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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 1)

Given the success of the first picture, and projected earnings for the sequel, Disney paid Whoopi a reported $12 million to $14 million to go back to the convent--one of the highest fees ever paid to an American actress, and a price tag that puts her up near the dizzying per-movie heights of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Douglas. Along with her Oscar and the millions grossed by Sister Act, that new fee is more than money for Whoopi: it is a confirmation and a validation, in irrefutable terms, of her talent and box-office appeal. For Whoopi, it is also a bit of sweet revenge against all those Hollywood executives who consider her a bombastic pain in the neck.

"I've now done three movies that have grossed more than $100 million: Ghost, The Color Purple and Sister Act," Whoopi says, puffing her cigar. "That's pretty good for a career. I don't know a lot of people who can say that."

Whoopi's current wave of success is only the latest chapter in a long and sometimes tempestuous personal odyssey. Indeed, Whoopi's life story is just the kind of show-biz tale the Hollywood studios used to thrive on, or create, back in the days of Frank Capra, and back when Hollywood press agents were even more shameless than they are today. But the beauty of Whoopi's story is that it's true; even the name Goldberg has a degree of authenticity.

Whoopi grew up in the racially mixed Chelsea neighborhood of lower Manhattan, and her family lived in a housing project that she remembers mostly as concrete and noise. She was born Caryn Johnson, from a clan of Johnsons and a clan of Harrises, but she says there were Goldbergs in her ancestry as well. "Whoopi" she made up; it seemed to define her spirit better than "Caryn." Whoopi says her mother always claimed she emerged from the womb with a grin on her face that seemed to say "Let's party!" Whoopi also swears her first coherent thought was, "I want to be an actor."

Whoopi's mother was a stern, strong and wise woman who worked as a schoolteacher and raised Whoopi and her brother by herself. Whoopi may have been a born hellion, but her mother believed in education and hard work, and she put Whoopi into a strict Irish-Catholic school. Still, there was no stopping Whoopi's fascination with the movies and comedy. On television she watched Abbott and Costello, the Three Stooges, Ernie Kovacs, and the original Star Trek. She adored old Hollywood movies, and she grew up idolizing stars like Carole Lombard and John Garfield. She even dreamed about the day when she would come to Hollywood and play at their sides.

Manhattan was a perfect place for a kid like Whoopi to grow up. She did children's theater, and at Christmastime, she would always want to see a performance of the Nutcracker. Whoopi tells a great story about the Christmas her mother refused to let her go, but The Whoop sneaked out to it anyway, figuring she could get back before her mother came home from work and in time to clean up her room. But when Whoopi got back home, she realized she had forgotten her key, and as she stood terrified at the door, who should she see coming Lip the street but her mother.

"My mother's great," Whoopi laughs. "She has the major looks. She could stop you from doing anything, through a closed door even, with a single look. Without saying a word, she has that power to rip out your tonsils."

But there was only so much her mother could do to tamp down a fire like Whoopi's. After a wild teenage tumult, Whoopi wound up in San Diego at age 20, divorced and with a baby daughter, Alexandrea. Whoopi worked as a cosmetician in a mortuary (now who could make that up) and she started in as a stand-up comedian. During the flower-power'60s, Whoopi drifted north to Berkeley and caught on with the Blake Street Hawkeyes, a theater troupe where she created a parade of characters she called The Spook Show. She had a flair for whacko impersonations and hybrid characters who, like Whoopi, combined street smarts and social awareness. There was Fontaine, a drug dealer with an attitude and a Ph.D., and there was a little black girl who so badly wanted white skin, blue eyes and blond hair that she tried to bleach her blackness away in Clorox-all this so she could sail on The Love Boat.

Whoopi became a local legend in Berkeley ("a wonderful nut case," one old pal recalls) and soon she took her routines home to Manhattan and the Dance Theater Workshop, where it caught the eye of director Mike Nichols. With his help, The Spook Show turned into a hit on Broadway, the album won a Grammy Award for comedy, and Spook became a special on HBO. As she rocketed to critical acclaim, Steven Spielberg signed her on for The Color Purple, Alice Walker's novel about a black family on a farm in the South. Whoopi's movie debut was brilliant, and it earned her an Academy Award nomination-and a marketing problem. She was at once a gifted actress and a whacko comic. Which movie path to follow? lngmar Bergman or Steve Martin?

During the 1980s, Whoopi did a series of movies that most critics panned: Jumpin'Jack Flash, Burglar, Fatal Beauty, Clara's Heart and Homer & Eddie. When none of these turned into a major hit, Whoopi took the disappointments and the bad reviews very personally. "I was hurt," she admits now. "I mean how many Color Purple roles are there out there?" She felt she was being held hostage to outlandish expectations from Hollywood producers looking to exploit her talents to maximum advantage-their financial advantage.

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