Whoopi Cushioned

updated 09/15/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/15/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

As a three-time emcee of the Academy Awards, Whoopi Goldberg has cracked wise about many of the show's over-the-top moments. But not about the teary acceptance speech delivered by Halle Berry as Best Actress for Monster's Ball in 2002. Goldberg, who was standing just offstage that night, is still smarting over Berry's failure to "even acknowledge my existence" as the first black actress since Gone with the Wind's Hattie McDaniel to win an Oscar (for 1990's Ghost). "If it had happened years before, I probably would have said something out loud," she says. "But I'm better at it now. And it was her night, and that's how she chose to do it, and God bless her."

Time will tell if Goldberg's latest foray into prime time television will be as distinguished as her film career. In her new NBC sitcom, Whoopi, she plays Mavis Rae, a has-been singer who now gets by operating a small Manhattan hotel where she sounds off on race, sex and politics. The politically incorrect comedian is quickly learning, however, that there are some things you just can't say on network TV—like the S-word. "Not at 8 o'clock," Goldberg says ruefully.

Nevertheless, the thrice-divorced grandmother of three identifies strongly with her character. Like Mavis, "I'm definitely menopausal," she says.

"And I am 48 in November. And I'm not out dating. It's a difficult thing to do," she says, despite past liaisons with Timothy Dalton, Ted Danson and Frank Langella. "I'm not going to be the first person George Clooney looks at when we go to the Academy Awards party. And I wouldn't know how to make him look."

Such remarks surprise Goldberg's castmates. Even after three decades in show business, the former Caryn Johnson "is still scared of what people think," says Elizabeth Regen, who plays the girlfriend of Mavis's brother. On the set, "if you've got a real criticism, you can see it hurts her." She is just as sensitive on behalf of the others on the set. "She's horrified if the actors are not taken care of," says Omid Djalili (Iranian handyman Nasim). "She has this Wednesday-night poker game for the whole cast and crew" at her Manhattan apartment. "Everyone is invited." Being able to work close to home "is heaven," says Goldberg, a native New Yorker who shoots Whoopi in the same Astoria, Queens, studio that once housed The Cosby Show.

In the past few years, with juicy film roles growing scarcer—recent credits include Monkeybone and Star Trek: Nemesis—Goldberg has turned increasingly to TV. But the actress who starred in The Color Purple (her 1985 film debut, for which she earned a Best Actress nomination) and the hit Sister Act and its sequel—along with more than 30 other films—makes no apologies. "I thought I would have done more TV before this," she says. "I loved doing Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was a lot of fun for me. And I loved hanging out on Strong Medicine," the Lifetime show her company produces, along with the syndicated Hollywood Squares, on which she doubled as center square. Still, when producer Tom Werner (Roseanne, Third Rock from the Sun) asked her last November if she wanted to star in a sitcom, Goldberg recalls half-jokingly replying, "Yeah, 'cause mama don't have no job. Sure."

Her Color Purple director, Steven Spielberg, doesn't worry about Goldberg's future employability. "Whoopi is having a tremendously successful and eclectic career," he says. "I'm proud of all my first-timers like Drew [Barrymore] and Gwynnie [Paltrow] and Whoopi. The longer they're around making noises, the more like a grandpappy I feel."

In fact, it's the role of grandmother that Goldberg relishes most these days. She dotes on Amarah, 13, Jerzey, 7, and 5 Mason, 4, the kids of aspiring actress Alexandrea, 29, Goldberg's daughter from her first marriage to Alvin Martin, then a drug counselor. "I'm a bad influence," says Goldberg, who recalls teaching Mason, then 2, how to say the F-word. "My daughter said, 'Where did he get that?' And I said, 'Well, it sounds like you taught it to him.' She didn't talk to me for a week."

Grandma can't help herself. After flubbing a line on the Whoopi set, Goldberg catches herself uttering the dreaded S-word. "Are there any kids in the audience?" she asks the crowd. "Yes," a lone member calls back. "Okay," she says. "Well, sugarfly!"

Michael A. Lipton
Mark Dagostino and Omoronke Idowu-Reeves in New York City

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