Whoopi Goldberg: Secret Icon
Whoopi Goldberg turns 65 years old this month and is about to celebrate with a starring role in the upcoming CBS All Access adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand. She’ll be playing a 108 year-old woman named Mother Abagail Freemantle, who, in a world decimated by plague, leads the good people who have survived, to the place where they will make their final stand against the forces of darkness. Timely.
These days, Whoopi is most widely recognized for her role as one of the hosts of The View - ABC’s daytime talk show that she has helped moderate since 2007. In some ways, The View is the ideal vehicle for her uninhibited approach to the world, but perhaps a bit lost to those who know her best from this phase of her career, is how much of an iconic figure she already was before taking this job.
Whoopi is an EGOT, one of a small handful of people that has been awarded an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony. With that Oscar, she became only the second African American woman to win one, and the first to ever be nominated in both the Best Lead Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories. In addition to her Oscar nominations, she was the first African American woman to host the awards show, doing so four times between 1994 and 2002. Also, she was the first African American woman, and only the fourth person overall, to receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
It was as a host that I first became aware of Whoopi, but it was in her role co-hosting Comic Relief with Billy Crystal and Robin Williams. Watching and rewatching each year’s Comic Relief was a big part of my life. For those who may not recall, Comic Relief was a fundraising event that aired on HBO at irregular intervals between the years of 1986-2006 to raise money for homelessness. Each event was structured around a deep lineup of the day’s best comics, with Whoopi, Billy, and Robin, both hosting the event and performing throughout. A number of the broadcasts are still up in full on YouTube, and although there is certainly material that hasn’t aged well, the programs are worth revisiting. There was a special alchemy to the trio of Whoopi, Robin, and Billy in their nine turns as hosts of the event. Robin and Billy were both world-class stand-up comics, but Whoopi was something more. While Billy and Robin would trade rapid fire bits, often recycling material that was already a part of their routines, Whoopi would react and improvise around them in a way that tied the three of them together, grounding what they were doing in the moment.
Whoopi had come up through comedy clubs, like Billy and Robin had, working in improv troupes and doing stand-up, but her background was primarily as an actor. The 1985 one-woman show titled, "The Spook Show," that brought her to prominence was genuinely funny, but the greatest praise she received for her work was for the depth and heart she brought to the different characters she had created. An important New York Times review of an early version of the show, likened what she was doing to marrying the character work of Lily Tomlin to the realism of Richard Pryor, merging scripted and improvised content in a way that created something very special.
The nature of Whoopi’s initial success helps highlight the breadth of her abilities. She created her one woman show out of necessity. An undeniable talent, she was struggling to get cast in leading roles as a Black woman. If she was going to succeed, she knew she was going to have to take an active role in creating her own opportunities. That initial show, “The Spook Show,” would be the catalyst for everything that came afterwards for her. Mitzi Shore loved what Whoopi was doing enough to give her a regular spot in The Belly Room at The Comedy Store to do her show. Mike Nichols saw her show and helped her turn it into its eponymous Broadway version. It was her show that brought her to the attention of Alice Walker, and got Whoopi in the room with Steven Spielberg to audition for The Color Purple - for which she would receive a Best Lead Actress Oscar nomination. It was for the album recording of her show that she would win her Grammy. All of this success and these accolades stem from an indefatigable drive not to be limited by how people saw her.
By the time of the first Comic Relief in 1986, Whoopi was already established as a special talent. A gifted writer, a hilarious stand-up comic and improviser, as well as a lauded dramatic actor of stage and screen. Her star shined as bright then as anyone’s can, but the time since then has been a bit of a roller coaster in terms of output as Hollywood has often struggled to put her talents to work.
There have been some impressive highs. She won her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Oda Mae Brown in Ghost, and saw great commercial success in her role as Sister Mary Clarence in Sister Act 1 and 2 - her appearance in the second of these films would briefly make her the highest paid actress in Hollywood. Each of those roles came about more by chance than design, though. She was only cast in Ghost at the insistence of the film’s star, Patrick Swayze. Sister Act, was originally developed as a project for Bette Midler, before she passed on it. Then, when Whoopi was hired, she took an active part in remaking the role for herself by hiring Carrie Fisher to rewrite all of her dialogue.
Those highs have been fairly infrequent in terms of her film work. She has gotten a chance to do good work in some of her supporting roles, but most of the lead roles she has been offered have been underwhelming. Her legacy comes largely built as a live performer. In addition to her hosting jobs on The View, Comic Relief, and the Oscars, she has returned to Broadway numerous times: most notably in a 20th anniversary run of her original stage show, and a well-reviewed turn, taking over for Nathan Lane, in the lead of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. She’s also been a welcome presence on TV in frequent guest spots, and recurring roles on shows like Glee, and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Her role as Guinan, on Star Trek: The Next Generation, is another example of Whoopi creating her own opportunity. She was friends with cast member, Levar Burton, and she told him to see if he could let the show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, know that she would love to be involved in the show in any way. She kept after Levar about this for a time, until he was able to convince the show runners that, despite her level of fame, her interest in the show was genuine. She finally got a meeting with Gene Roddenberry, where she was able to explain how important seeing the original Star Trek series had been to her as a child because, as she said it, it was the only time she ever “saw Black people in the future.” Nichelle Nichols’s role as Lt. Uhura, a smart and capable black woman, serving an integral role in the function of the Starship Enterprise, inspired her to believe in herself. Whoopi wanted to appear in Star Trek: The Next Generation so that she could play that same role in inspiring other young black children.
In addition to her upcoming appearance in The Stand, we may be getting an opportunity to see Whoopi revisit her role as Guinan. In one of the few happy stories this year from before TV production shut down, during an interview on The View about his return to the Star Trek universe on the show Picard, Patrick Stewart invited Whoopi to return to the show as Guinan. It was a moving moment on a number of levels: a happy surprise moment between close friends, an opportunity to return to both a role and a show that means a great deal to her, and an opportunity for her to do work worth doing. As shows begin to head back into production, here’s hoping that this is something that we’ll be able to look forward to.
As glad as I am that we will see new work from Whoopi, and as happy I am for the success she continues to have, I do think it would be worthwhile for people to take another look at the many past accomplishments of her career, rather than waiting for her “in memoriam.” Whoopi Goldberg was and remains a significant figure in American stage and screen, one that created her own opportunities, and eased the way for others that followed along the trail she blazed. She ought not be forgotten.
Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.