Oprah Winfrey initially refused her induction into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame. Lack of gratitude? Ambivalence? Out-and-out (gulp) arrogance?
Nope, none of the above. Try modesty.
"I just felt like, gee, what have I done? I felt like I hadn't done enough," said Winfrey, caught between her daily summer regimen of running/weightlifting/tennis/and swimming at her rural retreat in Running Prairie, Indiana.
"I feel that I have yet to make my contribution," she continued. “I turned it down at first. I wrote them a nice little [refusal] letter … I appreciate it, I really do. It's a huge honor. Especially when you look at who's had it before, Lucille Ball and all those folks, you know?”
Winfrey sells herself short. The Oprah Winfrey Show — winner of 16 daytime Emmys, five NAACP Image Awards — is a phenomenon without precedent, as ratings attest. It is the highest ranked talk show in history, by Nielsen reckoning. It airs in 204 U.S. markets, and 64 abroad. It is the first syndicated show to rank first in all three key women's demographics, and it regularly draws more women viewers than the soaps, the network morning shows, and even the ABC, CBS, and NBC network evening newscasts.
But Winfrey does not measure the success of her show solely, or perhaps even primarily, by ratings. To chat with her is to understand that this woman is on a crusade to do nothing less than improve the quality of human life — through television. She's that serious.
"Entertainment is the last value for me. I'm not just here to entertain," she said. "The intent is always, is somebody going to be uplifted, enlightened, encouraged or educated in some way? For me, the show is a mission, it really is."
Don't doubt it. Unlike the plethora of cookie-cutter talk shows out there, you won't find the lurid and the freakish on Oprah. No skinheads or devil-worshippers here. That stuff, she will tell you, went out seven years ago, when "I realized okay, people are aware of this. Now I believe that I am causing harm by giving these people a platform." Sure, there is plenty of light Oprah fare — interviews with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson come to mind (90 million people watched the latter) — but the show is devoted to fairly serious examination of mostly serious issues. The 12-part series (one per month) on alcoholism several years ago provided one of the lady's most rewarding moments:
"We did it in such a way," she said, “that I think for the first time, on television, people understood what is meant by alcoholism being a disease. Because I think many people, up until that point, didn't understand how it is genetically a disease, and how the genetic disease causes the rest of the family to be diseased and dysfunctional.”
Oprah, whose initial ambition in life ("after I realized I wasn't going to be Diana Ross") was to be a fourth-grade teacher, will go as far as to say that her program has saved lives.
"This past year we did a show called 'Teaching Your Children To Protect Themselves.' I knew, in the middle of that show, that I was saving kids' lives," she said. “I know we've stopped people from drinking and driving. I know that we're part of making the national statistic go down — just from what people say in letters [thousands per week], and before each show, when I go out to shake hands with everybody in the audience. I did a show on teen dating violence [which won an Emmy this year], and it was a revelation to me. I did not know that the incidence of battering young girls was the same as it is for older women! One out of four. I think we helped a lot of girls doing that.”
No girl has been helped more in life by Oprah than … Oprah. Her name should have been Orpah (from Ruth, first chapter, 14th verse, in the Bible), but Aunt Ida misspelled it on the birth certificate. Oprah grew up in the sticks, a place called Kosciusko, Mississippi, where her grandmother raised her on a small farm. At nine, she went to live with her mother in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and there horror entered her life. For the next five years, she was repeatedly sexually abused. Oprah has described her years of abuse as a time of deep guilt that turned her into an uncontrollable teenager. Ultimately denied admission to a juvenile detention facility due to lack of space, she was sent to live with her father, Vernon, and stepmother Zelma, as a last resort.
And her life turned around.
"My father made me see that being your best was the best you could be," she said. “The thing about my father and stepmother is that nothing ever was a big deal in our house. They always expected me to live up to what they believed to be my potential. One time, when I was not doing well in algebra, my father would say I would accept Cs from a C student, if that was the best that you could do. But that's not what you will expect from this house, because that's not the best you can do. And once you did your best, it's not like you were applauded for it. That's what you were expected to do. People say, ‘Oh, it's amazing you keep your feet on the ground.’ It's not amazing at all to me, because you do what's expected, and you're expected to do your best.”
The Oprah Winfrey professional success story begins when, at 16, she entered the Miss Fire Prevention Contest in Nashville — and won. She answered a question about life goals in a way that surprised even her:
“I didn't know what to say, but I knew I couldn't say what all the other girls were saying, like “I wanted to buy a refrigerator for my mom.” So I had seen Barbara Walters on the Today show that morning, and I thought Barbara was really it — she was the only female. So I said I wished to be a communicator like Barbara Walters, that I wanted to use television to teach people about themselves, to inform and educate. Which was a fabulous answer at 16. I don't know where the hell that came from!”
She went to radio station WVOL to collect her prize, and was given a tour of the station. During the tour, a WVOL staffer asked if she would like to hear her voice on tape, just for fun. Given some wire copy, the girl started reading, and the news director was immediately summoned to listen. Oprah was hired on the spot. Radio news became an after-school job (!) in her senior year in high school. Two years later, encouragement from her news director at WVOL, along with a push from her college speech communications coach, finally led her to take her first TV job. In short order, she went from reporter to anchor of the 10 p.m. news at WTVF, Nashville, becoming the first black female anchor in the city, and also acquiring another distinction, one probably never held by any other news anchor in history:
She still had to obey her dad's 11 p.m. curfew.
"But I'd say, 'Dad, the news isn't over until 10:30!'" she laughed. "'That is why you need to be home by 11 o'clock,' he'd say. I always made my curfew!"
Her former boss, WTVF news director Chris Clark, who is still anchor at the station after 28 years, remembers the 22-year-old novice as having "the poise of someone much, much more experienced." Her "genuine care" for people was evident even then, Clark said, noting that Oprah's reporting suffered because she was often "more concerned with the humans involved in the story than the story itself, especially in tragic stories such as a family being burned out of their house." Looking back, he added, this quality "was really the tipoff to her success."
Yet she was also a determined reporter, as one of his fondest recollections attests. “She was not very experienced. So I had this little spiel I went through. I said, ‘Now Oprah, there are no small stories, just small reporters who can't find 'em.’ So we had this fellow in town who was an exchange student from Turkey, and there had been some kind of event in Turkey, an earthquake or something traumatic. I sent her out to the airport to interview him. Well, he didn't speak very good English, and couldn't understand her, but she did not stop. She asked questions of him for 10 minutes. And when he always replied, ‘I don't understand,’ she would go faster, slower, use different words, and ask the question again. By golly, she took my lesson to heart. She wasn't about to give up on the story. So we ended up with 10 minutes of ‘I'm sorry, I don't understand.’”
It was in Baltimore, of all places, that Oprah found her strength as a TV host. Riding a triumphant promo campaign into town ("What's An Oprah?" set to part of "A Chorus Line"), she found herself co-anchoring the WJZ-TV news with a long-established anchor who had little interest in working with, as Oprah put it, "a 22-year-old black female from Nashville." Her journalistic goal every night was relayed by news directors whispering, "Make him like you!" Oprah — who had already found she didn't enjoy writing, editing or covering stories that required asking questions of tragedy victims — now found anchoring terrifically stressful. About the only aspect of journalism she ever really liked was live field reporting — "because I could think very well on my feet." Eight months of "What's An Oprah" later, on April Fool's Day, 1977, she was demoted to the lowest point in her career — doing "cut-ins."
"I felt terrible," she said. “And while I was doing that for $22,000 a year, they felt they weren't getting their money's worth, so they would put me on this morning talk show. And that is where I decided I should have been all my life! And they did, too. They couldn't believe it.”
Her first guests were made to order: one of the characters from All My Children and the head of Carvel Ice Cream. Laughed Oprah: "I'd watched All My Children all through college, so I knew every thing about it. And I'd eaten Mr. Carvel's ice cream. It went over big!"
From there it was on to WLS in Chicago, where she hosted A.M. Chicago for one year before a number-one rating and general popularity practically demanded it be renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show. After four years, Oprah bought the show from Capital Cities/ABC, and in 1986 it was launched into national syndication (and promptly hit number one.) Two years later, Oprah founded Harpo Studios, which subsequently produced The Oprah Show, and among other things, two ABC prime-time specials, four ABC After-school Specials, the ABC miniseries The Women of Brewster Place (in which she starred), and the ABC Theater presentation of There Are No Children Here. Upcoming projects include Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston, and Beloved, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Toni Morrison.
Oprah's ambitions have also extended beyond the cameras — most famously, when she testified before U.S. Congress in support of federal legislation to enable background checks of childcare workers. The bill passed. Her proudest moment? Hardly.
"I will tell you, honestly, I was a bit embarrassed by it," she said. “Even going to the White House and making that much hoopla about it, I was embarrassed, because I thought this is the least of what should be done. And I consider it to be such a small thing, I really do. Don't get me started! Are we going to congratulate ourselves because we say that, ‘Oh, if you're going to work around children we should know who you are? Oh, please.’”
Neglected so far in this portrait of Oprah Winfrey the TV star/corporate head/activist is Oprah the actor — the one-time speech communications major whose dream of becoming an actress was initially sidetracked by television. (“You know, I went to school because I wanted to act, and then I got diverted by television. And my father didn't want me to act, because he didn't think that it was respectable enough — you know how those old folks are.”)
This is, after all, the woman who won Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for playing Sofia in Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple. It raises the obvious question — isn't she stretched awfully thin?
“The whole idea of me buying and creating my own studio was so that I could do the show and act. I learned with Brewster Place that was almost impossible. I was working 20 hours a day and had about driven myself into the ground. After I finished it, I thought, what was wrong with me? The idea was to be able to do both, and now it is just a matter of finding a vehicle that will do the same thing on screen that I attempt to do every day on television.”
Her latest role is in a TNT movie called Hearts.
There are less glamorous goals for the woman with the hard-won, newly trim and fit physique: running a marathon, for example (she puts in 15 miles per day), and on the day of this interview, taking swimming lessons. Getting herself into fine physical condition has perhaps been Oprah's most fulfilling achievement, and she's done it in a most fulfilling environment. Rolling Prairie is aptly named; it's farm country, pure and removed, and to say that Oprah loves it is not to say enough. A baby pig running across her path during a morning jog just about sent her into an epiphany.
"It's absolutely kind of removed from everything," she rhapsodized. “You don't run into a lot of people out here. I saw a cow this morning in the woods. The light on that cow was like a Hopper painting. I'm telling you. I said to myself, ‘Now this is worth a Hopper painting right here.’ You don't have to spend five million, just come stand on the road and look at this cow and the way the light's hitting it.”
Oprah Winfrey, mega-success, sighed.
"I like that stuff," she said.
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Oprah Winfrey's induction in 1994.