The lights are lit, the camera is loaded, the photographer is ready, but—whoops!—Whoopi Goldberg has stepped out of the picture. She is searching her bedroom for her missing retainer. That’s right, her retainer—one of those removable dental braces with a pink plastic piece that fits the roof of the mouth and a strand of wire that lassoes the teeth and herds them into place. At 35, the star of Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple sports braces that make her look a lot like her 12-year-old daughter, Alexandrea. “When I got my wisdom teeth out,” Whoopi explains, “my teeth started moving.” Most actresses wouldn’t go anywhere near a camera while wearing braces, but Whoopi opts for realism over glamour. So, while the photographer and his assistant wait, she goes looking for her misplaced retainer.
First she searches the nearest tabletop but finds only a pile of books—novels by Solzhenitsyn and Anaïs Nin, a biography of writer Yukio Mishima and a history of the Polish Solidarity movement—alongside a mountain of videocassettes and an alarm clock bearing, on its face, a photo of New York’s subway-riding Guardian Angels. She peeks atop the fireplace mantel—no braces there, just a huge crock of Turkish taffy, her favorite candy—and a box of foot-long fireplace matches. She pulls out a match, strikes it theatrically, lights one of the Marlboros she chain-smokes and heads downstairs. In the living room she checks out the coffee table but finds only another stack of books and a Mickey Mouse telephone. Passing Bud and Lou—kittens she adopted from the ASPCA and named after Abbott and Costello—she scans the top of a bizarre electric sculpture that emits a stream of hot air that causes a painted Ping-Pong ball to dance above it. Still no sign of the retainer.
She walks into the the next room and inspects another mantel, finding nothing but the framed original of the Hirschfeld cartoon that shows her dressed as the six characters who populated her one-woman show on Broadway last winter. That and a framed honorary degree from the University of Charleston in West Virginia, which reads, “To experience Whoopi Goldberg is to expand your mind, awaken your conscience and view the world through new eyes….”
Whoopi turns around, searches the room with squinty, myopic eyes and finally spots her braces on a bookshelf. She pops the case open, removes the retainer and points out the place on its pink plastic top where somebody in the dentist’s office—somebody who knows her all too well—has written, “Put it back in, Whoopi!” She follows that advice, then grins to reveal a metallic smile.
At that moment her press agent returns from an errand and looks quizzically at Whoopi. “What’s that?”
The press agent gasps. “Not for the camera!?!”
“Yeah,” says Whoopi.
“Noooo!” says the press agent.
“Why not?” says Whoopi. “People should see it. It’s real.”
A few minutes later Whoopi sits before the camera while the photographer focuses. Then, just as he snaps the shutter, she sticks her tongue out. And there, balanced precariously on its tip, is that shocking pink retainer.
“Stop!” screams the press agent. Now she’s really angry. “You’re so bad. You’re gonna make me gray before my time.”
Whoopi just grins.
Whoopi Goldberg is having a good time these days. In just two years she has gone from a welfare mother with a social worker to a movie star with a press agent. In 1985 alone, she starred on Broadway, appeared in her own HBO special and played the lead in The Color Purple, Steven Spielberg’s eagerly awaited adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer prizewinning novel. Now, she is basking in that first flush of stardom when fame is pure fun. She still gets a kick out of being recognized on the street, still marvels that she is treated as a peer by talented young actors like William Hurt and Robin Williams and Timothy Hutton. “These are people I’d like to work with because I know they’re gonna challenge me, and I can’t wait. I can’t wait! I hope I’m not sounding like a goody two-shoes, but I used to dream about acting. I wanted this, and they handed it to me on a silver platter.”
Actually the silver platter was a long time coming. Whoopi grew up in a Manhattan housing project, daughter of a Head Start teacher who struggled to raise two kids alone. For as long as she can recall, Whoopi was intoxicated by the old movies she saw on TV. “I wanted to come down staircases like Carole Lombard; I wanted to do scenes with John Garfield.” From grade school, she was acting in local theater groups. Then, amid the tumult of the late ’60s, she dropped out of high school and into the Village hippie scene. “Everything was starting to happen then,” she recalls. “The Fillmore was happening, the Cafe Wha? was happening, LSD was happening—and I happened, too.”
After a brief marriage dissolved, Whoopi drifted out to San Diego with Alexandrea in 1975 and fell into the local theater scene. Soon she shed her given name—which she declines to reveal—and adopted her ironic, ear-catching current moniker, surely the strangest showbiz pseudonym since Engelbert Humperdinck. “The name came out of the blue,” she says. “It was a joke. It’s like Rip Torn, you know?”
While living on welfare or scraping by with some very odd jobs—including a stint as a beautician in a morgue—she took whatever acting work she could find. She played in Mother Courage and A Christmas Carol with the San Diego Repertory, did antinuke sketches with a traveling consumerist troupe and teamed up with actor Don Victor to do improvisational skits in comedy clubs and art museums. Once, in the early ’80s, the duo was booked for a gig in San Francisco, but Victor couldn’t make it. Apprehensively, Whoopi went on alone, improvising monologues by three characters. “The audience went bananas,” she says. “It freaked me out. I had never contemplated being a solo performer.”
Soon she moved to the Bay Area to work with an avant-garde theater group called the Blake Street Hawk-eyes and to live with playwright-actor David Schein—”my semi-boyfriend,” she calls him—who encouraged her to expand her solo act. She did, gradually creating some of the characters she later took to Broadway—an airhead surfer who performs an abortion on herself, a junkie burglar with a Ph.D. in literature, a crippled woman transformed by love, and a little black girl—based on Alexandrea—who longs for blue eyes, blond hair and a guest appearance on The Love Boat. The characters were funny, pointed and poignant, and as Whoopi kept playing them—she’d do her act for anyone who would watch—they evolved and deepened. By the time she returned to San Diego in the fall of 1983 to perform at the Old Globe theater, her old friends were amazed at how good she’d become. “She had honed her acting skills with the Hawkeyes, and she could twist the audience around her little finger,” says Lynn Schuette, founder of a performance space called the Sushi Gallery. “You could hear a pin drop. At that point we thought, ‘She’s going to make it.’ ”
And then, suddenly, she did. A few months later she played New York, where a Times critic wrote a rave review, comparing her with Richard Pry-or and Lily Tomlin and pronouncing her a “satirist with a cutting edge and an actress with a wry attitude toward life.” Director Mike Nichols came to see the show and afterward appeared backstage to tell her that she had moved him to tears. Nine months later he was directing her on Broadway.
Nor was Nichols the only fairy godfather to wave a magic wand in her direction. In March of 1984 Spielberg called. “I’d like you to come and perform for me and a couple of friends,” he said. Whoopi arrived at Spielberg’s private screening room to find that the friends included Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones and the singers Ashford and Simpson. “I did the show just like I always do,” she says, “and then I did a piece I’d been asked not to do by other people.” That bit was an E.T. parody, in which the extraterrestrial lands in Oakland and ends up on dope and in jail. “He loved it,” she remembers. “And he said, ‘I think I might be directing The Color Purple, and it’s yours if you want it.’ ” She was ecstatic. She’d read the novel, loved it and written to author Alice Walker begging to be considered for a role. “My teeth caught cold,” she says, ” ’cause all I could do was grin.”
In the movie—filmed last summer in North Carolina—she plays Celie, a black woman abused by her husband and saved by the love of a charismatic female blues singer. “Celie was in me, waiting to jump out,” she says. The jumping process was facilitated by Spielberg. “The cat just gave me all kinds of faith,” she says. “Plus, we had a lingo because he’s a movie fanatic like me. He would say something like, ‘Okay, Whoopi, do Boo Radley right after the door opens in To Kill a Mockingbird.’ Or he’d say, ‘You know the scene where Indiana Jones finally finds the girl at the end? That kind of relief he has? That’s what I want.’ He’d give me directions like that, and I could do them because I knew what he wanted.”
Whoopi is working on her second movie now—a comedy called Jumpin’ Jack Flash—but she hasn’t gone totally Hollywood. She still lives in a funky neighborhood near San Francisco, still hangs out with the Hawkeyes. Last summer she subsidized her friends’ performance of Tokens, an original musical extravaganza with a cast of 60 actors, singers and dancers. She shrugs when the subject comes up. “I’ve been taken care of by people, so I’m continuing the tradition,” she says. “That’s why I live here. This is where I know people will say, ‘Hey, don’t get Hollywood with me: I remember when I had to drive you to the welfare office.’ I depend on my friends for that, to keep my ego in check, ’cause it’s real easy to go the other way.”
Yes, it is easy to be a prima donna when a reporter and a photographer are camped in your living room, and a press agent has flown in from New York to help polish your image. But Whoopi recognizes the absurdities of fame, and she can’t resist doing a few improvisations, a few comic riffs, a few Goldberg variations on the theme of public relations. “Everybody,” she says, “is trying to change my image. They say, ‘You’re too flat. Sex it up.’ ”
With that, she cranks up a little joke-store windup toy and sets it on the floor. But wait a minute: This is no kiddie toy. It’s a little plastic penis mounted on tiny feet, and it starts hopping happily across the room. “This is the kind of thing I’m into,” says Whoopi, with a mischievous grin. If the press agent were still on the premises, she’d be frothing at the mouth.