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WHOOPI RETURNS TO BROADWAY FOR HBO SPECIAL

Leave it to Whoopi Goldberg to find a way to mark two anniversaries at once.

The distinctive comedian and actress who owns an Oscar, a Tony and a Grammy launched her career in 1985 with a one-woman show on the Great White Way, which was taped and then shown to mark her debut on HBO.

She recently returned to the New York boards, and the cable network's cameras also returned to capture her updated solo performance . . . resulting in the special "Whoopi: Back to Broadway -- The 20th Anniversary," which HBO premieres at 10 p.m. Saturday.

Mike Nichols, who directed Goldberg's first Broadway showcase, also guided the new production. Some characters are the same, but many subjects have changed. Goldberg's creations, such as irrascible Fontaine, take the stage of New York's Lyceum Theatre with alternately comical and poignant views on topics from middle age to politics. The show not only lets Goldberg revisit varied personalities, it reintroduces audiences to the performance style that made her a star in the first place.

Q: Where did the idea of a 20th-anniversary show come from?

A: It just kept knocking on the door, if you will. It kept coming into my mind and saying to me, "There's a lot going on in the world. You might want to just start commenting." I finally thought, "Yeah, it's time." I took it to Philadelphia and discovered that some of the characters were no longer relevant, like the little girl with the long, luxurious blond hair. The things she had wanted to see back then actually were happening, like Queen Latifah and Halle Berry and all these women of color appearing in places they didn't 20 years ago. She said, "My job is done" and sort of faded away.

Q: How was it for you to have to give up such characters?

A: It was a shock! I thought, "When did all this happen?" but the truth is that certain things have changed . . . and for the better. I'm happy about it, because I don't have to keep belaboring those points. They're not issues anymore.

Q: Is a return to this sort of multicharacter, multitone showcase liberating for you?

A: It was very freeing, but it was also tough. When people have an expectation of who they think you are, you have to swim through all of that first. I don't know where I got it, but I have a reputation for being controversial. I've just always talked about things that I see and that seem to be prevalent in the world, so fighting through the critics was hard. They weren't critiquing the work but the personality. Once they said whatever they had to say and were gone, I had just the best time with this. I flew like a bird.

Q: Were you concerned about the audience accepting you in such a show again 20 years later?

A: No, because in the last 20 years, I would go and play a casino sporadically. I knew that the audience for a live performance, in terms of what I do, was always there. The thing people know about my work -- whether they like it or not -- is that it is never dull, and that it will make you laugh and make you cry and make you annoyed.

I had folks who walked out, mostly during the Fontaine segment, and all I could think was, "Why did you come?" Unless you see that my show was written by Eugene O'Neill, you've gotta figure there will be some dicey stuff. I guess some people came expecting to see the sweeter Whoopi of "Sister Act" or other movies I've done.

Q: Were such walkouts confirmations that you still had your edge?

A: Yes, it was great, and the rest of the audience loved it! I was never rude about it; I'd just say, "See ya. Have a good rest of the day. 'Wicked' is playing right up the street." You don't want to exacerbate an already frustrating experience for people.

Q: How do you assess your past 20 years?

A: I think I've had an extraordinary career. There are times when I feel like I'm being erased or dismissed -- I know a lot of the industry thought it was odd that I would go and do something like "Hollywood Squares" -- but people never think about the day-to-day life of taking care of things and supporting a family. If you sit around saying, "I'm a movie star and I only do movie-star roles," you'll starve to death. We work to keep our fingers in the pot, knowing that careers go up and down, and knowing that you have to keep yourself active for your own state of mind . . . but also knowing that we live in a "What have you done lately?" world.