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Whoopi Golberg stirs the pot

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It’s Oct. 14. Two hours ago, Whoopi Goldberg stormed off the set of The View to protest some Bill O’Reilly-ish statements that Bill O’Reilly was making about Muslims. Now she’s sitting calmly at the kitchen table of her stately ’20s-era mansion in West Orange, N.J., lunching on a steak sandwich and Lay’s potato chips. ”I just don’t like how condescending he can be,” she says. The remark that forced her to her feet was this one: ”Muslims killed us on 9/11.” Says Goldberg, ”He painted an entire people and I had had it. I was done.” She and cohost Joy Behar left the stage in an impromptu protest, and received an on-air scolding from the show’s exec producer Barbara Walters. Goldberg, however, felt she had no choice given the circumstances: ”I knew if I stayed there I was gonna drop the F-bomb or just say something really wrong.”

Of course, saying something outrageous comes naturally to Goldberg, who has become a lightning rod for media attention this year on The View thanks to moments like the O’Reilly encounter and her defense of pal Mel Gibson (more on that later). Now the 54-year-old star is extending her reach beyond her morning-show platform, with new projects in film, books, and theater. On Nov. 5, she returns to the big screen opposite Janet Jackson and Thandie Newton in writer-director Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls, an ensemble drama about a group of Harlem women based on Ntozake Shange’s acclaimed 1976 Broadway play. Goldberg plays a religious fanatic named Alice who, like her character Celie in her 1985 breakout movie, The Color Purple, struggles with men calling her ”ugly.” Says the actress, ”As I was doing it, I said to myself, ‘Boy, I know that speech. I think I’ve said that before.”’ She also just released two new books, Terrible Terel, the fifth in her children’s series Sugarplum Ballerina, and Is It Just Me?, a collection of comedic essays on her pet peeves. And the star is exec-producing a Broadway adaptation of her 1992 hit Sister Act next spring, having recently appeared as Mother Superior in the musical’s London version.

Goldberg’s professional resurgence, though, has been overshadowed by the death of her mother, Emma Johnson, who raised her in New York’s then-gritty Chelsea neighborhood and died of a stroke in August. ”I had an experience last weekend,” admits Goldberg. ”I was in Atlantic City [doing stand-up]. I hadn’t done any performances since she passed, and it hit me on stage. I wasn’t as good as I could have been. I wasn’t as present as I should have been. I’m trying to work through all of that. It’s hard.” But the star is able to look upon the past 12 months with perspective. ”Every year is a helluva year,” she says. ”It was a big year because my mom passed. That’s what made it kind of a huge year. But my life is kinda like a roller coaster: It goes up and down and sideways. It’s an evolution. It’s a consistent, constant evolution.”

After her Oscar-nominated debut in The Color Purple, Goldberg cemented her fame with appearances in blockbusters like Sister Act and 1990’s Ghost (for which she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress). She even managed to earn the vaunted EGOT: an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony. Those statuettes, by the way, are tucked away at the very top of a bookshelf on the third floor of her suburban retreat, where she moved last year after selling her Manhattan loft. Why no prominent display case for her prizes? ”I know they’re there,” she says quietly.

Goldberg’s career has had its misfires as well, only natural given that she’s been an entertainer for more than 25 years. Following some high-profile disappointments, including the short-lived 2003 NBC sitcom Whoopi, her star had cooled considerably. By 2007, when Rosie O’Donnell left The View after a single tumultuous season as moderator, Goldberg recognized an opportunity. ”I needed a job, pure and simple,” she says. ”I wasn’t making movies and I wasn’t makin’ any money. I was finishing up a radio show and I needed a gig.” Says View cohost and exec producer Barbara Walters, ”Whoopi had been on The View many times as a panel member and she was very good. Truthfully, we took a chance making her a moderator. A lot of people felt she might not necessarily be the right choice, but we had faith and we were right.” Adds her buddy Robin Williams, ”She’s just mellowed out with age. She can kinda look at both sides, and she does bring that kind of [impersonates Goldberg’s voice] ‘Oh, please.”’

Ironically, one of Goldberg’d most memorable moments on The View this year came when her signature skepticism seemed to have deserted her. In July, she leapt to the defense of Mel Gibson — whom she met at a party at her manager’s house in 1985 — after reports of leaked rants by the actor-director against his former girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva. As Goldberg recalls, ”Joy asked me a question, ‘Do you think he’s a racist?’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t.’ My experience with him does not [suggest he’s] a racist. He’s a bonehead! I’m not gonna throw anyone under the bus with whom I have personal knowledge. I don’t care what it means. But I can’t sit and let you say that he’s a racist when in my experience with him, which is kind of a long period of time, I can’t say I’ve ever seen that.”

Mere weeks after the Gibson flap, Goldberg had yet another heated moment when View guest (and alleged White House party crasher) Michaele Salahi accused Goldberg of hitting her in a dressing room after the show, according to the star. The View cohost says Salahi’s husband, Tareq, began taking her photo and stepped up to her aggressively. ”The room went blank,” says Goldberg. ”I turned into street child and [verbally] motherf—ed him up and down. They left that particular room, went into a dressing room, locked the door, and called every media outlet they could find and accused me of hitting her.” She adds, ”I don’t get people like that. If you’re gonna lie, don’t lie about something somebody can prove never happened.” (In a statement from their attorney, the Salahis say Goldberg grabbed Michaele’s arm and add that they never claimed Goldberg had hit Michaele.)

Goldberg says she enjoys her job on The View and her morning cohosts — even dyed-in-the-American-made-wool Republican Elisabeth Hasselbeck. ”She is the one that I like talking politics with,” says the long-standing liberal about the View’s youngest cohost, ”because she can teach me and I can teach her and we can both grow just in tiny little increments and sometimes really big. To me, she represents what Americans really are supposed to be. She’s willing to evolve and grow.”

The O’Reilly squabble notwithstanding, The View has helped Goldberg discover a newfound ability to, as she puts it, ”play well with others.” And that development may help her segue into her next career. ”I’d like to be an ambassador,” she says. ”I’d probably wanna do the Czech Republic or Hungary. There’s just so much going on culturally. I want to be able to have my doors open and say, ‘Come in and let me show you what American culture is like.”’ And if you’re lucky, she might just show you her EGOT.


Whoopi weighs in on O’Reilly, Obama, The Situation, and more

PRES. BARACK OBAMA
”I wouldn’t want his job! It’s tough. He’s getting his ass kicked. He’s only been in for two years. We had years of other kinds of crap.”

LINDSAY LOHAN
”I think she will find her way. I like her. I like her work. She’s a really good actress. Sometimes it takes a little longer.”

MIKE ”THE SITUATION”
Sorrentino ”He’s a sweet kid. He wants longevity. He’s doing all the right stuff. He’s not just pecs, apparently.”

PATRICK SWAYZE
”Patrick and I were as silly as we could be [filming Ghost]. He loved comedy, so he wanted to be the funny one. [Laughs] I didn’t say a word.”

BRISTOL PALIN
”I adore Bristol because she addressed her [pregnancy] and said, ‘This is how I think I can help.’ I have nothing but respect for this little girl.”

ROSIE O’DONNELL
”I let her know [I was offered The View] and I was gonna take it. She didn’t put it down. She didn’t say anything bad. She just said, ‘Do your thing, Whoop.”’

BILL O’REILLY
”Let me put it this way: He can be a very nice man. Usually he does not get to me, but today [his Oct. 14 appearance on The View] was not a good day.”

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