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Whoopi's Revenge

For years Hollywood executives considered her a talented pain in the neck. Now Whoopi Goldberg's making them pay.
Paul Chutkow
From the Print Edition:
Winston Churchill, Autumn 93

(continued from page 2)

But film critics and the Hollywood studio executives were not the only ones confounded by Whoopi and her multiple talents. For all her prominence throughout the 1980s, in the eyes of the public Whoopi remained one of the most enigmatic and misunderstood actresses in America. Who was this zany character? What really made her tick? The gossip columns and tabloids often chattered about her personal life, but who knew what to believe?

The fact is, Whoopi Goldberg is one very complicated lady; she defies easy labels, classifications or pigeonholing. There is a part of her that seems to be a pure Hollywood creature: hip, flip, party all night and never miss a celebrity gathering. This is the public Whoopi. The private Whoopi is very different. She keeps close to her mother, her brother and her daughter, who now has a daughter of her own, making Whoopi a grandmother before she hit 40. Whoopi is also an avid reader (her taste in books includes biographies and such intellectual fare as My Father's Guru, by Jeffrey Masson, an account of a son's spiritual awakening with his father, his mother, and their dubious guru) and she also collects paintings and rare books.

In her flamboyant public moments and in her private reflective moments, The Whoop loves a fine cigar. She's been smoking cigars since she was a teenager, when she'd sneak a cheap cheroot when she was far from the radar of her mother. Now she prefers cigarillos or small cigars, but she's been known to share a big Cohiba with director Ridley Scott. She has another favorite: the 80 Aniversario, a difficult-to-find Cuban Davidoff made especially for Zino Davidoffs 80th birthday.

Whoopi buys cigars at the posh Davidoff outlet in Beverly Hills, and she has a large humidor at home. As discriminating as she is about what she smokes, The Whoop is also particular about the way she prepares her cigars; she prefers to punch a hole in the end of the cigar rather than clipping it off. As frenetic as her life usually is, Whoopi does not like to hurry a fine cigar, and usually doesn't smoke more than one cigar a day.

To help her slow down and to give her a bit of respite from the Hollywood scene, Whoopi recently purchased a secondary residence on 40 isolated acres in rural New England. This past summer, though, she put the house to little use. She was too busy working on the Sister Act sequel, being shot in Los Angeles, and promoting a recent comedy she did for Warner Brothers: Made In America, a farce with Ted Danson about a mix-up with a sperm-bank baby. The film received lukewarm reviews, but by mid-July The Hollywood Reporter was still listing it as one of the five biggest movies of the summer.

Whoopi also had a setback this summer: her late-night talk show was canceled because of poor market share. Whoopi and the show's producers had differences about the concept right from the start. The Whoopi Goldberg Show grew out of guest stints she did as host of Pat Sajak's late-night show, in the mode of Jay Leno, Arsenio Hall, David Letterman and Bob Costas. But from the beginning, the project brought together two different mentalities and two very different sets of values. The producers envisioned a Whoopi version of Saturday Night Live, with plenty of sass and bite. What Whoopi envisioned was something else: The Further Education of Whoopi Goldberg.

"When the producers first asked me if I'd sit in, I said yes," Whoopi says, "but only if I could have Lady Bird Johnson, Rosalynn Carter, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Betty Ford as guests. I wanted to know from these first ladies what the progression of America has looked like through their eyes. The producers said, 'Oh, no, no, no, no, no. We have to have bands. Actors and stuff.' And then they asked me if I wanted to do my own show. I said yes--but only if I can have the people I want. One person. No band. No hassle."

The producers and sponsors were worried primarily about ratings; Whoopi was not. "I did that talk show for me. Strictly for me. I didn't care about ratings. This isn't so good if you're a sponsor, but I just wanted to meet interesting people. I mean, where else was I going to get to talk to Al Haig? The man told me to call him 'Big Al.' And where else could I listen to G. Gordon Liddy crack jokes? I mean the man is very funny. Who knew?"

Haig and Liddy are fascinations of Whoopi's; she loves politics. Away from the cameras, she likes to talk about Bill Clinton and Haitian refugees, Colin Powell and gays in the military, and what television has done to the American political process. So why not talk about these same subjects on her talk show? Serious stuff, and she got serious people on; she had no intention of playing smartass or pretending she was doing MTV for the bubble-gum-and-Madonna crowd.

"People complained it was too gushy. Well, why the fuck not? I really liked the people I talked to. And I don't see why being nice and polite should cause problems," Whoopi says. "It's all about money and economics, and I can understand that; I want to be paid well, too. But I also want to do some real quality stuff. All I had to do was learn to shut up. Because people came on and blew us away; they opened themselves up. People really wanted to talk to me."

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