From drug addict to Oscar front-woman and eventual winner. 'Jumping Jack Flash', 'The Color Purple', 'Ghost' - serious or seriously funny, she delivers.
Whoopi Goldberg was born as Caryne Elaine Johnson. Her mother was called Emma (nee Harris) and worked as a nurse and a teacher, and her father was a clergyman called Robert James Johnson.
Whoopi’s parents split up whilst she was still quite young, and she spent her early childhood years living in a public housing project in Manhattan. She reportedly acquired her unusual nickname on account of her disposition to flatulence, which led to her being called “Whoopi Cushion!” Whoopi adopted the name of Goldberg as her stage surname later on, claiming that she had Jewish ancestors, and saying “Goldberg’s a part of my family somewhere…”
Growing up in New York, the theatrical centre of America, young Whoopi was interested in acting from quite an early age, and made her stage debut at the age of 8, when she appeared in the Children’s Program at the Helena Rubinstein Children’s Theatre at the Hudson Guild in New York. Whoopi had a troubled adolescence; she got into drugs as a teenager, and dropped out of high school at an early age. But she managed to find work as a summer camp counsellor, and also took part in the choruses of the Broadway stage shows 'Hair', 'Jesus Christ Superstar' and 'Pippin'. Happily, Whoopi fought and won her battle with drug addiction. When her first marriage failed, she moved to California with her baby daughter, and became a founder member of the San Diego Repertory Theatre. She also joined an improvisational theatre group called Spontaneous Combustion.
Around this time, she adopted her unusual stage name, and began to write the series of character monologues that would eventually lead to her “big break.” Having joined another improvisation group called the Blake Street Hawkeyes, she soon acquired a cult following as a stand-up comedienne, and began touring America with her one-woman stage show, called The Spook Show. This was a phenomenally popular show, which consisted of lots of different monologues, all designed to showcase Whoopi's wacky humour and dramatic style.
As luck would have it, leading film director Mike Nichols happened to catch a performance of Whoopi’s one-woman Spook Show, and was so impressed that he offered to bring it to Broadway. The show was a huge success - all 156 performances sold out, and overnight, Whoopi became one of the most talked-about actresses in New York. Her newfound stage success brought her to the attention of Hollywood director Steven Spielberg, who, like Nichols, was highly impressed with Whoopi’s talent. Although she was a relative newcomer, Spielberg decided to cast her in the leading role of the film of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, 'The Color Purple', which was released in autumn 1985. The film was a massive critical success, and earned no less than 11 Oscar nominations - including one for Whoopi, who was nominated for Best Actress. Although she didn’t win the Oscar for Best Actress - she won a Golden Globe Award instead - 'The Color Purple' established Whoopi as a leading Hollywood player. She went on to make a string of off-beat comedy movies in the late 1980s, such as 'Burglar', 'Fatal Beauty', 'The Telephone' and Penny Marshall’s directorial debut, 'Jumpin’ Jack Flash'. Although these films weren’t as successful as Spielberg’s epic, Whoopi still won awards for her performances from the N.A.A.C.P. Image Awards.
Goldberg reached the peak of her career in the early 1990s, when she played the role of the eccentric clairvoyant Oda Mae Brown in 'Ghost', co-starring with Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze. 'Ghost' turned out to be the highest box-office earning movie of 1990, and the blockbusting movie finally earned Whoopi an Oscar - this time for Best Supporting Actress! Incidentally, Whoopi was the first African-American to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in almost fifty years. Much to Whoopi’s delight, she was also making regular appearances in 'Star Trek: The Next Generation'. Whoopi admitted to being a huge fan of the original Star Trek, and welcomed the opportunity to be part of a new generation of Star Trek film-making.
During the early 1990s, Whoopi worked in a variety of media. She co-starred with Jean Stapleton in the TV sitcom, 'Baghdad Café', which ran for two seasons on CBS. She also starred in a movie called 'The Long Walk Home', which portrayed the trials and tribulations of a female activist in the American Civil Rights Movement. Other high-profile movies that Whoopi made during the 1990s included 'Sister Act' (1992), a highly successful comedy that grossed over $100 million at the box office, and earned Whoopi a further nomination for a Golden Globe Award. Over the same period, Whoopi also got to host her own late-night talk show, 'The Whoopi Goldberg Show'.
In 1994, Whoopi became the first African-American woman ever to host the Academy Awards. She proved to be such a popular hostess that she was invited back to host the Awards again in 1996, 1999 and 2002. From the late 1990s onwards, Whoopi diversified her career considerably to include other vehicles for acting and performing. She took a supporting role in a production called 'How Stella Got Her Groove Back', working with Angela Bassett, and also starred in the ABC versions of 'Cinderella', 'A Knight in Camelot', and 'Call Me Claus'. She also became more involved in the production side of movie-making, and began garnering credits as an Executive Producer. In 2002, she won a Tony Award for producing the musical 'Thoroughly Modern Millie'.
Whoopi is also a high-profile voiceover artist, and has lent her distinctive vocal style to many cartoons, including 'The Lion King', 'The Pagemaster', and 'The Rugrats Movie'. She was also the voice of Gaia, the spirit of Earth on the TV show 'Captain Planet and the Planeteers'. She has also made occasional returns to live stage performance, as in 1991, when she co-starred with Timothy Dalton in Los Angeles in the two-handed play, 'Love Letters'. Her latest film roles have included 'The Muppets' (2011) and 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' (2014).
Despite the demands of her high-profile career, Whoopi also found time to carry out considerable fundraising work for charity. In 1987, she co-hosted HBO’s Comic Relief Benefit, to help raise money for the homeless in America. The show was a massive success - so much so that it became an annual media institution, just as it has in the UK. The first and successive editions of Comic Relief have succeeded in raising over $40 million for charity, a phenomenally impressive achievement. Whoopi also took part in the much televised Hurricane Relief Benefit, in order to raise money for the victims of Hurricane Andrew. Whoopi is also currently a designated Unicef Goodwill Ambassador. She is also an outspoken advocate of gay rights, and received the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation Vanguard Award in 1999 in recognition of her stalwart efforts to support the gay rights movement.
Whoopi’s forthright, plain-speaking style has landed her in hot water in the media on more than one occasion. In September 2007, Whoopi replaced Rosie O’Donnell as the new moderator and co-host of The View, and quickly sparked controversy on account of her outspoken remarks and responses. Incidentally, Whoopi also hosted a radio programme called 'Wake Up With Whoopi', which was launched in 2006.
Whoopi’s personal life has been every bit as eventful as her acting career. At the age of 18, she married Alvin Martin, who fathered Alexandrea, her only child. Following the breakdown of her teenage marriage, she was a single mother for several years. Then in 1986, when she was acting on the set of 'Jumpin’ Jack Flash', she became romantically involved with David Claessen, who was a director of photography on the shoot. Whoopi and David got married later that year, but the marriage only lasted two years, and they divorced in 1988. Whoopi subsequently married Lyle Trachtenberg, but her third marriage was even more short-lived than the others - in fact, it only lasted a year! After her third marriage collapsed, she spent five years with Frank Langella, but parted from him in the year 2000. Whoopi also attracted media attention when she became involved for a time with Ted Danson, a married actor who was caring for his wife, a stroke survivor.
Whoopi is one of very few actors who have ever succeeded in winning all of the major acting awards, ie, an Oscar, a Grammy, a Tony and an Emmy. She has appeared in over 150 feature films, and for a brief period during the 1990s, she was the highest-paid actress in history. She has been publicly recognised and honoured by organizations as diverse as NAACP, who named her Entertainer of The Year in 1991, to L.I.F.E. (Love Is Feeding Everyone), who named her a Hunger Hero, alongside fellow actress Shirley MacLaine. Whoopi Goldberg’s achievements are truly impressive - and moreover, she shows absolutely no sign of slowing down, despite the fact that she has now in her fifties and is a grandmother three times over!