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Preview ’92 : Talkin’ Whoopi : Goldberg joins late-night arena to enlighten <i> and</i> entertain

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“I want to know--is a bigot born?” mused Whoopi Goldberg, referring to white supremacist and former Ku Klux Klan grand dragon Tom Metzger, one of Goldberg’s early guests on her new late-night talk show.

She leaned forward on a plush couch in the St. James Club in Hollywood.

Is he a bigot?” she asked rhetorically in her deliberate, thoughtful speaking style.

“How does bigotry come about? His was born in the United States Army. When he says his best friend in the Army was black--kind of makes you want to know what happened.”

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Goldberg furrowed her malleable brow, stared off into space and seemed to drift away for a brief moment.

“Yeah,” she said to no one in particular, shaking her head slowly.

Bigotry is hardly subject matter for today’s zippy, quippy late-night talk shows, mostly entertainment vehicles driven by Hollywood’s brightest stars. But “The Whoopi Goldberg Show,” a half-hour syndicated series premiering Monday, appears to be a decidedly different late-night venture.

“At first they wanted the format everyone else has,” Goldberg said. Last year several major syndication companies were bidding for her late-night services, which her high-power handlers at Creative Artists Agency were shopping around town.

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“I told them, I don’t want a band. I don’t want a posse. I don’t want a studio audience. I don’t want a desk. I just want a comfortable place to sit and converse. Because that’s what the show is, a conversation.”

In terms of format, her show is more like the late-late-night program, “Later With Bob Costas"--hosted by a network sportscaster and journalist--rather than anything that might be expected from an actress and comedian.

“I believe if you promote interesting conversation for more than five minutes, something great might happen,” Goldberg explained.

If you believe in research--and most executives in the TV business swear by, and sometimes at, it--Goldberg has more appeal than any talk-show host in television, including Oprah Winfrey, Arsenio Hall and Jay Leno. The Q Ratings, an annual research study that measures popularity and likability, place Goldberg above all other female performers in the entertainment industry.

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Buoyed by such findings, Genesis Entertainment struck a deal with Goldberg for 180 episodes, airing five nights a week with a special one-hour highlight edition on the weekend. Genesis is taking a gamble by allowing Goldberg, a one-time welfare recipient turned superstar, to slow down the pace of late night with a program that hopes to be as enlightening as it does entertaining.

The idea behind Goldberg’s show is simple: Invite a single guest each night; sit down on two great big chairs in a relaxing, eclectic setting surrounded by sculptures and artwork from such contemporary artists as Julian Schnabel and Charles Bragg, and do what Goldberg feels few talk shows today really do ... talk.

“For the most part people come on the other shows because they have something they want to sell,” she said. “How ya doin’, here’s a clip, good to see ya, see ya soon.”

Goldberg, instead, plans to have on whoever suits her fancy, whoever her inquiring mind wants to know, even if they don’t have a new book, movie, TV show or record album.

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“Pat Sajak asked me once to guest-host for him when he was doing his talk show,” Goldberg said, laughing. “I said, ‘Only if I could have (first ladies) Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford and Roslynn Carter as guests.’ And they said, ‘No! No!’ I said, ‘Well, I can’t do it then.’ I was serious, because I thought now that would be interesting conversation.”

Goldberg gives off the not-so-subtle impression that the primary reason she’s doing this show is because she can. After an early string of mostly mediocre films, her track record of late has been impressive. She received a supporting-actress Academy Award for “Ghost” last year and this summer her sleeper hit, “Sister Act,” grossed $125 million. In her next film, “Sarafina!,” based on the Broadway musical, she plays a school teacher in South Africa.

“I’m going in strictly--and this is a terrible thing to say--to feed my curiosity about the rest of the world, you know,” Goldberg said about her talk show. “That’s really what this is about. And I know Genesis is going to have a heart attack about this, because they have financial considerations to think about, and they need ratings, but I don’t care about those things. I don’t care.

“This is really about my own quest for understanding. This is a great and wondrous thing for me. I want to know why a woman like Elizabeth Taylor, the last real movie star, would devote her time to go into hospices and speak out on AIDS, when nobody else wanted to hear about it. Nobody else wanted to know.”

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Those who have turned down Goldberg’s invitation to chat include George and Barbara Bush, Richard Nixon, Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell, Richard Dreyfuss and Sally Field.

But she’s received far more yeas than nays. Already confirmed are Taylor, Robert De Niro, Nelson Mandela, Robin Williams, Dianne Feinstein, Bo Jackson, Arsenio Hall, Billy Crystal, Evander Holyfield, Patti Davis, Ice-T, Mike Wallace, Spike Lee, Charles Barkley and Burt Reynolds. Most of them agreed to do the show sight unseen, she said, as a favor to her.

Goldberg will commute three days a week from her home in Connecticut to tape her program in Hollywood, and she will continue to shoot feature films on hiatus. The shows are taped in advance, but if there are any hot topics that surface, producer Rocco Urbisci, who has produced several of Goldberg’s cable specials, has a plan of action.

“If something is real topical, we can edit the show and satellite it to local stations across the country, so they can preempt the regularly scheduled show for the special episode,” he said.

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The whole show, in fact, has a built-in flexibility. When musical guests such as Elton John or Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler--who are both booked--visit, Urbisci said they will be offered the opportunity to perform acoustically, a la MTV’s “Unplugged.”

Leno and Hall are periodically accused of being too soft on their guests, not pressing them on the issues that are really on people’s minds. While Goldberg wants to get to the heart of matters, she warned viewers not to tune in for titillation. If she were interviewing Woody Allen, for instance, she would talk to him about his film career--not the lurid stories surrounding his love affair with Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter.

“People like gossip, but there are enough shows out there that do that,” said Genesis president Wayne Lepoff, who had looked at Billy Crystal and Howie Mandell as potential late-night hosts. “I don’t think you need another show that does the same thing. I think people will love to get Whoopi’s insight into these individuals, as opposed to the gossip.”

“I certainly will have questions of people whose ideas strike me as different,” Goldberg said. “And I’ll probably have something to say about those people and ideas myself. But I’m not here to battle with anyone. I’m simply here to present them in a different light than they’ve been presented in before.”

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Goldberg--who was born Caryn Johnson--does not want to threaten or intimidate people because she’s been on the receiving end of such treatment many times in her own past. She grew up in the housing projects of Manhattan’s Chelsea District, and in her own life struggled with drug use, teen-age pregnancy, state health care, the welfare system--many of the issues she now uses her celebrity to speak out about.

“I think that it’s important for me as a humanist to really be in touch with the things that effect us as human beings,” Goldberg said.

Goldberg’s convictions, of course, raise the question of politics. But because there’s no pilot for her program, and because it had not begun production at the time of this interview, there was no way of telling what will be in store.

“I think people are a little nervous that this is going to be a political show, and too political. I don’t know what that means,” she said. “Come election time, I know there’s a question I’m going to ask everyone: ‘So what do you think is coming? And why?’ Because I want to know what a wide range of people think about what’s happening in this country.”

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Goldberg’s talk show is being shot for a modest $150,000 per six weekly episodes. There is word in the syndication community, however, that she received several million dollars up front, and she will also participate in profits from the show, which can be quite healthy in syndication. Arsenio Hall is said to receive in the neighborhood of $20 million a year for his talk show.

Lepoff, who would not reveal Goldberg’s financial arrangement with Genesis, said “Whoopi Goldberg” has a chance for long-term success if the program can achieve a 2 rating--something Dennis Miller was unable to do with his recently canceled late-night talk show (each rating point represents 931,000 households).

And Lepoff is confident in Goldberg’s ability to deliver. Genesis is selling the show to advertisers at a rate based on a 4 rating, a full rating point higher than “The Arsenio Hall Show” receives.

“We definitely think Whoopi has potential to beat Arsenio,” Lepoff said. “We have great time periods across the country--at 11 p.m. in Los Angeles and New York. Because we’re a half hour, we have the ability to get wedged between Leno and Letterman on a good number of NBC markets. On ABC stations, we’re following Ted Koppel and “Nightline.” So a half hour gives you a lot of flexibility that’s not achievable with an hour program.”

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Lepoff said that Goldberg has a multi-year deal if her talk show becomes a hit, and he’s already predicting the show will be back next year.

“There’s a lot of alternatives in late night, and this is something different,” Lepoff said. “Everybody in late night tries to copy Johnny Carson, his format, which was very successful. But it hasn’t really worked as well for other people. We’re going a different route.”

“I’m like a sponge. I’m ready,” Goldberg said. “I really want it. I want to reach another level. I want people to understand why Tom Metzger is charismatic. I want them to see it, you know. I want them to be aware, so we don’t just jump up and say, ‘Oh, you’re a dirty racist.’ At least we can say, ‘I know why you believe what you say, but there are other ways to look at the world.’ ”

“The Whoopi Goldberg Show” airs Monday-Friday at 11 p.m. on KCAL and KUSI. The one-hour weekend version airs Sundays at 11 p.m. on KCAL and Sunday at 6 p.m. on KUSI.

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