Born Caryn Elaine Johnson, she took on the stage name Whoopi after a joke shop toy, a whoopee cushion. Her single mother, who was supportive of her daughter’s dreams of stardom, encouraged the stage surname Goldberg instead of the plain and ordinary Johnson. Goldberg went on to take acting classes, then improvisation classes, which led her to stand-up comedy routines for which Mike Nichols, a film director, took notice and offered to help Goldberg break into Broadway on her comedy routine (then named The Spook Show).
Goldberg’s star-making role was for a serious drama. She played Celie Harris, the main character in the 1985 film adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel The Colour Purple, which traces the life of a black girl in America as she is abused by her father, forced into marriage, and separated from her beloved sister.
With a renowned director as Steven Spielberg on the project, and Oprah Winfrey playing the free-spirited housewife Sofia, the relatively unknown Goldberg held her own in terms of performance and became the Walker’s own choice for the starring role.
Celie Harris’ life took a turn for the better upon making the acquaintance of Shug Avery, a beautiful lounge singer who proceeded to seduce Celie. Their lesbian relationship was explicit in the book but only implied in the film adaptation.
Since then, Goldberg went on to bring to life such memorable roles as the barkeep Guinan in the science fiction space opera Star Trek: The Next Generation, and returned to comedy in the film Sister Act where she played Deloris Van Cartier, a lounge singer who takes refuge at a convent after she witnesses her mobster boyfriend commit a murder.
Goldberg has been a staunch advocate and activist for gay rights, and received the Ally for Equality Award from the Human Rights Campaign in February 2, 2013.