The 1985 movie “The Color Purple” made almost $98.5 million at the box office, but one of its stars, Oprah Winfrey, made only a fraction of that. The media mogul recently shared that she made only $35,000 when she played Ms. Sofia in the Oscar-nominated classic.
Some may find it hard to fathom that the founder of the OWN network, who is singly responsible for so many power players’ careers, would work for a low five figures. It was, however, her first movie role and the period piece only had a budget of $15 million. Today, Winfrey, now a billionaire, who is gearing up to premiere in the 2023 reboot of the film in December, says it is one of the best paychecks she has ever earned, and that she has no regrets.
In the original version, she starred opposite Whoopi Goldberg, who played Ms. Celie, and Margaret Avery, who played Shug Avery.
Low Money But High Impact
She says working on the new revamped film version of Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning book was a “full circle moment.” She recalled what it was like to play a role that would later earn her an Academy Award nomination and ultimately define an upward trajectory for her life — even though her payment was considered low.
That payment “changed everything,” she said.
The lesson she learned as a young woman just starting in her career was to simply “surrender.”
“I can’t even begin to tell you what it means to me — a person who wanted nothing more in my life than to be in ‘The Color Purple.’ And God taught me to surrender — that was the big lesson for me,” she said, during an interview with Essence Magazine.
“They were only offering $35,000 to be in this film, and it is the best $35,000 I ever earned. It changed everything and taught me so much. It is God moving through my life.”
Interestingly enough, a year after the movie was made in 1985, Winfrey founded Harpo Productions. Not only is the company a play on her name spelled backward, it is the name of the man her character was married to in the movie that changed her life.
Within two years, Harpo Productions acquired Winfrey’s talk show from ABC and eventually expanded to become Harpo Studios, Harpo Radio, Harpo Print and Harpo Films, Inc.
Films that she was able to produce overwhelmingly have received critical acclaim: The NAACP Image Award-nominated “Beloved” (1998), The NAACP Image Award-winning “The Great Debaters” (2007), Academy Award-nominated “Precious” (2009), and Academy Award-nominated “Selma” (2014).
The 2023 musical adaptation version of “The Color Purple” also will be under Harpo Films.
Winfrey’s connection to “The Color Purple” extends further than the 1985 film and the upcoming Christmas film that stars Taraji P. Henson (Shug), Danielle Brooks (Sofia), Colman Domingo, Corey Hawkins, H.E.R., Halle Bailey, Phylicia Pearl Mpasi and Fantasia Barrino (Celie).
In 2005, it was adapted into a Broadway musical. The Tony-nominated production, which starred LaChanze and Fantasia Barrino as Celie, Felicia P. Fields (Sofia), and Elisabeth Withers-Mendes (Shug), earned $103 million over its run, with the highest weekly gross, according to Playbill.com, being $1.394 million.
The musical closed, but was later revived in 2016.
In 2016, Winfrey’s team cast Cynthia Erivo (Celie), Jennifer Hudson (Shug Avery), and Danielle Brooks (Sofia). This cast would go on to win the Tony Award for Best Revival Musical. The production earned a total gross in its year run of $44 million, with the highest week slipping just a little under the first run at $1.17 million.
The $35,000 was a sacrifice of love for Winfrey that connected her to a title that has turned into a top-earning asset in her hefty portfolio. And, in her own words, she is “grateful.”