She's something of a dichotomy, that Whoopi Goldberg. On one hand, she's as mainstream as it gets: she's hosted the Oscars four times, and won one herself. She's been a star on Broadway, in Hollywood, and on TV, has written books for both kids and adults, and has worked with some of the biggest names around: Steven Spielberg, Robin Williams, Barbara Walters, Mike Nichols.
And yet somehow she's always managed to be outside the mainstream too, not just by the sheer force of her personality, but by her choices, whether they included talking former boyfriend Ted Danson into attending her 1993 roast in blackface — a choice that would probably have killed his career if he'd done it today — or conveying her confusion over the impassioned and much-revered acceptance speech of Viola Davis at the 2015 Emmy Awards.
She's Caryn Elaine Johnson, and she's Whoopi Goldberg. She's a non-supermodel-sized woman who doesn't wear heels, has starred in multiple movies and was rumored, at one point in the 1990s, to be the highest paid actress in Hollywood. She’s known as a liberal, and she’s a member of the NRA. She’s only turning 60, but last year, she became a great-grandmother. Her stage name comes from her unapologetic farting, and she hobnobs with the stars, because she is one. When it comes to Whoopi Goldberg, there’s one thing you can always count on: she's never dull.
To celebrate the birthday of one of the most unique voices in show business, we're offering up 7 fun facts to pique your interest in this traditional, non-traditional success story.
1. SHE HAD SOME PRETTY INTERESTING JOBS BEFORE SHE STARTED ACTING
She's been a hairstylist, a bricklayer, and a phone sex operator, confessing on The View that the phone sex money was great. Before her career took off, she was a licensed beautician, but her cosmetic work wasn't limited to living, breathing clients: She once took a job at a morgue, doing hair and make-up on dead people. She had a funny boss, she reports, who called her to the basement one day. She said the room was predictably cold and eerie, bordered by large, imposingly heavy doors. While she was there, she heard squeaking, and started wondering what could possibly be making such an otherworldly sound. It got louder, and scared her so much that she raced out of the room in such a panic that she ran right into the door and knocked herself unconscious. When she came to — with a bump on her head — her boss told her that now the worst thing she could imagine had already happened; did she still want the job?
She did. And she wasn't afraid to work alone in the room ever again.
2. SHE WAS INSPIRED EARLY ON IN LIFE BY JFK
When Whoopi was about seven or eight, John F. Kennedy was running for president, and came to her neighborhood in Manhattan to campaign, whistle-stop style. She said it was the coolest thing that had ever happened to her, and she took it “very personally”; it told her that she mattered.
Years later, her NBC sitcom Whoopi featured a plot involving a visit to the neighborhood by President George W. Bush. Whoopi was a little more cynical about this particular president. "Why's he coming here? Did they open a Hooters on the corner?" her character asked.
3. AUDITIONING FOR THE COLOR PURPLE PUT HER IN FRONT OF MICHAEL JACKSON
Goldberg won theater audiences over in the early 1980s with her one-woman play, The Spook Show. She'd also made a fan of director Mike Nichols, who brought the show to Broadway in 1984. But her bigger leap into stardom came when she landed the lead in the film The Color Purple. She loved Alice Walker’s novel, and told the author she'd take any part in the movie she could get. Walker was a fan, and had already brought up the idea to director Steven Spielberg. So Spielberg asked Whoopi to do her show for himself and "some of his friends." His friends numbered over 50, and Michael Jackson was among them. No pressure!
It's not surprising her performance won her the role; in The Spook Show, she inhabited multiple characters, shifting from a Valley girl to a drug addict to a surfer chick to panhandler to a child with nothing but a few props and her own voice and posture. Also unsurprising, her performance as Celie in The Color Purple won her her first Oscar nomination. (Her win came five years later, in Ghost.)
4. SHE SAYS A LOT OF CONTROVERSIAL THINGS. . .REALLY CONTROVERSIAL THINGS
Yes, she supports women's rights, and animal rights, and occasionally that brings on some controversy. But it's her bluntness on newsy issues that both landed her a regular gig as one of the hosts of The View, and keeps getting her in trouble. It took her a while to accept the truth of the accusations about Bill Cosby, she was almost the lone voice in Hollywood insisting that Mel Gibson wasn't a racist when that controversy broke, and she defended Kelly Osborne's comment, "If you kick every Latino out of this country, then who is going to be cleaning your toilet, Donald Trump?" While the internet roared in outrage, Whoopi's response, on The View, was this: "You sometimes step in dog do. It does not make you a racist."
Her advice to those with unpopular opinions is to be yourself if you are confident enough to accept that not everybody is going to like you. The price of being yourself, she told Oprah's Master Class, is dealing with other people's angst about it.
5. SHE HAS HER OWN ACTION FIGURE
Oda Mae from Ghost? Celie from The Color Purple? Deloris from Sister Act? Nope. Whoopi's action figure comes from her role as the enigmatic Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
The first time she saw the original Star Trek, Whoopi was completely bowled over by the appearance of Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) on the bridge. Uhura was the first black female character she'd seen on TV who wasn't a maid, and she quickly became a fan.
She wasn't the only one inspired by the 1960s version of Star Trek: fellow cast member LeVar Burton has a similar story. So when his pal Whoopi called him up and said she wanted to be part of his new show, Star Trek: The Next Generation, he passed the message on to show creator Gene Roddenberry, who assumed she was joking. Even after she contacted Roddenberry directly, she had to convince him that she wasn’t putting him on. He finally took the role of Guinan, originally written as “the most beautiful girl in all creation,” and re-wrote it for Whoopi. He named the character for Texas Guinan, an early 20th century female saloon owner, but Goldberg described (and played) Guinan as a cross between Yoda and William F. Buckley.
6. SHE’S BEEN MARRIED THREE TIMES, AND SAYS SHE’S DONE
Whoopi says she doesn’t want to get married again, but she has a fountain of relationship knowledge, which she’s pulled together into her newest book, If Someone Says "You Complete Me," Run!: Whoopi's Big Book of Relationships. (The phrase comes from the movie Jerry Maguire.) The book has lots of very practical and sympathetic advice for people who might be stumbling into relationships for the wrong reasons. There are wise words within those pages, gleaned from her experience in three marriages and other serious relationships. She's made mistakes, she admits, and had learned from them. She even reveals that before one of her weddings—she’s not saying which one—her mom told her she could get in the car and drive away if that’s what she wanted, and that she should’ve done so.
Marriage is done for her, Whoopi says. At the end of a long day of being with people, she just wants to come home, chill out, hang out with her cat, and fart without having to worry about anybody else’s objections.
7. SHE'S IN A VERY ELITE GROUP OF PEOPLE WHO ARE “EGOT” WINNERS
The acronym, referring to the quadruple award win of the Emmy, the Grammy, the Oscar, and the Tony, was coined by Miami Vice's Philip Michael Thomas, who to date has never won any of them. To be fair, it’s a small group: there are only 12 people who have ever accomplished it. Whoopi’s in good company: some of her fellow EGOT winners include Mike Nichols, Mel Brooks, Marvin Hamlisch, Audrey Hepburn, and Rita Moreno.
In an industry that likes its audience to set their dials for consistent expectations, Whoopi refuses to be classified and yet remains wildly successful. From her days co-hosting Comic Relief with pals Billy Crystal and Robin Williams, to her heartbreaking performance in The Color Purple, to her run as center square in (and producer of) a Hollywood Squares reboot, and her voice work in The Lion King, she always brings something new to the table. When she couldn't find acting opportunities, she created them herself, writing her own one-woman show and bucking one formula after another to become one of Hollywood's biggest stars. She doesn’t compromise on who she is, no matter what road it takes her down.
In her own words: “I was never raised to think that it was about my face. It was always about my head, my brain. My mother was very clear with me about that from a young age—I was going to have to develop myself and use my intelligence to get whatever I wanted because the face wasn’t going to do it. So my brain is pretty good, and when I want to attract something or someone, when I’m ready, I just open it up. I open up my energy and put it out there.”
Speaking as a fan, I’m awfully glad she does.