Whoopi Goldberg Actively Tried to Stop One of Her Movies From Coming Out

Whoopi took legal action over ‘The Telephone’
Whoopi Goldberg Actively Tried to Stop One of Her Movies From Coming Out

Typically, when a star has a new movie coming out, they promote it as much as possible. But Whoopi Goldberg once did the exact opposite, taking legal action to prevent one of her movies from ever reaching theaters. And somehow it wasn’t the movie where she solves crimes with the help of a talking dinosaur. 

Back in 1988, Goldberg starred in The Telephone, an experimental dramedy about an out-of-work actress who spends most of her time holed up in a small apartment making phone calls. It’s kind of like an avant-garde theater piece (specifically Jean Cocteau’s The Human Voice) crossed with a Bob Newhart routine — but not as good as that makes it sound.

Weirdly enough, The Telephone was the only film ever directed by actor Rip Torn, of The Larry Sanders Show, Men in Black and drunkenly breaking into a bank that one time fame. And it was scripted by famed singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson and Terry Southern, the esteemed countercultural satirist who also co-wrote Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider.

Despite the impressive pedigree behind it, The Telephone doesn’t really work. Most of it is pretty boring, then it ends with a twist that feels like it could have been pulled out of M. Night Shyamalan’s reject pile.

In the final moments of the movie — spoiler alert for those who have been waiting 36 years to finally catch up with The Telephone — Goldberg gets a visit from a repair man sent by the phone company, played by John Heard, aka the sketchy dad from Home Alone. He reveals that her phone has been disconnected “for over two months.” So all of those “conversations” we witnessed throughout the movie were symptomatic of her madness. After hearing this news, naturally, Goldberg’s character smacks the guy in the head with her phone and then stabs him to death. And that’s the end of the movie.

New World Pictures

New World Pictures

According to Terry Southern, he and Nilsson originally wrote the script with Robin Williams in mind, but “his manager didn't want him to do the film at all.” Goldberg was cast because Southern and Nilsson ran into her in the parking lot of the Chateau Marmont and “thought she might be right for the part.”

Southern also explained that the making of The Telephone was tense because “big asshole producers told Whoopi that ‘this is a Whoopi Goldberg movie’ so she could do whatever she wanted to do.” Her improvisations were constantly rubbing Torn the wrong way, and he begged her to perform the lines as written, arguing “let’s do one for the writer.”

The dispute didn’t end on set. As reported by the Los Angeles Times in 1987, Goldberg “filed a $5-million breach of contract lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court against film director Rip Torn and New World Pictures.” She tried “to stop the release of The Telephone,” claiming that she had been granted “a contractual right to edit her version of the film” for release. But while the studio reportedly “preferred her cut of the film,” they were planning on releasing Torn’s edit after he “took the matter to the Directors Guild for arbitration.” 

Goldberg ended up losing the suit and allegedly “hated” the movie, which went on to gross “barely $100,000” at the U.S. box office.

Sure is a lot of drama for a movie nobody remembers.

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