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The continuing evolution of 'the Mighty Afro-Deity' Actor: Whoopi Goldberg keeps climbing higher through the ranks of Hollywood stars.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

She has evolved, this creature who jokingly calls herself "the ++ Mighty Afro-Deity," from the girl born Caryn to the life force

called Whoopi. She has gone from welfare mom to philanthropist, from street performer to movie star, from sham spiritualist Oda Mae Brown in "Ghost" to real-life civil rights activist Myrlie Evers in the new film "Ghosts of Mississippi."

This crowded week, she will emcee an AIDS benefit at Manhattan's Riverside Church, meet reporters for "Ghosts of Mississippi," and begin rehearsals for her return to Broadway in February, when she will replace Nathan Lane in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."

Goldberg is a criticism boomerang. Throw stones at her and they come back, with a spin.

Your various roles include an abused wife, a Vegas singer disguised as a nun, the Knicks' coach, a soap-opera scribe, an intergalactic bartender, fund-raiser for the homeless and MCI pitchwoman. How is it different playing a real figure like Myrlie Evers?

Because she is such a great presence and a great woman, you want to get from her [character] what you can. You don't play broadly. What I knew about Myrlie both before and after I met her is that there is a deep anger and hatred toward this man who snuffed out her dreams, snuffed out her man. That's what got her up, propelled her forward.

Another difference is the joy of saying, that's not an acting choice -- that's what Myrlie did.

Given that there is a trial in Los Angeles now dividing the country racially, does it feel good to participate in the making of a movie about a trial that united black and white in Mississippi?

I think the O.J. trial has less to do with black and white than it has to do with fallen heroes. But I do have faith, because of the events reported in our movie, that the justice system does work.

As a former welfare mother and a current friend of President Clinton, what do you make of his attempts to reform welfare?

I'm glad he's trying. I wish we could get a bipartisan view of welfare, one that's not based on class and race. In this country, though, we seem to always need a scapegoat. Black people are not the majority of people on welfare, but you never hear that reported. The welfare issue is being worked like the Germans worked the Jewish issue.

You can't be [angry] at people for being on welfare if there's no work, if people are being laid off at GM.

How did welfare help or hurt you personally?

Welfare for me allowed me to buy food and clothes for my kid while I found my feet. Believe me, no one wants to be on welfare. It's a degrading system. Admittedly, though, there are people out there who abuse the system.

Do you think you've not played as many romantic leads as you might have because Hollywood sees you as a clown?

Maybe. But it also hasn't been something I've pursued. I want to be part of the group that says romance isn't everything, it's not the be-all and end-all. Nothing wrong with being out of a relationship. There's not enough movies about women out of relationships who have interesting lives.

I want to be Jean-Claude Van Damme. You wear black. You kick some ass. You come home, pet your cat and show some emotion.

On-screen, I'll leave romance to everyone else.

How do you fight the fight for nontraditional casting, putting yourself forward for roles written for men -- like "Eddie" -- or written for white women -- like "Soapdish"?

I don't really fight. I just read a role and say "that would be interesting" and let it gestate. That happened with "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."

And I hear you've let Clint Eastwood know you're interested in playing the role of the drag queen Lady Chablis in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," which he's about to direct. How's that gestating?

I think he'll probably cast the real Lady Chablis.

My stepdaughter wants to know the "true" true story of how Caryn Johnson became Whoopi Goldberg.

The true story is that my family is Jewish, Buddhist, Baptist and Catholic -- none of which I subscribe to, by the way, as I don't believe in man-made religions -- so I took the last name for a Jewish ancestor. And I happen to be gaseous, which explains the first name, short for whoopee cushion.

Pub Date: 1/05/97

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