Though best known as an outspoken comedienne, Whoopi Goldberg is also a talented dramatic actress. By virtue of her distinctive appearance and a persona that is both no-nonsense and empathic, Goldberg has emerged as one of the most recognizable celebrities of the '80s and '90s.
Born Caryn Johnson on November 13, 1955 in New York City, Goldberg began her long career when she was eight years old, performing with New York's Helena Rubenstein Children's Theater. She then went on to study with the Hudson Guild children's arts program and attended the prestigious High School for the Performing Arts. After graduating, Goldberg occasionally won small parts in Broadway productions such as Hair, Pippin and Jesus Christ Superstar, but also supported herself doing odd jobs like bricklaying and serving as a funeral parlor make-up artist. In 1975, Goldberg moved West and helped found the San Diego Repertory Theater, where she appeared in a number of plays, including Brecht's Mother Courage and Marsha Norman's Getting Out.
After several stints with the Spontaneous Combustion improvisational troupe and work in avant-garde productions at Berkeley's Blake Street Hawkeyes theater, Goldberg devised The Spook Show, a one woman satirical production in which she played several characters. The show, which originated in San Francisco, eventually toured the U.S. and Europe, earning acclaim and the attention of director Mike Nichols. Nichols went on to direct a 1984 Broadway version of the show, which earned Goldberg Drama Desk and Theatre World awards, as well as a Grammy for the album recording.
Goldberg made an auspicious Hollywood debut with her portrayal of Celie, the lead character in Steven Spielberg's controversial 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker's novel. Goldberg's moving performance was rewarded with an Oscar nomination and Best Actress Golden Globe, as well as instant stardom for the actress. Although Goldberg's film career looked promising, the actress unfortunately spent much of the decade's remainder appearing in terrible action comedies such as Fatal Beauty and Burglar (both 1987) that did not do her comic gifts justice. Her one partial success during this period was her first action comedy, Jumpin' Jack Flash (1986), which did relatively well at the box office and gave her a certain cult status.
In 1988, Goldberg took a break from comedy with a memorable turn as a worldly Jamaican nanny in the otherwise unremarkable Clara's Heart. She also made numerous appearances in television specials, most notably as a co-host for the annual Comic Relief benefit for the homeless. Her attempt at sitcoms failed with the short-lived series Bagdad Cafe, but she did find greater television success with a small but crucial recurring role as the sagacious intergalactic bartender Guinan on the syndicated Star Trek: The Next Generation. Around the same time, Goldberg's film career underwent a sharp turn-around. She won acclaim playing a selfless housekeeper opposite Sissy Spacek in the provocative Civil Rights drama The Long Walk Home (1989), and then played an eccentric con artist possessing unexpected psychic powers in the 1990 smash hit Ghost. Goldberg's funny yet moving performance earned her her first Oscar and the widespread opinion that this marked her comeback performance. After a couple of missteps that had a few people rethinking this verdict, Goldberg scored again with the 1992 hit comedy Sister Act. Nominated for Golden Globes and two NAACP awards, the film spawned mass ticket sales and an unsuccessful 1993 sequel, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.
Meanwhile, Goldberg also continued her television work with a 1992 late night talk show. A laid back affair that ran for 200 episodes, it was praised by critics but failed to secure high ratings and went on permanent hiatus after only six months. However, Goldberg continued to appear on TV with her recurring role as a Comic Relief co-host and as an MC for the Academy Awards ceremony, a role she reprised multiple times. At the same time, Goldberg continued to work in film, doing both comedy and drama and experiencing the obligatory highs and lows. Some of her more memorable roles included that of a single mother who discovers that Ted Danson, not a black genius, fathered her daughter in Made in America (1993), a lesbian lounge singer in Boys on the Side (1995), a white-middle-aged corporate executive in The Associate (1996), Angela Bassett's best friend in the 1998 hit How Stella Got Her Groove Back, and a private detective in the drama The Deep End of the Ocean (1999). In addition, Goldberg also appeared in two notable documentaries, The Celluloid Closet (1995), and Get Bruce! a piece about comedy writer Bruce Vilanch that also featured fellow comedians such as Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Nathan Lane and Bette Midler.
As the new decade dawned, Goldberg could be seen in supporting roles in projects like Rocky and Bullwinkle and the ensemble comedy Rat Race. Then, in 2003, she tried her hand at a starring sitcom role for the first time with Whoopi. The show found Goldberg playing an irreverent hotel owner and was met with mixed reviews before being cancelled mid-season.
In 2004, Goldberg focused her career on voice work with appearances in Doogal, The Lion King 1 1/2, and P3K: Pinocchio3000. She continued this trend in the following years with such films as Racing Stripes and Everyone's Hero. Then, in 2007, Goldberg returned to the small-screen, replacing Rosie O'Donnell on the ABC panel show The View. Goldberg lent her voice to Pixar’s Toy Story 3 in 2010, and as the narrator for 2011’s documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey.