From struggling single mom to multi-millionaire
“In dreams there are no impossibilities.”
Caryn Johnson always knew she wanted to be an actor. In fact, she says her first coherent thought was, “Man, I’d love to act.”
Even though she grew up in the New York projects, theater and what she called “pretending to be somebody else” was a big part of her life. This was back in the days when Joe Papp brought free Shakespeare on trucks to her neighborhood in Chelsea. She also watched lots of movies with her brother, Clyde, and her mom, Emma, who was raising the two kids on a single salary.
“When I saw Carole Lombard coming down some stairs in a long satin thingy, I thought, I can do that,” she says. “I wanted to come down those stairs and say those words and live that life. You could be anything, up there in the movies. You could fly. You could meet alien life forms. You could be a queen. You could sleep in a great big bed, with satin sheets in your own room.”
By the time she was 8, she was acting for the Hudson Guild Community Center, a children’s daycare/theater/arts program, also near her neighborhood.
Her life took a detour in high school when her dyslexia caused her to get mistakenly classified as “slow, possibly retarded.” She dropped out of school, became a junkie and forgot all about her acting dream. By the time she was 19, she was a single mom herself.
The good news is she HAD kicked the drugs. In fact, her daughter’s father was the drug counselor who helped her get off the junk. But the bad news is he wasn’t cut out to be a father. He split a few months after Alexandrea was born.
Caryn was a high school dropout with no skills. In fact, the only thing she knew how to do was take care of kids. She took a job as a nanny and moved to Lubbock, Texas with the friend who hired her. Eventually, the friend moved to San Diego and Caryn and her daughter gladly followed.
When the relationship went south, she found herself stuck in California with no money and no skills. She didn’t even know how to drive, a major hindrance in freeway-happy California.
“I had no high school diploma,” she says. “All I had was me, and my kid.”
Oh, yeah, and that “Man, I’d love to act” dream. During the day, she learned to lay bricks, went to cosmetology school. At night, she played around with an experimental theater troupe. For a while, she did hair and makeup for a funeral home supplementing her income with a welfare check, “worrying about how to get my kid more than one pair of shoes, or how to make $165 worth of groceries last for a month.”
Through it all, she continued to believe that “anything is possible.” She continued to believe that she could be like Carole Lombard, floating down stairs in satin.
“Acting is the one thing I always knew I could do,” she says.
Her unwavering belief finally unlocked the door. In 1983, famed Hollywood director Mike Nichols happened to catch her performance in an Berkeley experimental troupe, the Black Street Hawkeyes. He was so blown away by the characters she played that he signed her immediately for a one-woman performance, the Spook Show, on Broadway. Steven Spielberg caught that show and cast her as Celie in The Color Purple. By then, she’d changed her name to Whoopi Goldberg.
“No one ever expressed this idea that I was limited to any one thing, and so I think it terms of what’s possible, not impossible,” Whoopi says in her memoir, Book. “I knew that if you come to a thing with no preconceived notions of what that thing is, the whole world can be your canvas.
“Just dream it and you can make it so. I believed a little girl could rise from a single-parent household in the Manhattan projects, start a single-parent household of her own, struggle though seven years of welfare and odd jobs and still wind up making movies.
“So, yea, I think anything is possible. I know it because I have lived it. I know it because I have seen it. I have witnessed things that ancients have called miracles, but they are not miracles. They are the products of someone’s dream. As human beings, we are capable of creating a paradise, and making each other’s lives better by our own hands. Yes, yes, yes…this is possible.
“If something hasn’t happened, it’s not because it can’t happen, or won’t: it just hasn’t happened yet.”
Pam Grout is the author of E-Squared: 9 Do-it-Yourself Energy Experiments that Prove Your Thoughts Create Your Reality.