When it comes to classic romance movies, the heart-melting and spine-tingling Ghost is right up there. But did you know that the casting department almost passed on the wonderful Whoopi Goldberg? It was only an intervention by Hollywood heartthrob Patrick Swayze that got the actress noticed. The rest is history.
It’s been three decades of history, to be exact. That’s right: the cast of Ghost are celebrating the movie’s thirty-year anniversary in 2020. And Whoopi Goldberg in particular has been in the limelight since Forbes ran an article calling Ghost “Hollywood’s forgotten blockbuster.” This is largely because it was a one-off.
Forbes said of Ghost, “It inspired no sequels or spin-offs, no nostalgic reissues and no rip-offs or copycats.” Yet Goldberg addressed the article’s points in an interview with Deadline shortly after. And the actress pointed out that the article may have overlooked a few things that made the movie special.
Goldberg said, “When I was reading it and reading how much money [Ghost] brought in, and how it had been bigger than all these other movies, I thought, ‘but Forbes is doing the same thing other people have done.’ They sort of denigrated the fact that this was a terrific movie. And it was also really funny too, and in part, I did that.”
The actress elaborated, “And we were a very mixed cast, and it makes you wonder, you know, 30 years later, was it because we were a mixed cast that nobody wanted to celebrate it. The way that, you know, had it been any other cast that happened to be maybe all white, people might’ve celebrated it?”
“I just thought it made me sad that he called us a movie that people forgot, or whatever,” Goldberg explained to Deadline . “I thought, ‘Well, you’re the reason. Because you’re treating it like it was something odd as opposed to a really great movie that came out of nowhere and captured people’s imaginations. And we didn’t have a superhero.’”
Those of you who haven’t seen the movie may be wondering about the plot. It follows the story of Patrick Swayze’s character Sam Wheat, a banker who’s murdered during a mugging. Only it turns out that the mastermind behind the killing was really Carl Bruner (Tony Goldwyn), his business partner. Carl apparently values money above friendship. And basic human decency.
But being the passionate sort, Sam sticks around as the titular ghost, and it’s a good thing too. Because Carl also wants Sam’s girlfriend Molly (Demi Moore) in the ground after a while. And the only way Sam can protect Molly and get revenge is by teaming up with a psychic to communicate with her. Enter Goldberg as Oda Mae Brown.
The comedy part comes in thanks to Goldberg. Her character is actually a con artist posing as a spirit medium. Yet despite this, she becomes the only one who can talk to Sam. So you can imagine her surprise when she experiences ghostly communication with Sam’s spirit for the first time – realising that she did have a gift all along.
And Goldberg’s Oda Mae is the lynchpin in terms of the story, too. Because without her there wouldn’t have been that dance scene between woman and ghost, where Sam inhabits Oda Mae’s body to comfort Molly. In fact, they move to the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” during the paranormal jig, the same track they had a steamy pottery scene to earlier when Sam was alive.
The movie did some memorable things for the actors’ careers too, particularly the late great Swayze. It’s not that the Hollywood hunk wasn’t already famous – quite the opposite. Most fans were already crazy for Swayze after his steamy performance in 1987’s racy romance Dirty Dancing. But that was part of the problem.
You see, Swayze was in danger of being typecast due to his previous roles. It almost scuppered his chances of starring in Ghost, too. According to the movie’s casting director Janet Hirshenson, Swayze was pretty low on director Jerry Zucker’s audition list. She told the Metro as much in 2020.
Hirshenson explained, “For Patrick’s part, the studio only wanted to make [Ghost] with one of ten box office actors.” Swayze snuck in by a whisker. She continued, “The tenth choice was Patrick. But Jerry Zucker didn’t want to cast him because he’d just seen Roadhouse, and didn’t think he was right.”
So Hirshenson’s casting partner Jane Jenkins and Swayze’s agent scheduled a sneaky audition behind Zucker’s back. The director wasn’t happy but he agreed to see Swayze anyway. “So he came in and [Jenkins] read with him,” Hirshenson told Metro. “It was the producer and Jerry. They came in and did the reading.”
“The producer was crying during the audition,” Hirshenson revealed. “At the end of the scene, Jerry Zucker jumped up and went, ‘Well that’s it!’” The casting decision was sealed, putting Swayze in the leading male role. And the actor’s emotional, multi-layered performance proved he was more than just a one-trick pony.
Ghost didn’t just alter the course of Swayze’s career, though – it also had a huge impact on Goldberg’s. Just like her co-star, Goldberg was already known from her run on movies and TV. If you’re a millennial, you might even remember her as the lead in 1985’s The Color Purple.
In The Color Purple Goldberg played the role of a young southerner called Celie Johnson. After enduring a lifetime of abuse from several sources – including her own father – Celie embarks on a journey of self-discovery. It was a landmark performance from Goldberg that earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.
Unfortunately Goldberg didn’t win the award for The Color Purple, but things changed after she appeared in Ghost. Her role stunned viewers and made rumblings in Hollywood to the extent that Goldberg received further nominations. Once again she found herself looking at a potential Best Actress Academy Award, this time in a Supporting Role.
Goldberg took the award home this time around, which wasn’t just a massive personal achievement. It was also a huge step for the African-American community as a whole. That’s because Goldberg was the first African-American actress to win the award since Hattie McDaniel in 1940’s Gone with the Wind.
And that wasn’t all – Goldberg vacuumed up several other awards for her impressive performance. Yet even in the face of such an incredible response to Ghost, the actress remained humble. She even credited her co-star Swayze for her success. Goldberg said as much when she appeared on The View in 2009.
Goldberg told her co-hosts, “Because of Patrick Swayze, I got that movie. Because of Patrick Swayze, I have an Oscar.” The actress’ words make it quite clear that she owes her casting to Swayze. And it’s true that he played an instrumental role in getting her in the frame for the part of Oda Mae.
When casting began, the crew had no firm actresses in mind to play Oda Mae. They did apparently envision her as a person of color though. They auditioned people from far and wide, considering such big names such as Tina Turner and Oprah Winfrey. But Goldberg only heard about the opportunity from a friend.
Goldberg recounted the events to Naomi Campbell on her YouTube channel No Filter in 2020. And she said that her friend told her, “Girl, I’ve just been to this audition. Every black woman and her mother… black women got out of their grave to come to this audition.” Needless to say, Goldberg contacted her agent shortly after.
“He [my agent] said, ‘they don’t want you,’” Goldberg continued. “‘They think that your persona – that Whoopi – is too big, and will take people out of the movie.’ I said, ‘not that I’m comparing myself, but Marlon Brando is big. You know Marlon Brando, and then you move on with the character.’” Nevertheless, Goldberg gracefully accepted the decision.
But as you know, that wasn’t the end of the story. Although Goldberg herself didn’t take any further action, the new leading man Swayze did. He insisted casting give the actress a shot at auditioning for Oda Mae. Goldberg told Campbell how she was shooting another film in Alabama when she got a call.
Goldberg’s agent was on the other end of the line. The actress recounted, “I was called up and told, ‘remember that movie they didn’t want you for? They’ve hired Patrick Swayze. Patrick wanted to know why they hadn’t come to you. They told him you would take people out of the movie.’”
Apparently Swayze replied, “I’m not saying yes to this piece until we know she’s not the right person.” That’s right: he refused to continue with the film until Goldberg got her audition. The amazing thing is that Swayze hadn’t even met the actress before. So why did he fight for her audition?
Swayze was simply “a fan” who enjoyed her previous films and wanted to work with her, Goldberg explained to No Filter . They were so eager to see Goldberg that Zucker and Swayze flew out to Alabama to meet her! So considering they were essentially strangers, what was the first meeting between Goldberg and Swayze like?
Goldberg told Campbell, “As soon as Patrick and I looked at each other we started laughing. And I said, ‘how you doing, man?’ and he said, ‘I’m good,’ and we just started talking and doing sh**. And the director Jerry, he was just watching us interact. We went on for about two hours.”
Needless to say the interview finalized the casting decision and Goldberg was a shoe-in for Oda Mae. It’s exactly what Swayze had campaigned for all along, and without his intervention Goldberg wouldn’t have got her chance. Goldberg’s and Swayze’s connection is an integral part of the movie’s appeal, and their bond only got stronger.
Casting director Hirshenson told the Metro, “The two of them became very, very close friends. They had such great chemistry, I thought.” But we can’t mention Ghost without addressing the tragedy that occurred in 2008. We are, of course, referring to Swayze’s battle against stage four pancreatic cancer.
Doctors diagnosed Swayze that very same year and the actor began chemotherapy to fight the cancer. And at first, both Swayze’s representative Annett Wolf and his physician Dr. George Fisher were “optimistic.” Wolf shared a statement from Fisher stating, “Patrick has a very limited amount of disease and he appears to be responding well to treatment thus far.”
Swayze even continued acting as Charles Barker, an FBI agent for crime drama The Beast during his chemotherapy. But things took a turn for the worse and Swayze passed away in September 2009. The loss shook Hollywood, and it was a heavy blow to Goldberg, too, on both a personal and professional level.
When she spoke to The View, alongside crediting Swayze for her Oscar, Goldberg opened up about the actor’s final months. “This was a well fought battle,” she said. “Patrick fought like the dickens to survive it or to get through it. He never thought of himself as someone who was dying.”
Goldberg continued, “His attitude was, ‘Until it kills me, I’m gonna keep doing what I’m doing.’ I hope whenever it comes for me… that I do the same. He worked up until the last minute. He was a cat that never gave up. I would like to have that bravery.”
Even in her sorrow, the actress had enough compassion to pay tribute to Swayze’s wife, Lisa Niemi. Fighting back tears, Goldberg said on The View, “To you Lisa, to that relationship. Let’s hope that Ghost was right.” She finished with a classic line from the movie delivered by Swayze to Demi Moore’s character, Molly.
“It’s amazing, Molly,” Goldberg quoted. “The love inside, you take it with you.” And that’s certainly in line with the actress’ own view of the afterlife. Because in 1994 the Los Angeles Times asked the cast and crew about their thoughts on life after death. Their answers were incredibly touching, especially with hindsight of the tragedy to come.
Zucker told the Los Angeles Times that he actually didn’t think ghosts were real. He revealed that he firmly believed in another world, though. “I have no idea what’s possible in that realm,” he said. “But if you are asking if I believe all of us have souls that exist with the physical self, the answer is yes. And I believe the soul does continue on after the body dies.”
For her part, Goldberg said, “I believe that when people die, the spirit flies from them and fragments. It goes into people who are just coming into being. I believe I got hit with a lot of fragments.” She also said she believes it “probably” enhanced her performance in Ghost.
So did the male star of Ghost have a belief in life after death? Well, the author Wendy Leigh asked him that same question while writing her book, Patrick Swayze: One Last Dance. “I am convinced that people can come back and visit loved ones,” Swayze said. “Death is a beginning, not an ending.”