Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King on the set of 'The Color Purple' (1985)
Courtesy Gayle King

Gayle King shared the behind-the-scenes story of her brief appearance in the 1985 film The Color Purple with Lise Funderburg and Scott Sanders for their book Purple Rising. Here, King’s story about her relationship with Alice Walker’s novel and its multiple adaptations.

The Color Purple has been with me from the very beginning. I read the book because Oprah had strongly recommended it. I can’t say it’s something I would’ve picked up, but she was just raving about it. And of course it delivered.

The first time I got to go on a set was when they were shooting the movie. It was Oprah’s first movie, so I was just going as a looky-loo just to see what she was doing because I was so psyched that she had gotten a part. Not only a part, but a bona fide part. I was her friend and was just going to cheer her on. I was like, “Can I come?” We’d already been friends for at least 10 years, and we were clearly best friends, so that didn’t seem like an inappropriate ask. I was a news anchor in Hartford, Conn., at the time, and I took vacation days to go. I’d never been on a movie set before, so I thought everything was cool: the craft table, lights, camera, action, all the costumes. And then to see her in her first acting job—that added to it.

I still am trying to figure out how I ended up in a costume in the wedding scene, because I certainly didn’t ask to do that. I would’ve never dreamed of asking. Either Oprah said something or a producer said, “Would your friend like to be in the movie?”

“Doing what?”

“All she has to do is just stand there.” I didn’t even know what I was agreeing to.

Look, if you blink, you will miss me. You actually have to go frame by frame to catch me. Put it in slow motion. But that was OK. I was excited to get a wardrobe and be told where to stand. And I realized that moviemaking is a very long, tedious process, because you do take after take after take after take. To say that I am in the movie is being generous. I’m just standing there. I did try to stand next to Oprah, so at least I wouldn’t get totally cut out.

I was not one of those people who said, “Let me stand in the back row.”

Twenty years later, when I was editor at large for Oprah’s magazine, I ended up at a table reading of the Broadway show. No props, no costumes. I was just going to make a pop-through to be polite because Scott [Sanders] had asked me, and I was going to leave halfway through. I didn’t know what we were going to see.

I couldn’t even understand how that movie could translate on a stage. Almost from the moment they began, though, I was so blown away. It was the power of the words and their voices. I said, “Oh, I need to see how this ends.” I called my office and said, “Call my lunch plans and say something has come up.”

What brought me to tears was the voices and the words to the songs. “Dear God – Shug,” “I’m Here,” “The Color Purple,” “Too Beautiful for Words.” I mean, I was mesmerized. And I called Oprah and said, “You should really pay attention to this. This is something very special.” I said to her, “I can’t even describe to you what I just saw and heard. But it literally made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.” She said, “I’ll come and see it.” And she felt what I felt. And the rest, as they say, is history.

I saw the Broadway play 17 times. Anytime somebody would come into town, I would say, “You’ve got to go see this.” LaChanze from the very beginning to Cynthia Erivo and all of the permutations in between, I saw.

And now, with Blitz Bazawule’s film, you have the third interpretation. It’s interesting that this one piece of work can have all these adaptations and forms, and all of them are still brilliant and still beautiful.

Am I in the new movie? No. Uh-huh. No one asked me to do anything, including Oprah. No one said, “Hey, would you like to be in it?” All they said when I visited the set was, “Hey, Gayle.”

Copyright © 2023 by Scott Sanders Productions, Inc. From the forthcoming book Purple Rising by Lise Funderburg and Scott Sanders, to be published by Atria Books, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, LLC. Printed by permission.

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