Show: FRESH AIR
Date: OCTOBER 01, 1997
Sect: News; Domestic
TERRY GROSS, HOST: Whoopi Goldberg has a new book in which she shares her thoughts on everything from race and political correctness in comedy to flatulence. Whoopi Goldberg made her film debut in 1985 with "The Color Purple." She's since starred in comedies like "Sister Act" and "Ghost," as well as the drama "The Long Walk Home."
She's co-hosted "Comic Relief," MC'd the Academy Awards, and recently starred in the musical "A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum," becoming the first woman to replace a man in a Broadway show.
I asked her about a statement she makes in her new book. She says: "don't call me an African-American." Why not?
WHOOPI GOLDBERG, ACTRESS AND COMEDIAN, AUTHOR, "BOOK": 'Cause I'm not. I'm an American. I've been here a long time. My family goes back very, very, very, very far. I'm part of an immigrant group that was brought to this country against their will, and have been here ever since.
So to me, having worked the land and built the country along with the Chinese and all the other immigrant groups that have come here and have established themselves as Americans, I feel I fall into that category.
I'm not newly here, so if I had just come from Zimbabwe, you know, two generations ago, I might be a Zimbabwe-American, but I'm not. I'm an American American.
GROSS: Did going to Africa make you feel any more or less strong about not wanting to be called an African-American?
GOLDBERG: Well they just laugh at us. They think we're very funny because they think we're running away from taking care of business in our own culture in our own country; as trying to establish ourselves as part of another country, which we know not a whole lot about.
And I guess the point really is: Rosa Parks did not ride that bus so I would have to be able to call myself an African-American to find some identity. My identity here is as an American. America has to figure out what its identity is, and it's made up of immigrant groups. So it's kind of hard to know what the problem is.
GROSS: Now, you grew up in Manhattan in Chelsea, I believe.
GOLDBERG: Right, right.
GROSS: That must have been a pretty ethnically mixed neighborhood.
GOLDBERG: Very. We were all New Yorkers.
GOLDBERG: Before you were anything else, you were a New Yorker, you know.
GOLDBERG: You know, the rest of the world was whatever it was. But you grew up speaking a smattering of, you know, every language that you came in contact with if they had kids. Say it's Spanish and Greek and Italian and Islamic. You had Japanese. You had Chinese. You had every conceivable group of people lived in our neighborhood.
GROSS: You started performing when you were eight, with, what, the Helena Rubinstein Children's Theater?
GROSS: What was that?
GOLDBERG: It was -- Helena Rubinstein decided she was going to give money to various places under a foundational title. And I lived near a settlement house called the "Hudson Guild." And Helena Rubinstein opened a -- with her foundation, opened a children's theater there. And so that's where I went after school, and I was a teapot and sometimes I was an elf; occasionally a bunny. You know.
GROSS: Did you love it?
GOLDBERG: Yeah. Where else in the world could you pretend to be a bunny and not have people just lock you up?
GROSS: You dropped out of high school. Did you know where you were heading?
GOLDBERG: No. No, I don't -- I don't think I did. And I don't think any kid does. And that's probably a good thing. I always knew what I wanted to be, but I didn't necessarily know where I was heading.
GROSS: So you knew -- you knew you wanted to act.
GOLDBERG: Oh, yeah. I mean, you could be anything as an actor. You know, could be a queen. You could be a king. You could be a cat. You could be anything. You could be a fairy in a story. You could do anything in the theater. It's a wonderful outlet.
GROSS: You married briefly, then had a child and...
GOLDBERG: Wasn't that brief. I was married for a couple of years and had a baby.
GROSS: And then raised the child as a single mother.
GOLDBERG: My daughter, yes. I raised her as a single mother, then I was on welfare when I was in California. And then I went to beauty school, 'cause someone was kind enough to give me a scholarship to the D'Loo (ph) School of Cosmetology, where I learned to roll hair and spray it and tease it within an inch of its life; to cut it and make it look like Farrah Fawcett's hair or Dorothy Hammill (ph) if you wanted the wedge.
And began also working with a group of people at what became the San Diego Repertory Theater. And worked on some dead people in my time -- worked on dead folks.
GROSS: But you were a cosmetologist or a hairdresser in a funeral parlor.
GOLDBERG: Mm-hmm. Yes.
GROSS: Did you have to blow dry the corpses -- excuse me for asking.
GROSS: Were you spooked at all by that?
GOLDBERG: Only when it was children. You know, I kind of looked at what I was doing as a loving gesture, kind of making people look good for their families and making their families feel a little bit better about having lost someone, 'cause the last time they saw them, they looked really good.
And you know, people would come and say "thank you," you know. And you know that you eased their grief just a little bit. It was a very -- it's quite a job.
GROSS: How did you get it?
GOLDBERG: The hours were good, and somebody referred me 'cause I was doing a lot of theater. And you know, you have to sort of be loose for rehearsals and performances, so you could make your hours.
GROSS: When were you able to give up welfare and support yourself?
GOLDBERG: Eighty-two, I think -- '83.
GROSS: What was the turning point?
GOLDBERG: My show. Once I started doing my show, I didn't need to -- I could make as much doing my show as I could on welfare.
GROSS: Did your show -- your first one-person show -- come out of your improvisational work?
GOLDBERG: Some of it, yeah. Some of it did.
GROSS: Tell me about that early improv -- what the approach to improv was like that you were developing.
GOLDBERG: Well, you know, you make it sound like I was doing something deep.
GROSS: Right, right, right, right.
GOLDBERG: You know, it wasn't that deep at all. We would get together and do these shows at these clubs, and people would yell out stuff and you'd have to do a scene. You know, you'd have to improvise something having to do with the thing that they yelled out.
And after four or five beers, you know, people would yell out really dumb stuff, and it just made you -- it made your imagination go 'cause if you weren't funny, you didn't get paid. So, you had to really be entertaining.
So that's how that all came about. But I love improv because it just -- it's a sharper way to look at doing the work.
GROSS: My guest is Whoopi Goldberg. She has a new book. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
My guest is Whoopi Goldberg. The turning point in her career was her one-person show in which she played several characters, including a junkie who visits the Anne Frank Museum, a surfer girl who gets an abortion, and a black girl who dreams of having blonde hair like movie stars. Through that show, she met Steven Spielberg.
Now I understand that for Steven Spielberg, you did a little personal performance of "What If ET Landed In Oakland?"
GOLDBERG: Yeah. I had been doing a piece for years called "Blee-Tee," which was about the black ET, because ET never seemed to land in rough neighborhoods. And everybody said "don't do this piece for him. He's not going to like it."
But as it turns out, he loved it 'cause I did it anyway. So I thought if he's not going to like that, he's not going to like the rest of what may come down the pike with me. But he was -- he turned out to be much more flexible than people realized.
GROSS: So Spielberg went on to cast you in the leading role in The Color Purple, and I'm wondering what it was like for you to make your movie debut in a leading role in a major motion picture? It's a lot to carry that first time out.
GOLDBERG: Yeah, it was, but Steven was really like a nurturing parent with me. He gave birth to my performance and never let me feel like I was, you know, not held -- you know, not supported. There was never a question of that.
GROSS: It was a very controversial film because a lot of people, particularly men, thought that it was a very anti-male, particularly anti-black male movie. That was the way a lot of men interpreted it. And I'm -- so I'm wondering what it was like for you to have to in some circles assume a kind of defensive position for your first movie, which won you rave reviews and, you know, was really quite a debut.
GOLDBERG: Well it -- I think it hurt quite deeply because I didn't understand what the controversy was about. Alice wasn't saying that this was all black men were. She was writing about a specific time and a specific place that she had in her head.
And you know, censorship is censorship no matter how you try to frame it. And I thought that that's what they were trying to do was censor her freedom of expression. And I thought a lot of people were needlessly annoyed with Steven for making the movie of this very wonderful book that no one else wanted to make. So I just thought it was dumb.
GROSS: You mean, people who were saying: "why did a white man make this movie?"
GOLDBERG: Yeah, you know. I didn't understand the difference. He understood the material. He made it.
GROSS: I want to get back to something you say in your book. You write about your daughter, who when she was 14 years old got pregnant, and you and she had to talk about whether she was going to keep the baby or have an abortion. And you, of course, have been a strong advocate of choice...
GROSS: ... for women. Your daughter decided...
GOLDBERG: Made a choice.
GROSS: ... made a choice and decided to...
GROSS: ... keep the child.
GROSS: I'm wondering how much you wanted to be in on this decision? In other words, how much you wanted to influence her in that decision. You had been a single mother. Your mother had raised you for many years as a single mother, too. You knew how hard it is, and also how rewarding it could be. So how much -- how much did you want to influence her in making the decision?
GOLDBERG: Not at all, because it would not have been her choice then. And I figure when they're old enough to get pregnant, they're old enough to tell you what they want. Getting pregnant is a big old signpost. And when a young girl gets pregnant, it's to tell you something. And what she was saying was she wanted someone who she could be in charge of. And of course, you know as a parent that that's not all it is.
But it was her choice and we said OK we're going to stand behind you and we'll help you learn to parent. And that's what we did.
GROSS: Were you concerned about how much this was going to have an impact on your own life as a grandmother? In other words, how much time you'd end up having to spend?
GOLDBERG: Oh, no. No, no. It didn't -- it didn't -- it wasn't a consideration. It was simply: "OK, we have something we have to deal with now." And so that's what we did. And we spent time together and my mom was involved and my brother was involved and I was involved and my daughter was involved. And now there's this really kind of great eight-year-old running around, and we were lucky. We're one of the lucky families 'cause not every kid has a family who is willing to say: "OK, let's all deal with this together."
And so it all worked out very well for us, I'm happy to say.
GROSS: Whoopi Goldberg is my guest.
There are times in your new book that you use your birth name, which is Karen.
GROSS: Your full name, I guess, was Karen Johnson.
GROSS: Did it take you a long time to publicly reveal your real name?
GOLDBERG: I didn't do it. People magazine did it for me, along with my address.
GROSS: No, really?
GROSS: Oh, boy.
GROSS: Better your name than your address, huh?
GOLDBERG: Well, I thought neither one, you know, was OK, because I thought I would like to have one piece of territory that was mine so I could get my mail without problems; so I could apply for loans without having to be under the scrutiny of the general public.
Unfortunately, People magazine changed all of that, and once it was out it was out.
GROSS: Why did you take a stage name in the first place? Did you think when you were starting out that you'd be so famous that having anonymity would be a problem at some point?
GOLDBERG: No, it was just a funny name because I'm very flatulent. And it stuck, and I became Whoopi, then I was Whoopi Cushion, then I was Whoopi Cushone (ph), and it just sort of ran amuck from there. And you know, that's what it was.
It never, you know, the idea of becoming famous was never really like something I thought a great deal about. I always knew I would be an actor. I figured I'd be a working actor. Didn't occur to me I might be making movies, but I hoped that I would be. But no, the need for anonymity isn't something that I came upon until quite recently.
GROSS: And what about Goldberg?
GOLDBERG: What about it?
GROSS: How'd you use that name?
GOLDBERG: How did I get that name?
GOLDBERG: Now, how do you think I got it?
GROSS: Well, I wasn't sure whether you were ever married to someone named Goldberg or if you just chose it as a kind of odd juxtaposition.
GOLDBERG: What would you do if I told you it's one of my family names?
GROSS: Well, that's what I said. I wasn't sure whether it...
GOLDBERG: Not a married -- I didn't marry (unintelligible).
GROSS: Oh, oh, oh.
GOLDBERG: Yeah, see.
GROSS: Was your father a Goldberg?
GOLDBERG: My mother has Goldbergs in her family.
GROSS: Oh, oh, oh.
GROSS: So you used part of the family name for that. Now did you like the incongruity of "Whoopi" and "Goldberg" together?
GOLDBERG: Well, I don't think I -- you know, you're making me so deep. I was never that deep. I was always very surface. It sounded funny and I loved it. And my mom said it sounded funny to her. And she said she didn't think Whoopi Cushion was the way to go.
So you know, it wasn't this conscientious decision to build this thing that has become Whoopi Goldberg. It just wasn't that deep, you know. It -- you know how you were talking about earlier, stumbling into things?
GOLDBERG: That's been basically most of my career. I've been stumbling into it and having a good time at it.
GROSS: Well, a pleasure to talk with you. I wish you good luck with the new book and thank you very much for talking with us.
GOLDBERG: Thank you. All right.
GROSS: Whoopi Goldberg has a new book called Book.
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Whoopi Goldberg
High: Actress and comedian Whoopi Goldberg. She's just written "Book," a collection of life observations, insights, and Whoopi-isms in 25 vignettes. Goldberg received a Grammy for 1985's Best Comedy Album, as well as an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1990.
Spec: Media; Television; Movie Industry; Books; Authors; Whoopi Goldberg
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