There's a story about Whoopi Goldberg that people in Hollywood like to tell; screenwriter William Goldman even put it in print in his 1990 book, Hype and Glory: Director Rob Reiner is casting Buttercup, the beautiful blond title character in his 1987 movie, The Princess Bride, and gets a call from an agent.
''You still haven't got a Buttercup?'' asks the voice on the phone.
''Have you got one?'' queries Reiner.
''It's amazing casting,'' says the voice.
By now, Reiner's impatient. ''I'm waiting, I'm waiting.''
People always laugh. But not Whoopi Goldberg. ''They thought it was the stupidest thing they'd ever heard,'' she says. ''It hurt so bad.'' Then came 1992 a year of sweet revenge. She fulfilled the promise of her 1990 Oscar for Ghost, which had healed a career broken by one too many Clara's Hearts. She scored one triumph after another in The Player and Sister Act; on HBO's benefit for the homeless, Comic Relief V; and as host of the Grammys. And she finally wrote her own fairy tale, with herself in the lead role. Her children's book, Alice, published by Bantam, features a little Goldberg look-alike who heads off to New York to find True Happiness.
And why shouldn't she play a princess? By putting her in a habit, Sister Act made $139 million. Imagine what she could do wearing a tiara. As The Player's Detective Avery, she did quite well in clogs and socks righteous, menacing, twirling a tampon. And as the cosmic barkeep on Star Trek: The Next Generation, she is wise, despite her kooky flattop hats. She turned up in all kinds of places in 1992 even in the most delicious celebrity-romance rumor of the year, linking her with Ted Danson. On the Grammys, she showed some of the raw Whoopi from her stand-up days: ''In the category New Faces of the Year,'' she announced, straight-faced, ''the winner is Michael Jackson.''
Even her failures have been noble. Despite low ratings for her fawning TV talker, The Whoopi Goldberg Show, which began in September, she doesn't plan to scrap the one-guest, half-hour format she fought for. And the bomb Sarafina! signaled a victory. The hopelessly noncommercial musical was released by Disney, which had battled with her over scheduling and dialogue during the filming of Sister Act. Disney's support was seen as a way of making up and wooing her back for a Sister sequel.
At 37, this mother and grandmother lives in Malibu, in the kind of place she dreamed about while watching Joan Crawford movies as a kid in New York City. There's a new true story about her in Hollywood the one in which she asks to audition for the Bridget Fonda role in Single White Female. ''What a great twist, if they had decided to put me in that part,'' she says. ''I'm not gonna stop doing it, stop trying to get the gigs. I also want to do Eleanor of Aquitaine, you know?'' First, Princess Buttercup. Now, French royalty. Is this a pattern?