Burglar) have been released; she was a very visible prime mover in last year's Comic Relief benefit for the American homeless; she presented the top award at this year's Grammys; she's done a TV special with Carol Burnett and another with the Pointer Sisters; and she narrated the Disney film Captain Eo. Currently, she's filming Fatal Beauty, co-starring Sam Elliott, in Los Angeles.
Has success changed Whoopi Goldberg? Well, sort of. True, she still lives in Berkeley, near the University of California--with no plans to relocate. And her 12-year-old daughter, Alexandrea, treats her just the way she always has. But Whoopi--a veteran "overnight" sensation--has also had to come to grips with the velocity of her ascension. She is, after all, a long way from her childhood years in a housing project in the Chelsea area of Manhattan.
Her parents split up soon after she was born, leaving her mother, a practical nurse and, later, a Head Start teacher, to care for Whoopi and her older brother. Whoopi's youthful passions were Halloween and watching movies on television. When she was eight years old, she joined an afterschool drama group at the Hudson Guild, a local settlement house, and acted in local children's theater productions.
She also spent a lot of time on the street, suffering the insecurities of the less-than-popular teen--in part because she occasionally had white boyfriends. Eventually, she got into drugs and dropped out of school--and continued to act. But at 18, she married her drug counselor and got pregnant--in that order. A few months later, the marriage was over and, in 1974, with baby in tow, Whoopi moved to San Diego. There, a series of odd jobs and welfare kept her plugging away at acting--improvisation with groups such as Spontaneous Combustion and stage work with the San Diego Repertory Company.
When an acting partner canceled on a Berkeley gig, Whoopi debuted as a solo artist. Soon, she relocated to Berkeley, found a live-in boyfriend and continued her work, most notably with the Blake Street Hawkeyes. She also began developing her one-woman outing, The Spook Show.
The show traveled to Europe, then settled in for a run at New York's Manhattan Dance Theater Workshop, where producer-director Mike Nichols caught Whoopi's act, reportedly cried and offered to put it on Broadway. The rest is more or less history.
We asked Contributing Editor David Rensin to meet with Whoopi as she finished up Burglar and, at this crucial career juncture, put her life into perspective. Said Rensin afterward:
"Although Whoopi was wrapping her third film in two years, packing for a six-week honeymoon and fighting the flu that wouldn't go away, she agreed to squeeze in as much time with me as possible before she left for Europe.
"We met first in the Burbank Studios commissary, then moved to her trailer, parked by the sound stage on which Burglar was being filmed. Like most dressing rooms near wrap time, hers was a collection of clutter. Among the items: a case of brown and blue glass eyes fashioned into key rings; a Comic Relief poster; assorted Negro art (including idealized blacks selling Coca-Cola); and an ample supply of M&M's. Whoopi sat on the floor, near the door, chain-smoking. It was the perfect spot from which to field the nearly constant interruptions.
"Later that week, we resumed our conversations at the Hollywood Hills house Whoopi and David Claessen, her new husband, share with her manager when she's in Los Angeles. It, too, was filled with memorabilia:Â Jumpin' Jack Flash watches, neon sculptures, old movie posters, a Groucho Marx doll, etc. But without other intrusions (except for her Elvis-lipped dog, Rutger), we managed to get a lot more done, talking over cranberry juice and Vantages in the dining room.
"Between sessions, I couldn't escape the feeling that things were going too well, that perhaps I was being too easy on Whoopi. But upon reviewing the transcripts, I saw it wasn't true. She'd fielded some painful questions with tough answers. Still, when read, her answers seemed more aggressive--even angry--than I recalled. Then it dawned on me. I had been taken in by her face.
"Whoopi describes her face as 'Silly Putty. Round, with lots of cheeks, huge teeth and big black eyes.' Add a wide mouth framed by generously sensuous lips and a broad nose, and it sounds like something only a mother could love. Yet it is a crucial part of the package that makes her fans numerous and fervently loyal.
"Some might credit other things: according to American Film, for instance, her uncanny ability to 'synthesize elements of stand-up comedy, improvisation, tragedy and cautionary tale ... into six widely different characters.' Or her pinpoint sociocultural insights or, simply, her creative use of foul language. They wouldn't be wrong, but the face is the key, revealing basic emotional truths in a larger-than-life manner. It's impossible to ignore, and the connection is immediate. Whoopi slips under your guard with that goofy, sincere grin and seduces you while you think you're still making up your mind.
"Throughout the interview, she was open and outspoken, wheeling in and out of various characterizations, and all with a casual self-assurance. In fact, her belief in her talent was consistently apparent. Behind the well-known dramatis personae, there is a woman who knows her stuff--and has no qualms about saying so, especially when she feels that her spontaneity and creativity have been restricted or slighted. Furthermore, Whoopi was very aware of being, at this point in her young film career, deep in the heart of the heart of the Hollywood star-making machine. She knew that called for extra concentration on the work at hand, but she couldn't resist slipping into an analysis of the process and the price of fame as we spoke.
"Ultimately, though, Whoopi sensed that our talk was also an opportunity to voice her concerns about social issues, as well as finally set the record straight about her name, age and background. Unclouding her shadowy past seemed a perfect way to begin."