Goldberg, Whoopi (13 Nov. 1955 –), actress and comedian, was born Caryn Elaine Johnson in New York City, the second of two children of Emma Harris, a sometime teacher and nurse, and Robert Johnson, who left the family when Caryn was a toddler. Caryn attended St. Columbia School, a parochial school located several blocks from the family’s working-class neighborhood. New York provided a stimulating, multicultural environment that encouraged Caryn to reject the strictures of her Catholic education. By age eight, with the support of her mother, she began acting at the Hudson Guild in the Helena Rubinstein Children’s Theater, and she also showed a precocious interest in ballet and music. Caryn appeared in as many Hudson Guild productions as possible, but was less focused on her schoolwork. Her academic difficulties were exacerbated by dyslexia, though this was not diagnosed until later, and she dropped out of Washington Irving High School at age fourteen. Although Caryn’s teenage insecurities were hardly atypical, she was particularly discouraged by the racism endemic in the career path that she hoped to follow: the movie industry. In Hollywood, a white standard of beauty predominated, and glamorous roles for black actresses had traditionally been reserved for light-skinned and lithe performers like Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne. Caryn Johnson, however, was a brown-skinned beauty with full features of a type not yet acceptable to the entertainment industry’s limited and racially determined ideas of beauty. But such racism did not deter her thespian ambitions, and she appeared in the chorus of the Broadway musicals “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Hair”.
After leaving school, Johnson had an unexpected pregnancy and abortion, and she became, as she later explained, “chemically dependent on many things for many years.” Later, the escapades, pain, and difficulties of this period became fodder for her stand-up comedy routines, finding their way into her one-woman show. Eventually, she entered treatment for substance abuse, and in 1973 she married her drug counselor, Alvin Martin. Their daughter, Alexandra, was born a year later, but the couple separated in the mid-1970s and Johnson moved with her young daughter to San Diego, California. There she worked as a beautician, funeral home hairstylist, and bank teller while performing in local theater groups. She was also, for a few years, on welfare before finding success at the San Diego Repertory Company, appearing in Berthold Brecht’s “Mother Courage”, and with Spontaneous Combustion, an improvisational comedy group. Making her professional aspirations a reality required one more thing: to change her name, which she found boring, to a memorable moniker. She first chose “Whoopi Cushion” and then dropped Cushion for Goldberg, after her Jewish relatives.
In the late 1970s Goldberg moved to Berkeley, California, where she lived with her daughter and the playwright-performer David Schein. Performing at the Blake Street Hawkeyes Theater in 1982, she developed a one-woman play, “The Spook Show”, which she based on characters derived from life. Goldberg toured the United States and Europe with “The Spook Show” and in 1983 performed at the Dance Theater Workshop in New York. Goldberg returned to San Francisco and mounted “Moms”, a one-woman show that she co-wrote as a tribute to the vaudevillian Moms Mabley. A year later Goldberg returned to New York and, with director Mike Nichols, made her debut on Broadway, in the newly renamed show, “Whoopi Goldberg”. The show won her Theatre World and Drama Desk awards, and in 1985 she received a Grammy Award for Best Comedy Recording.
In 1985 Goldberg made her film debut in Steven Spielberg ‘s adaptation of Alice Walker ‘s “The Color Purple” (co-produced by Quincy Jones). Grossing over $80 million at the box office and $50 million in home video rentals, the film was an unexpected commercial success. For her strong, subtle performance, Goldberg received an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe Award.
In addition to performing stand-up and touring with her one-woman show “Living on the Edge of Chaos”, Goldberg worked steadily in film and on television during the last half of the 1980s, although, with the exception of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (1986), her films—”Burglar” (1987), “Fatal Beauty” (1987), “Clara’s Heart” (1988), and “The Telephone” (1988)—were only marginal hits. Goldberg became a household name with “Ghost” (1990). The film grossed over $517 million worldwide and earned Goldberg an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, the second Oscar awarded to a black woman. In 1992 ‘s “Sister Act”, Goldberg again struck box-office gold and won a second Golden Globe. Having proved her financial value, Goldberg began balancing her Hollywood film appearances in comedies such as “Made in America” (1993) with dramatic roles in smaller, independent films, including “The Long Walk Home” (1990), a film about the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott; as a cop in Robert Altman’s Hollywood satire “The Player” (1992); “Sarafina” (1992), a musical drama set in apartheid South Africa. In 1996 Goldberg portrayed Myrlie Evers-Williams in the film “Ghosts of Mississippi”.
Goldberg’s television career has been even more prodigious. In 1986, along with comedians Billy Crystal and Robin Williams, she began hosting the semiannual live broadcast “Comic Relief”, a comedy showcase fund-raiser for the homeless, and in 1992 she launched a short-lived, self-titled, late-night talk show. She also appeared in her own HBO stand-up specials and had a recurring role (1988 – 1993) as Guinan on “Star Trek: The Next Generation”. Her role in the 1994 and 2002 “Star Trek” films further proved her popularity and crossover appeal. In 1994 Goldberg hosted the Academy Awards, becoming the first black woman to preside over the Oscars since Diana Ross in 1974. She returned to emcee the awards in 1996, 1999, and 2002. From 1998 until 2002, she was also executive producer and appeared as the center square of the Emmy Award–winning television game show “Hollywood Squares.” Goldberg returned to television in 2003 with the sitcom “Whoopi.”
Following her successful return to Broadway in 1997 as the lead in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”, Goldberg expanded her theatrical activities, co-producing the Broadway revival of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (2002) and “Harlem Song” (2002), a new musical by George C. Wolfe, and starring in and producing the Broadway revival of August Wilson ‘s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (2002).
Offscreen, Goldberg married David Claessen, a Dutch-born director of photography, in 1986, after her relationship with Schein ended in 1985. Goldberg’s subsequent private relationship with the actor Ted Danson sparked public controversy after Danson performed in blackface at the Friar’s Club roast of the actress in 1993. The following year she entered into a one-year marriage with the union organizer Lyle Trachtenberg, whom she met when he was unionizing the crew of “Corrina, Corrina” (1994). From 1995 through 2000, she was involved with the actor Frank Langella.
The author of the best-selling Book (1997), Goldberg is the recipient of over forty awards, including six People’s Choice awards, five Kid’s Choice awards, and nine NAACP Image awards; she has garnered fourteen Emmy nominations and the 2001 Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American humor. Goldberg has been recognized as well for her humanitarian efforts on behalf of children, the homeless, human rights, substance abuse, and the battle against AIDS. In 1995 her hands, feet, and signature braids were pressed in cement outside Mann’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, and in 2001, she received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
Despite being an African American woman in a white dominated industry, Goldberg has become a mainstay in American entertainment. An iconoclastic comedian and commentator, she uses humor both to critique and to amuse her audiences. Over the years, there has been a mixed response to her celebrity. Some film critics and historians argue that her asexual characters perpetuate the iconic stereotype of the black mammy in the white household, while others interpret her screen persona differently, viewing Goldberg as an iconoclastic figure and countercultural force. However, Whoopi has expressed frustration with the selective editing of sex scenes that have landed on the cutting room floor.
Often described as too fat, too funny, too noisy, and too rebellious, Whoopi Goldberg has become what the critic Kathleen Rowe has termed an “unruly woman.” In Broadway performances, movies, and television appearances, she has played defiant characters who overturn social hierarchies, cross racial boundaries, and subvert conventional authority.
—Mia L. Mask
From African American Lives edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham.