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The Prayer

Whoopi Goldberg duels with Disney -- The star of ''Sister Act'' creates controversy on and off the set

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Whoopi Goldberg tore her black jeep from its space outside a Los Angeles rehearsal studio. At a red light, she jerked to a stop by Carrie Fisher's black Mercedes coupe and punched in the number of Fisher's car phone. They had both just survived a stressful rehearsal of Disney's Sister Act, the music-filled comedy opening this week about a rowdy Reno lounge singer (Goldberg) who takes refuge from the mob in a San Francisco convent. As they waited at the light last September, the shooting date was fast approaching, the script was a wreck, and Whoopi was not amused.

Since signing with Disney's Touchstone division to do the film five months earlier, she and the studio had squabbled bitterly over rehearsal schedules, the development of her character, and the direction of the film. By September she even joked about it in a videotape she sent to a Friars roast honoring her ailing friend Richard Pryor. ''Working for Disney again, I do feel like a nigger,'' she told Pryor. ''So I just wanted to say I'm sorry I can't be there... I'm picking cotton for Disney these days.''

As the light turned green, Whoopi was ready to give Carrie Fisher an earful. A friend of both Goldberg and Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, Fisher had just been hired to work on Goldberg's dialogue and (unofficially at least) to bring peace to a production skidding out of control. Earlier that same day at rehearsal, Fisher had overheard Whoopi shouting at Katzenberg on the office phone. He wanted her main love interest to be black. Goldberg insisted on auditioning white actors as well. One of Katzenberg's comments set the actress off. ''How long have you been in this business?'' she shot back into the phone.

Now, car phones clamped to their ears, Goldberg and Fisher talked as they cruised down Santa Monica Boulevard, Carrie leading as she headed toward her Beverly Hills home, Whoopi trailing and heading to Malibu. ''You're having a pissing contest with a guy who actually has a dick,'' Fisher told her, gesticulating in the rearview mirror. ''I don't particularly advise people to take my advice,'' Fisher added, ''but I would avoid (fighting him). Send Jeffrey a hatchet and say, 'Please bury this on both our behalfs.'''

At home, Whoopi took a long shower and thought it over. The next day Katzenberg received his hatchet. Within a few days a token of Katzenberg's respect arrived at her front door: two enormous brass balls.

It was a tenuous truce in one of the most talked-about Hollywood battles of the past year, pitting America's most successful black actress against its most white-bread studio. From June to December, the industry watched with fascination. It had shades of the notorious Marrying Man imbroglio — another fight between a headstrong star (Alec Baldwin) and the famously interventionist and cost-conscious folks at Disney. It was also a battle against time and budget, with seven screenwriters on the front lines, sometimes furiously writing scenes only a day ahead of production. It has become a case study of all that can go wrong with a movie — and all that can go right. For there is a happy ending. Against all odds, Sister Act looks like a major hit for Disney and another career boost for the superhot Goldberg.

The whole story began three years ago.

''I was trying to think of an idea for Bette Midler,'' recalls screenwriter Paul Rudnick. Some Like It Hot, the 1959 drag farce starring Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, reeled through his mind. ''I was feeling around for a similar situation involving disguises or something, and the notion of nuns and showgirls popped into my brain.'' A comedy took shape. A broken-down Atlantic City showgirl, ''the most lapsed Catholic of all time,'' would be forced to put on a habit and hide in a convent after witnessing a rubout by her mafioso boyfriend. Her career is redeemed when she leads the convent choir to greatness. ''It was kind of show biz versus the church,'' says Rudnick, ''and show biz would definitely win.''

David Hoberman, the president of Touchstone, bought the idea in 1990 with Midler in mind. But then the idea languished in development for a year, and Rudnick's contract expired in February 1991. Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., the writing team behind Top Gun, were then hired to change the locales and put the heroine in more — to use the studio's word — ''jeopardy.''

But they still didn't have Midler. She'd been lukewarm to the idea from the beginning. Plus, she wanted the Spanish king of camp, Pedro Almodovar (High Heels) to direct. Disney insisted on Emile Ardolino (Three Men and a Little Lady).

After reading the Cash and Epps rewrite, Ardolino and Rudin rehired Rudnick (''What was supposed to have been a satire of The Singing Nun had become The Singing Nun,'' says a source). Locations changed again. Rewrites piled up. Frustrated, Rudnick left for good after less than a month back on the job.

Meanwhile, the studio looked for Midler's replacement: Cher, Tracey Ullman, Madonna were all considered. But Goldberg's Oscar for Ghost had made her a hot item again after a string of disappointing films. Touchstone offered her $2 million to play Deloris Von Cartier, even though no one knew whether she could sing. ''Asking me to sing,'' she admits, ''is like asking me to be an Olympic swimmer.''

The producers were sure she could learn, but when Goldberg missed her first three appointments last summer with vocal consultant Seth Riggs, the wrestling match commenced. One producer says the studio almost fired her immediately. Goldberg contends that those rehearsals were scheduled a full month before her contract began.

But the loudest hollers coming from Burbank that summer concerned the casting of her love interest. In early drafts of the script, Goldberg's character fell in love with Eddie, the cop who hides her from the mob. Touchstone already had cast a white actor (Harvey Keitel) as the mafioso boyfriend and wanted to make Eddie black. One source says that Goldberg ''has crushes on a lot of white actors,'' and wanted a white boyfriend. She recommended Dennis Farina (Crime Story). She also suggested some black actors — including Charles S. Dutton and Gregory Hines — but none of them was available. ''I just wanted them to cast somebody great, you know?'' says Goldberg. ''(But) it just became, 'We gotta find somebody black.'''

Ardolino saw both sides. ''The studio was very sensitive to the notion that this was a major black female star,'' he says, ''and that there was a role here that could be played by a black man.'' The studio finally hired Bill Nunn (Do the Right Thing, Regarding Henry), who is black. (Ironically, Ardolino ultimately nixed the romance between the characters anyway.)

So the cast was in place, with Kathy Najimy (Soapdish) as the bubbly Sister Mary Patrick, newcomer Wendy Makkena as shy Sister Mary Robert, and Maggie Smith (A Room With a View) as the formidable Mother Superior. Now all they needed was a script doctor — that obscenely well-paid Hollywood specialist known for last-minute miracles. Touchstone hired a hospital full-each at about $80,000 per week — starting with Nancy Meyers (Father of the Bride). Then Goldberg summoned Carrie Fisher, one of the most sought after doctors in town.

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