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Whoopi Goldberg

  b. 1955 | American actress

At The Bottom

She was divorced and broke, with minimal job prospects and an infant to care for.

Caryn Elaine Johnson stared at her tiny baby and wondered how she would ever be able to support her.  She wondered how her own mother had done it — raising her and her brother alone after their father left the family when the children were young, somehow keeping everyone together in a housing project in New York City.  Caryn and her baby’s father had just separated after a difficult year of marriage.  A drug counselor, he’d helped Johnson kick the habit she’d picked up since dropping out of high school two years earlier, but their marriage turned out to be a disaster.  It collapsed for good a few months after their daughter was born.  Now, at the age of 19, she was divorced and broke, with minimal job prospects and an infant to care for.  She’d never really had a job, and without a high school diploma there were few options, and none of them good.

At The Top

I am the epitome of what the American Dream basically says...

Only the second African American woman to win an Academy Award, Whoopi Goldberg accepted her Oscar statue and reflected on her childhood.  “As a little kid, I lived in the projects,” she told the audience, “and you’re the people I watched. You’re the people who made me want to be an actor. I’m so proud to be here.” Goldberg’s award — for Best Supporting Actress in the 1990 film Ghost — vaulted her into the top tier of Hollywood performers, and she was soon able to command some of the highest earnings in the business.  Before her award, she had received high marks (and an Oscar nomination) for her leading role in the 1986 film The Color Purple, but she had demonstrated her wide-ranging talent in comic and action roles as well.  Following her success with Ghost, Goldberg continued to show her versatility with memorable roles in films like Sister Act, Ghosts of Mississippi, and Boys on the Side.  She became the first black woman to host the Academy Awards in 1994 and has since hosted the ceremonies three other times. In addition to her outstanding work in film, Goldberg has also found success in television, most recently as one of the hosts on the popular daytime talk show The View, which brings in nearly four million viewers a day.  “I am the epitome of what the American Dream basically says,” Goldberg explained recently.  “It says you could come from anywhere and be anything you want in this country.  That’s exactly what I’ve done.”

The Comeback

Having set out on her own, though, Goldberg wanted to be self-reliant..

The only thing Caryn Johnson knew how to do was perform.  As a child, she had grown up watching Abbott and Costello films, the Three Stooges, and old Hollywood films; like many American kids, she dreamed of a day when she might appear on screen.  Although she had performed in children’s theater in New York and even managed to appear in the choruses of a few Broadway productions, she did not possess any formal training and had never been seen as a budding star.  Still, with nothing left to lose, she packed up her daughter shortly after her marriage ended and moved across the country to southern California.  Living in San Diego, she took the stage name “Whoopi Goldberg” and began searching for acting jobs.  While working as a bricklayer, she also took cosmetology courses and soon found work doing makeup at a mortuary.  None of her jobs lasted long, however, and Goldberg spent periods of time over five years on public assistance while she cared for her daughter and pursued her dream of acting.  Having set out on her own, though, Goldberg wanted to be self-reliant and was delighted when she was able to make an actual living from her work.  “The greatest think I ever was able to do,” she said once, “was give a welfare check back.  I brought it back to the welfare department and said, ÔHere, I don’t need this anymore.” Eventually, she helped found the San Diego Repertory Theater and began building a reputation for her solo performances.  With a talent for comedy as well as drama, and drawing on her own background, Goldberg created an array of characters that served as the basis for her first touring show in 1983.  .  Her work received attention and encouragement from the film and stage director Mike Nichols, who brought her show to New York.  There, Goldberg caught the eye of Steven Spielberg, who cast her two years later in the leading role for the film The Color Purple.  Her performance earned her an Oscar Nomination and quickly established her as a rising star.

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