Whoopi Goldberg is an icon of American film and television. From Broadway to Academy Award-winning films to talk shows to books, she has done it all while leaving her unique mark along the way! But, there are things you probably don't know about this iconic star. With her name recently in the headlines for some scandalous statements, let's deep-dive into the life of Whoopi Goldberg.
Iconic Whoopi Goldberg FactsPublished 2 months ago
Before she was the one and only Whoopi Goldberg, she was Caryn Elaine Johnson, born on November 13, 1955, in Manhattan, New York City, New York.
Her father, Robert James Johnson Jr., was a Baptist clergyman who abandoned their family of four when Whoopi was just 18 months old. Her mother, Emma Johnson, worked hard as a single mother, taking on multiple jobs. She worked as both a teacher and a nurse to support Whoopi and Whoopi’s older brother, Clyde.
Whoopi's name was actually taken directly from the whoopie cushion! "When you're performing on stage, you never really have time to go into the bathroom and close the door. So if you get a little gassy, you've got to let it go," the actress shared. "So people used to say to me, 'You're like a whoopee cushion.' And that's where the name came from",
As a last name, she originally chose the word cushion, spelled in a way that sounded French. Like “ku-SHON.” But when her mother wasn’t amused by the name, Whoopi went with Goldberg, stating that it was just as much a part of her heritage since she was Jewish as well as black.
As a child, Whoopi went to a Catholic school called St. Columba’s and she loved it when she was able to perform in the children’s plays at the Hudson Guild Theater. She had always wanted to be an actress. Her first gig was as a teapot in her school's play.
But as a teenager, she ended up dropping out of Washington Irving High School when she got involved with drugs. She claimed that she became immersed in an environment riddled with drugs to the point where she became a “junkie.” She said, “I took drugs because they were available to everyone at that time.”
When Whoopi chose the last name Goldberg, she did so to honor her Jewish heritage. However, after some research, she later found out that she had no Jewish or German ancestry in her family.
A DNA test revealed that Whoopi’s ancestors were from two tribes in what is now modern-day Guinea-Bissau. The head of the state of Guinea-Bissau invited her to visit, but it ended up taking a long time to reach the correct destination because it had been addressed wrong. It had been addressed to “Your Excellency, Hoppy Goldberg.”
Whoopi Goldberg has the prestigious honor of being able to be called an E.G.O.T winner. Meaning, she has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and a Tony. There have been only three other women to achieve this accomplishment: Helen Hayes, Rita Moreno, and Audrey Hepburn. She is also the first black woman to receive all four awards.
Whoopi went on to win another Daytime Emmy in 2009 for Outstanding Entertainment Talk Show Host for her work on The View. She has also won several other awards including three People’s Choice Awards and a BAFTA.
Whoopi has only one child, Alexandrea Martin, whom she had with her husband, Alvin Martin, in 1973 when she was just 18 years old. Alexandrea, in turn, also became a teen mother when she got pregnant at the age of 14.
The news was “startling” for Whoopi, but she was very supportive of her daughter after the shock wore off. She and her own mother helped out once her grandchild was born. Alexandrea went on to become an actor and producer and is now a mother of three! And, not only is Whoopi a grandmother, but she is also a great-grandmother!
Not only did the mother-daughter duo choose the same line of work, but they also shared the big screen together in the 1993 movie Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit! Although Whoopi isn’t the biggest fan of her daughter’s acting, Whoopi and her daughter remain very close to this day. Whoopi calls her daughter her best friend and Alexandrea calls her mother her “hero.”
Alexandra, "Alex", recalled growing up with financial struggles after she and her mom moved to California to jump-start Whoopi's career. "I know what it’s like with the food stamps, because my mom has her [Welfare] cards framed," Alex explained. "Seriously…I remember that…We didn’t have the money to go to movies. Alex also admitted she slept in the same bed as her mother in their one-bedroom apartment.
When Whoopi first moved to California in the 70s, she took all kinds of different jobs to make ends meet. Some of them were pretty standard, like waiting tables and being a bank teller. However, Whoopi also worked at some unusual jobs. Once, she worked as a bricklayer and was so good at it, she was invited to become a member of the bricklayers’ union!
She’s always been quite frank about her life and her choices. She once said, “I needed money, and I needed to work, so I figured I’d rather lay bricks than lay men (for it).” She also mentioned on The View that she had made good money working as a phone sex operator at one point.
In a 1991 book, The Choices We Made, Goldberg spoke candidly about her experiences. She opened up about having up to 7 abortions by the age of 25 and eventually ending up on welfare. She also wrote that she first got pregnant at age 14 and terminated it with a coat hanger. Sharing her view on abortions she said, "God doesn't make mistakes. God made us smart enough to know when it wasn't going to work for us. That's the beauty of giving us freedom of choice"
She further added: "My relationship with God is always choppy. I also know that God made me smart enough to know that if there are alternatives out there that can work for me, I will investigate them. I also know God said, 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' I will not make that decision for anybody."
While performing her one-woman show on Broadway, Whoopi caught the attention of a certain director who was making a major motion picture: Steven Spielberg. Spielberg was so impressed by her performance that he offered her the lead role in his next film, the adaption of Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple.
Whoopi was so desperate to be in the film, she once told Walker that she would “Eat the dirt… play the dirt… be the dirt.” Well, whatever Whoopi did prove to be fruitful because she was cast as Celie and The Color Purple went on to earn 11 Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Actress for Whoopi herself!
Whoopi’s performance as Celie in The Color Purple was met with rave reviews from critics. However, the film itself was not, despite the fact that it earned so many nominations at the Academy Awards.
Many people claimed that Steven Spielberg’s portrayal of the black males in the movie was cliche and that he, a white man, wasn’t the right choice to direct the film. However, Whoopi stood by Spielberg and defended him against critics and still does so to this day. She has said that he made a film that no one else was willing to make.
Whoopi’s first husband, with whom she had her daughter, Alexandrea, was Alvin Martin. They were married from 1973 to 1979. After they divorced, Whoopie remarried two separate times.
Her second marriage was to cinematographer David Claessen from 1986 to 1988. Her third marriage was to Lyle Trachtenberg, a union organizer, from 1994 to 1995. Years later, in typical Whoopi-fashion, she had a thing or two to say about her marriages. She said, “I tried marriage, and it wasn’t for me. You can’t be in a marriage because everyone’s expecting you to.”
Whoopi might be known for her numerous marriages (including two secret ones she revealed existed in September 2023 when she corrected Joy Behar on-air that she had actually had five total marriages), but she is just as well known for her numerous relationships and affairs. She has been linked to several celebrities throughout the years including Frank Langella, Tim Dalton, and Ted Danson.
However, none of those relationships or affairs ended up in marriage. Nowadays, Whoopi lives in a Manhattan loft in Soho with Oliver, her cat! She enjoys living on her own because she doesn’t have to answer to anyone and gets to live life on her own terms. She said that might make her selfish, but she doesn’t care.
One of Whoopi’s most controversial affairs was that with actor Ted Danson. The couple first met in 1988 on the Arsenio Hall talk show. Later, when they were both cast in the movie Made in America, is when their affair began. The affair was like a holiday to the tabloids and the news quickly reached everyone.
And since the affair was so public, Ted’s 16-year marriage ended in a $30 million divorce, one of the most expensive celebrity divorces at the time. When the tabloids got wind of Ted’s divorce, they thought that wedding bells for him and Whoopi were inevitable. However, Ted’s parents considered this affair to be a mid-life crisis and at their urging, he dumped Whoopi.
Despite their breakup, Whoopi and Ted were still friends and open about their relationship. Ted even appeared in a roast for Whoopi at the Friars Club where he controversially appeared in blackface and is said to have made tasteless jokes.
However, Whoopi came to his defense. She said that Ted had shown a lot of courage that night and that she even wrote some of the act for him! Whoopi and Ted only dated for a year and a half. But to the rest of the world, it seemed like a decade! After their relationship, Whoopi had two more marriages and several other affairs.
More recently, Whoopi has made the news for expressing some of her more unpopular opinions. For instance, she initially continuously supported Bill Cosby when allegations against him first started coming out.
She has defended Roman Polanski and disagreed with Viola Davis’s statement about how women of color lack opportunities. Whoopi also seemingly blamed Bella Thorne when she released nude photos of herself to “take back the power” from hackers who had blackmailed her with threats to do that very same thing.
Despite identifying as Jewish, in 2022 Whoopi ignited a firestorm with her comments on the Holocaust. She controversially claimed the Holocaust was "not about race," a perspective that immediately drew intense criticism. Critics highlighted that her statements seemed to overlook the Holocaust's deeply entrenched racial motivations by Nazi Germany against Jews.
The backlash was swift and widespread, leading to Goldberg's two-week suspension from the popular show. Following the uproar, Goldberg issued an apology, acknowledging her misstep and the Holocaust's true nature as a racially driven genocide.
Whoopi has always been unapologetically honest about any and everything, from her past to her current opinions to how she feels about the way she looks.
Once, she said, “I get pretty fed up with this obsession…about women actors having to be young and pretty.” She summed it up pretty well by saying that she knew she didn’t look like the young Halle Berry and she didn’t have to try. She also knew there would be a day when Halle Berry would age and start to look more like her.
In 1986, Whoopi joined forces with two other comedic legends, Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, to host the fundraising event, Comic Relief USA.
The event was created to raise money for people in need, those experiencing homelessness, and anyone living on welfare. The comedians performed various segments, some aimed to inform while others aimed to entertain, throughout the event. The topics of homelessness and poverty were always close to Whoopi’s heart as she had experienced similar situations in her own life.
Whoopi was working on a stage production of the musical Sister Act, her iconic movie, on August 29, 2010, when she was contacted with some upsetting news.
She was told that her mother, Emma, had died. She had suffered a stroke. Whoopi went back home immediately and did not return to the London stage for Sister Act until October 22, 2010. Later, Whoopi said that she was comforted by the fact that her mother had lived a fulfilling, rich life, even if she was heartbroken.
Unfortunately, the sad news didn’t end there for Whoopi. Just five years later, in 2015, Whoopi was notably absent from The View for about a week when her brother passed away.
She had left to go back home to be with her family for her brother’s funeral. He had died from a brain aneurysm. When she returned to The View a week later, Whoopi thanked all her viewers for the love and support while she grieved. She then called her brother “an amazing cat.”
Whoopi is quite the humanitarian! Besides her work with Comic Relief USA, she has spoken out on behalf of a variety of causes.
Just a few of the causes she has championed included AIDS, LGBTQ rights, environmental causes, and drug abuse awareness. She has been the recipient of several humanitarian awards as a result of all of her work for so many charitable causes. Whoopi also sits on several notable humanitarian boards and panels, as well as speaks at important humanitarian events, such as the 2017 Women’s March.
Whoopi once wrote her own one-woman show titled The Spook Show where she showcased 17 different personalities. All of the characters, ranging from a paraplegic who only dreamt of walking again to a pregnant 13-year-old girl, were based on people Whoopi knew.
The Spook Show premiered on the West Coast and was quickly taken to New York after it was widely praised. Mike Nichols, the director, produced it on Broadway in 1984 as Whoopi Goldbergwhere it ran for 156 performances. HBO later taped and broadcast the show, as well.
One of the most unconventional jobs Whoopi held before making it big as an actress was as a mortuary makeup artist. That’s right—she did dead people’s makeup. On her first day of work, she was called by her boss into the morgue. Standing there, one of the drawers slid open and a body sat up and waved, nearly giving her a heart attack.
But it was just her boss. He gave her the advice to just imagine the bodies as dolls that needed their hair and makeup done. After that, Whoopi said she was “fine” with the job.
On top of being an actor, producer, and talk show host, Whoopi is also a published author! She has written three adult books and seven children’s books.
Her adult books include a memoir, simply titled Book, a collection of comedy sketches, and a book about relationships called Whoopi’s Big Book of Relationships: If Someone Says “You Complete Me,” RUN!. Her children’s books include a series titled The Sugarplum Fairies, as well as a book on manners titled Whoopi’s Big Book of Manners.
When she wasn’t laying bricks or doing dead people’s hair and makeup, Whoopi was still working hard to make her dreams come true and become an actress.
She joined a bunch of theater groups, like Spontaneous Combustion and San Diego Repertory Theater, to network and grow her acting skills. But there was one in particular that really made Whoopi that actress that she is today: the Blake Street Hawkeyes. They helped her discover how talented she is in both comedic and dramatic acting.
When it comes to labels, Whoopi had said time and time again that she is not an actress. She is an actor. This distinction is very important to her.
Her reasoning behind this? She said, “An actress can only play a woman. I’m an actor - I can play anything.” Simply meaning, Whoopi is not confined to solely playing feminine roles. She can literally play any role she sets her mind to. This means there are no limits for Whoopi Goldberg!
After The Color Purple, Whoopi entered a period where the films she made did not do too well. That is until she landed her role in Ghost. That film quickly became a hit and even earned her an Academy Award!
Though, Whoopi was admittedly pretty nervous the night the Oscars rolled around that year. She said the other nominees in the Best Supporting Actress category had done “stellar” work and they had all made a pact that whoever won would “spring for lunch.” Later, she confessed that she ended up needing little help to calm her nerves. She smoked a little marijuana before the ceremony began!
Just when you think Whoopi has made her mark on Hollywood history, she just keeps adding to the list! In 1994, she became the first woman to host the Academy Awards alone!
Not to mention, this came right on the heels of Billy Crystal hosting the awards show for four years in a row to much acclaim. People had high expectations for Whoopi, and they might have been a little nervous. But she certainly delivered! Everyone said her jokes were on point and she kept the show moving all night long.
Whoopi has stated that she loved watching Nichelle Nichols play Uhura in Star Trek and that Nichols’ groundbreaking role made a big impression on her.
She said, “In those days we just didn’t see blacks… it was set in the future and it was practically the first time we saw that blacks had a future.” Whoopi’s love for the Star Trek world and dedication to bringing that inspiration to other minority children led her to contact producers of a new Star Trek series and they created a character, Guinan, just for her.
Never one to stick to one single avenue, Whoopi added entrepreneur to her list of achievements in 2016. She and her business partner, Maya Elisabeth, started a company named Whoopi and Maya.
Whoopi and Maya is a business that sells cannabis products that help reduce period pains! Whoopi was inspired to create this business after she suffered from horrible menstrual cramps her whole life. She found that only cannabis helped relieve the pain over the years and she wanted to help others by sharing helpful pain-relieving products!
Whoopi has always been open about her past drug use, even calling herself a “function drug addict” at one point. At the height of her drug use, there was an incident during a binge where she became convinced that there was someone under her bed.
She was so scared, she didn’t get off the bed for three days. She said, “I wet the bed. I pooped the bed.” It was around this time that Whoopi realized that she couldn’t keep living this way. She eventually got clean and married her drug counselor whom she had her daughter, Alexandrea, with!
Whoopi swore off flying for a very long time in 1978 after witnessing a traumatic, life-changing event. She saw two planes collide mid-air.
She was so scared of flying after that, that it took her years to fly again. And we can’t say that we blame her. After that, Whoopi traveled everywhere in a personalized tour bus instead of taking planes. To be honest, that sounds like a much better way to travel, anyway. It’s definitely a lot less hassle!
Whoopi has danced all around controversy throughout her career. Back in the early 2000s, she was promoting Slimfast diet shakes. However, during the Democratic National Convention around that time, she made some remarks about George W. Bush that sparked controversy and Slimfast ended up kicking her out of the campaign.
What she said that was so controversial was, “Somebody’s giving Bush a bad name. I want to put Bush back where it belongs, and I don’t mean the White House.” Even though she later stated that she had only innocently said those remarks, it led to her losing more work and a dry spell where she couldn’t get any work for three years.
In 2019, Whoopi shocked audiences when she walked out on The View with a head full of completely grey hair.
She quickly announced that, no, she wasn’t changing up her style. Her change in hair color was due to her new role of Mother Abigail in the new adaption of the Stephen King novel The Stand. The Stand was first made into a miniseries in 1994. The new miniseries aired on CBS All Access in 2020 and is now available on Paramount Plus.
Naturally, Whoopi has always strived to represent minorities who hadn’t always seen themselves represented on screen, just like Nichelle Nichols did for her when she was younger.
She is proud of her skin color and happy to see so many black women on the screen now. But, she doesn’t like being called “African-American.” Whoopi says that underneath it all, she is just simply an “American,” no matter what the color of her skin is. Labels just tend to get in the way.