From a 'Fresh Prince' cameo to her extensive voice work, reflect on some of the birthday girl's big and small screen hits
Happy Birthday, Oprah Winfrey!
The media mogul turns 70 on Jan. 29, 2024, a milestone that comes after decades of inspiring work across the stage and screen, in addition to her endless philanthropic endeavors and meaningful moments with fans.
It's also a milestone we're celebrating through a new PEOPLE special edition, Oprah: Her Incredible Life, available now.
While she might be best known for her eponymous talk show, which ran for 25 seasons and earned Winfrey numerous accolades, she also has an extensive acting career, notably scoring an Oscar nomination in 1986 for her supporting role in The Color Purple.
In honor of Winfrey's latest birthday, take a look back at some of her most iconic — and some of her lesser-known — television and film roles.
'The Color Purple'
Oprah Winfrey's first big-screen role was that of Sofia in 1985's The Color Purple.
"Doing the film was the most important thing that had ever happened to me and continues to be a central theme in my life," she told PEOPLE in 2023. "It's as big a miracle as my whole life has been, because I didn’t know one single soul in the business."
She added that the job "is the reason I ended up owning my own show, why I learned to surrender, do the hardest work and then let that work go. The Color Purple is why I created the culture at my company Harpo that I did, because I had seen at Steven Spielberg’s Amblin that you can own your own studio [and] make a family of your work," she continued. "That movie was a spiritual grounding for me."
Recently, Winfrey served as a producer on the 2023 version of the film.
'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air'
In 1992, Winfrey's talk show was the setting for Will Smith and his on-screen Banks family for an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. According to a synopsis, the crew appears as guests on The Oprah Winfrey Show, though their "personal bickering causes an uproar in the studio."
Winfrey has popped up as herself on many sitcoms through the years, including Home Improvement, The Hughleys, Drake & Josh and 30 Rock.
Winfrey both produced and starred in 1998's Beloved, the big-screen adaptation of Toni Morrison's 1987 novel that follows a formerly enslaved woman who kills one of her children to spare her from returning to enslavement. The film costarred Danny Glover and Thandiwe Newton as the titular Beloved, a ghost who haunts Winfrey's Sethe later in life.
After reading the book, "I called Toni and said to her, `You know, I loved this book — but do people tell you they have to keep going over it?' " Winfrey recalled in a chat with film critic Roger Ebert. "And she said, `That, my dear, is called reading.' "
Winfrey played Ellen DeGeneres' therapist on the famous 1997 "Puppy Episode" of Ellen, in which the comedian publicly came out.
"I was so nervous and you were cracking me up," Winfrey recalled 20 years later on an episode of DeGeneres' eponymous talk show. "I didn't even give it a thought ... I just said yes [to the part] because I so believed in your truth and I so wanted to support you."
"I was really shocked that you said yes," DeGeneres recalled of asking Winfrey to be on the episode. But, "I thought you would legitimize all of it. People would go, 'Oh we're not trying to make a joke of this, this is actually serious.' "
Winfrey recalled the volume of hate mail she received after the show aired. "I was ever so surprised by the hatred and how loud it was," she shared. "Up until that time I'd never had that type of thing slamming me in the face. What I thought was, 'Oh gee, I misread that everybody was like us, that they were open-minded and receptive and wanted people just to be who they are.' It taught me a lot actually."
Okay so she wasn't actually in 2007's Ocean's Thirteen, but in one scene, Brad Pitt's Rusty Ryan walks in on George Clooney's Danny Ocean getting emotional over an episode of her talk show.
'The Princess and the Frog'
The star has a long list of voice acting credits to her name, from Sesame Street and Charlotte's Web to Bee Movie and 2009's Disney classic, The Princess and the Frog, in which she voiced Tiana's mom, Eudora.
'Lee Daniels' The Butler'
Winfrey earned her sole BAFTA nomination for her powerful performance as Gloria Gaines, wife to White House butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), in the 2013 film Lee Daniels' The Butler.
"For me, stepping back into the acting world was a big decision, because I haven't done a film, I haven't picked up a script, I haven't read a line in 15 years," she said in a video shared with EW. But "she came out guns blazing," director Lee Daniels shared. "I thought to myself, 'How do I get the world not to recognize her as her?' " Daniels added. "How do I get her to disappear? But she was magical."
As a co-producer, Winfrey earned a Best Picture Academy Award nomination in 2015 for the historical drama Selma, in which she also played civil rights icon Annie Lee Cooper. (In 2012, she won the Oscars' Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.)
The film, directed by Ava DuVernay, detailed the voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in part across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, led by civil rights activists including John Lewis and Dr. Matin Luther King, Jr.
"Crossing the bridge, I thought, 'Wow, I'm literally walking in footsteps that paved the way for me nearly 50 years ago,' " she shared in a story on Oprah.com. "I knew this wasn't just filmmaking, but the creation of a story infused with an ancestral spirit."
Winfrey joined the cast of OWN's original drama Greenleaf for 11 episodes in 2016, after serving as executive producer. The series follows a family in Memphis that runs a megachurch; she played a sister to main character "First Lady" Daisy Mae Greenleaf.
"It's always been my dream to use the platform of drama and storytelling to reflect the lives of people of color onscreen in such a way that we can accurately see ourselves," Winfrey shared with Oprah.com. "Not melodrama, not soap, not over the top, but just you see a family sitting around a table and there's something about the connection in that family, the way that family looks, the way they respond to each other, the language they use, the nuances in their being with each other, when they're not even speaking, that you feel and see yourself."
'A Wrinkle in Time'
In 2018, Winfrey led the all-star cast of the film adaptation of the 1962 Madeleine L'Engle classic, A Wrinkle in Time, as Mrs. Which.
“Working on Wrinkle in Time was one of the best experiences of my career,” she told PEOPLE. “I love [director Ava DuVernay’s] vision that this is a film about young women, people who are willing to step up and be warriors.”
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