Whoopi: ‘Ma, Don’t Freak Out. But, Yes, This Is Marlon Brando’

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JOAN: Great memories, unexpected memories. This came out of our meeting yesterday when Whoopi … when, Whoopi, you were suddenly talking about Marlon Brando playing the piano for you.

WHOOPI: Yes. Well, you know, I don’t even know what triggered it. He’s been on my mind the last couple of weeks anyway. I had never met him, and my agent called me one day and said, “Marlon Brando’s looking to get a hold of you.” And I said, “Yeah. OK. Right.” And he said, “No, no, seriously.” I said, “Fine. Give him my phone number.” I thought this was just bananas.

And the phone rang and it was Marlon, with that voice, with that sound. And he said, “You know, I would love to sit down and talk to you. I want to meet you. I think you’re wonderful.” All these great accolade things. I just thought, “Oh, OK. Marlon Brando wants to meet me. OK. Just stay calm,” and I said, “Let’s meet tomorrow.” And I gave him my address. He gave me his address. And I just sort of floated through the rest of the house. About an hour later, I hear the piano being played in my house, my house in Los Angeles, downstairs. And I think, “I don’t know anybody who can play the piano.”

LESLEY: How did he get into your house?

WHOOPI: Came through the gates and just walked right through because it was just open. So he came …

LESLEY: Oh, my God!

WHOOPI: … saw the piano and sat down and started playing. So I come downstairs and I’m looking. I’m saying, “Who the hell is this?” I look and it’s Marlon Brando. And I thought, “Marlon Brando’s playing the piano in my house.”

LESLEY: Oh, my God. Unreal.

WHOOPI: So, I say, “Hi. I thought we were actually meeting tomorrow. Did I misunderstand …” He says, “Oh, I just wanted to see where you live. And the gate was open and I came in. You’ve got this great piano.” And he played. He just played music.

LIZ: Do you remember what he played, Whoopi?

WHOOPI: No. I want to say it was like “Stardust.” But maybe that’s because that’s my feeling for him, when I think about him.

LESLEY: That’s the best story I ever heard.

WHOOPI: Yeah. And after he finished playing we sat on my couch and I’m, internally, going, “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.” And I’m talking very smartly, you know. I’m talking very interestingly and I’m being very intelligent. And my mom comes walking through and she kind of stops and I say, “Ma.” In that ma way, “Ma, don’t freak out. But, yes, this is Marlon Brando.” And she walked over, she extended her hand and she said, “How do you do, Mr. Brando.”

LESLEY: She was perfect.

WHOOPI: She was perfect. She was absolutely perfect. And he spoke to her for a few minutes and then my mother said, “Well, I’ll leave you two to continue your chat,” as she called it. And so she went upstairs. And then about 15, 20 minutes later my brother came walking through. And my brother is the kind of guy that you … if you see him walking down the street, if you listen really closely you can hear the theme song of “Shaft.” He’s that cool.

So, here he comes walking through and he looks and he does this thing … you know, when you used to see people going down the street you’d do that thing with your chin? You’d lift your chin up and say, “Hey,” without saying a word. And that’s what he did to Marlon. Marlon lifted his chin up. My brother came forward and shook his hand and said, “How are you doing, man?” He said, “I’m cool. How about you?” That’s Marlon. “I’m cool. How about you?” “Oh, hi, man. I’ll see you later, OK?” Off my brother goes.

So we finish talking and Marlon never wanted to talk about the movies. He just … I don’t know, he didn’t like them but he knew that was how you made your dough. But what he really wanted to be was a lounge pianist.

LESLEY: And he came to practice at your house.

WHOOPI: Yes. But apparently he did this a lot. He played a lot. He was a terrible singer. But he played really well. And so, at the end of it, you know, I just thought to myself, “This is one of those moments in life that I will never forget,” just sitting back listening to Marlon Brando play the piano and talking to him on my couch in California, on a beautiful sunny day when all the doors and windows and gates were open.

JOAN: It’s a good one. Liz, you’ve got to have some.

LIZ: I can’t match Whoopi, but I guess the most unusual thing that happened to me with a celebrity was when Sidney Zion, the journalist, arranged for Frank Sinatra and me to meet – to make up from our feud. It had been going on for quite some time. He denounced me on world stages, and people had never heard of me before. And he helped make me famous. I said several times in my column what a bully I thought he was.

So anyway, I went to this meeting terrified and I changed my clothes about 100 times and I had on some girly little thing. And he sprang out of the booth at Jimmy Weston’s with his hand out and said, “I’m Francis. Call me Francis.” And I said, “Thank you, Mr. Sinatra.” But anyway, after our talk, we never mentioned that we had ever had an unkind word. We just talked about music and stuff like and about Irving Berlin and he liked it that I saw he was wearing a ring of Alexander the Great, and I commented, “No new worlds to conquer?”

And then he took me home, brought me back to my apartment in his car. And he kept holding my hand in the car and saying, “I want to do things for you. Is there anybody that bothers you? Would you like me to call on somebody and break their legs?” And I’d say, “Oh, no. I mean, everybody loves me, Mr. Sinatra.” And then, “Francis. Francis. Call me Francis.” And he gave me a card with his personal number on it. And he sent me orchids for 20 consecutive days. Every day I’d get another orchid. And he would call and say, “Can I do something for your charities?” Well, I was just terrified to accept anything. And I prayed every day after that he would never do anything bad again, that I’d ever have to write about.

And one time I went to Palm Springs and saw the Frank Sinatra Drive sign. So I jumped out of the car and had somebody take a picture of me under the sign. And then I sent it to him. And he called me, furious, “How dare you come here and not call me?” I would never have called him. Anyway, my romance with Frank Sinatra was certainly the high point of my life. I sent him stuff for his model train collection and we wrote each other. And I went to his private 70th birthday party at the Waldorf. It was just great to have him think he wanted to be my friend. His daughter, Tina, gave me a wonderful oil painting of oranges that they said was his favorite and it hangs in my bedroom.

LESLEY: You matched Whoopi. And now I’m mortified.

JOAN: You’ve got to have a head of state hanging around.

LESLEY: My most memorable experience has nothing whatever to do with any movie stars. And, in fact, it didn’t even have to do with any people. It had to do with gorillas. I hope you won’t think this is elitist. But many years ago I went to Africa and went to see the gorillas in the mist, Dian Fossey’s gorillas in Rwanda. And after a just grueling trek — and I am not a mountain climber or hiker or any of those things — I almost died on this trek. I got to the top of this mountain thinking that I would just end my life up there, because I was so exhausted. And there we were with this enormous troop of mountain gorillas. The most thrilling thing that’s ever happened to me in my life.

I looked into their eyes and I saw human eyes. They have our eyes! And I communicated. I thought I was communing with the leader of the troop. And eventually I sat down to relax, because I really was exhausted. And up came a female and she sat down beside me, right next to me, and reached out her hand to me. And as I reached across to touch her hand, which was just instinct — I wasn’t thinking — she reached out, and I reached back. The Sherpa, the lead guide with us, had a switch and he hit me on my hand. It was about to be a Sistine Chapel moment, right? And he hit my hand because we had been told that, whatever happens, you can’t touch them. And why is that? You would think that they would tell you that because you might get hurt? No. It was so we wouldn’t give the gorillas germs, human germs.

This was the most extraordinary, spectacular, spiritual experience of my life, being up there with those gorillas and having that female gorilla and me in our moment together.

LIZ: Well, Lesley, you just made Whoopi and me feel very cheap.

JOAN: Well now I can make you all feel very expensive. It’s a year ago and it’s dinner with some friends who have Buddhist leanings. And it’s dinner in a restaurant because a very great Holy Man from Tibet is in town. And I get there a little late and it’s a rectangular table. And I’m sat at the end facing a guy who’s wearing one of those one-shouldered orange and red kind of dress things, with the bare arm sticking out. And he’s got this beautiful face; he’s got these beautiful almond eyes that seem incredibly wise. He’s got these beautiful large pointy ears. He does not speak anything but Tibetan. So I smile at him, he smiles at me. I do a sort of prayer gesture towards him, he does the same thing towards me. They bring the food. Everyone else is having a great time on the rest of the table and I’m facing the Holy Man. And I don’t know what to do, so I start drawing on the tablecloth, which is paper.

I draw an airplane. I draw mountains. I draw sunshine. I do a drawing that shows he’s come from very far to bring us wisdom. And he smiles at me and I smile at him. And this goes on with me doing the stupid drawings and we’re sort of doing prayer signs to each other. And finally it gets unbearably tedious and boring and I pretend my cell phone is ringing and I make an excuse and I leave, because I can’t stand being in the presence of this Holy Man any more, because I’m not getting through. And the next day my friends call me and they say, “You were so sweet last night …” And they give me the unpronounceable name. And I say, “Well, thank you. I tried my best.” They said, “Nobody ever talks to him, you know. He’s the bodyguard.” So that was my biggest meeting.

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