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Whoopi! She’s Santa

Goldberg plays Claus in made-for-cable movie

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Whoopi Goldberg may not be the first person you'd think of if you were casting a replacement for Santa Claus, but the Academy Award-winning actress didn't hesitate to take on the part in the TNT movie "Call Me Claus" — and she had the best of reasons for doing so.

"One of the reasons I did this is because I just wanted to have a little holiday special for my grandkids," Goldberg said in a recent interview with TV critics.

And "Call Me Claus" (which premieres Sunday at 6, 8 and 10 p.m. on TNT) is a nice little holiday special for kids. It's not overly original (comparisons to "The Santa Clause" are far too easy and not particularly flattering). It's pretty goofy and entirely predictable.

But it's pleasantly goofy and predictable.

Goldberg stars as Lucy Cullins, a somewhat Scrooge-like producer at a home-shopping network. Lucy lost the Christmas spirit when tragedy struck her family when she was a child.

Her lack of holly jolly-ness proves to be somewhat of a problem, however, when it turns out that she's destined to be the next in a long line of Santa Clauses, who, as it turns out, serve 200-year terms before giving way to their successors. And the incumbent Santa (Sir Nigel Hawthorne) has to convince Lucy to take the job or the icecaps will melt and the world will be destroyed.

(Which is a somewhat odd way to express the Christmas spirit.)

There's not a kid out there — no matter how young — who couldn't tell you how this one is going to end. But Hawthorne makes a convincing Santa, and Goldberg seems to be having fun with the movie.

It's not like anyone forced her to take the job. She's not only the star of "Call Me Claus" but one of the executive producers, along with country music superstar Garth Brooks, who contributes some of the music.

"What I love about this movie is everything," Brooks said. "I love what it stands for. I also love what it addresses."

And in the make-believe world of the movie, the concept of Santa is both color- and gender-blind.

"It's a great thing. . . . Stripping away everything from the fact that she's a female, the fact that she's black, to actually coming forward and saying that there is no color of Christmas, there is no sex of Christmas — it's about what's inside," Brooks said. "And that's the journey that we're going to take.

"We want to make a modern-day 'It's a Wonderful Life' and something that we'll be proud of 40 years from now when it plays, hopefully, on television sets everywhere around Christmas."

Well, "Call Me Claus" is no "Wonderful Life," but chances are this TV movie will be re-aired for a good many years to come.

And it will be mandatory viewing at Goldberg's home, if they can fit it in with all the other celebrating that goes on there.

"Christmas in my house is a madhouse because I love the holidays," she said. "So there are menorahs and giant Christmas trees and Santa Clauses and elves and all kinds of craziness. And Christmas is always one of the most special times in the world to me — mostly because of Walter Cronkite."

Um . . . how's that again?

"Well, you may recall that at the end of his broadcasts, particularly on Christmas Eve, Walter Cronkite would let us know that on that night at that particular time the world was at peace," Goldberg said. "And, having grown up through a lot of Vietnam, it was nice to know that there was no killing going on on that particular night. So it means a lot to me. The holidays mean a lot."

Which is the other reason she decided to do "Call Me Claus."

"As we're looking at lots of kids running around being afraid of things that happen in the world, I think it's the holidays that we owe them to allow them to be children," Goldberg said. "And they keep belief in Santa Claus and all other mythological figures alive so that they can have their childhood. So that's kind of why I did this."

E-mail: pierce@desnews.com