1. Headline
  1. Headline
TODAY contributor

Explainer: Oprah's most memorable moments

  • Oprah Winfrey is a kind of teacher. Since 1986, via her classroom called "The Oprah Winfrey Show," she's taught us it's OK to cry, OK to share our problems, OK to give away cars to an entire audience and OK to love books. In return, she has earned the uniquely American honor of being known by her first name only, and according to Forbes magazine, became the first female black billionaire.

    With the launch of her cable channel OWN in January, Oprah has already metaphorically left the stage, but she'll be doing so for real on May 25. So here, we take a look back at some of the biggest moments from the show that made this woman and her big heart a giant star.

  • Oprah and her little red wagon (1988)

    Oprah's ongoing battle with the bulge has kept her human and sympathetic in many viewers' hearts. She's living proof that all the money in the world can't buy you a size 6 body if your body ain't having it.

    But in 1988 she knocked everyone's socks off by wheeling out 67 pounds of fat in a little red wagon, the amount of weight she'd lost by going on Optifast and essentially eating nothing for four months. (Oh, and her bod was pretty rockin', too.)

    Sadly, she ruined her metabolism with the diet and has been going up and down ever since.

  • Interview with a mass murderer (1989)

    Oprah and crazed killers are hardly unfamiliar company, though she's more likely to bring in victims or relatives of the dead to speak about their experiences. (Examples: Jim Jones Jr. and John Wayne Gacy's sister).

    Maybe she learned her lesson from this never-aired segment: While interviewing a man who had killed eight people and some of his victims' families, she called a halt to the proceeding, deciding this was not the direction she wanted to go.

    Story: A-listers turn Oprah's farewell show into a star-studded event
  • The king of pop sends an invitation (1993)

    Reclusive and already a bit odd in 1993 (though not yet an accused child molester), Michael Jackson rarely gave interviews. But when he decided to sit down for a free-for-all chat, he picked Oprah to do the questioning.

    She visited Neverland Ranch and went over just about every rumor that had been thrown at him, including his gradually whitening skin and whether he owned the bones of John Merrick (aka the "Elephant Man"). The 90-minute show was Oprah's most-watched, with 100 million people tuning in.

  • Mad cows and the doctor (1996)

    Oprah didn't want to know where the beef was in this segment — she wanted to know what was in the beef. After learning about mad cow disease from expert Howard Lyman, she stated she'd never eat another burger.

    Texas cattlemen saw their industry torpedoed by that opinion and sued — and lost. But another beefy result emerged from the trial: Oprah hired Phil McGraw's company, Courtroom Sciences, to assist in jury analysis. She liked the owner so much she started having him on her show regularly.

    In 2002, Dr. Phil got his own series. So far, it's been working pretty well for him.

    Video: Drs. Phil and Oz on Oprah's impact
  • Reading is fundamental (1996)

    Book lovers can't understand a world where someone has no interest in reading, but Oprah knew there were potential readers out there who just needed to be reached. In 1996, she launched her book club to spotlight one book each month — the first was "The Deep End of the Ocean" — and in the process created superstar best-sellers of her choices, and almost her own genre.

    Despite the massive publicity and sales that would ensue from a mention on her show, not every author was happy to be chosen. Jonathan Franzen was embarrassed to have his "The Corrections" on her list. But whatever you may think of her choices, Oprah gets millions to read.

    theGrio slideshow: Oprah's most memorable hairdos

  • Philosopher, poet, boy of peace (2001)

    Though only 11 when he came on her show, Mattie Stepanek was a marvel of the human spirit beyond anything Hollywood has ever tried to capture on film. Confined to a wheelchair due to his diagnosis of a rare form of muscular dystrophy, Stepanek had three wishes: To have his poetry published, to meet his hero Jimmy Carter to talk about world peace, and to meet Oprah.

    All came true. Stepanek's numerous "Heartsongs" books hit the top of The New York Times' best-seller lists, and he met Carter and Oprah — both of whom who attended his funeral in 2004.

  • These are just a few of Oprah's favorite things (2002)

    Even people who didn't watch Oprah wanted the golden ticket to her annual smorgasbord giveaway of stuff — which is why these shows were never announced in advance. Starting in 2002, Oprah began giving away all sorts of gifts to her audience en masse, everything from food items to beauty products to top-of-the-line high tech gizmos.

    The only thing an audience could expect was the unexpected: One year she gave away prizes to an audience of teachers, and one year to volunteers of the Hurricane Katrina cleanup. She skipped 2009 ("For the last couple of years, it just wasn't feeling right," an executive producer had said), and then went overboard in 2010 with two days of "ultimate favorite things."

    Clearly, there's always a way to top yourself — even if you're Oprah.

  • Everybody gets a car! (2004)

    And then there was the car giveaway. The episode started interestingly, with a highly promoted Pontiac car. Then Oprah brought 11 audience members to the stage and told them they'd each be getting one of the vehicles. Mayhem ensued. Tears were shed. Then she let the cat out of the bag: Under everyone's seat was a gift box, and inside one of those boxes would be a key to a 12th car.

    Nope! Each box had a key, and everyone in the audience got a brand-new car. Pandemonium ensued — plus the memorable sound of Oprah also losing it, shouting, "Everybody gets a car!" over and over. Of course, the episode was probably much more fun for those in the audience than the folks eating lunch on their La-Z-Boy recliner.

  • Cruise takes the couch (2005)

    For a long while, Tom Cruise's sexuality had been under question in the press. When he met Katie Holmes, everyone shrugged. Well, Cruise was not going to have any of that.

    When he went on Oprah for a chat, her mere query about his new squeeze drove him over the edge. He began gesticulating and kneeling, then got up and jumped up and down on the couch in what felt oddly like a planned display of overenthusiastic joy. Cruise never got an award for it, but in many ways it was Cruise's most memorable performance.

    Interactive: Watch: Oprah screaming celeb names
  • James Frey gets his behind handed to him (2006)

    Having placed James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces" "memoir" on her book-club list, Oprah was completely behind Frey when she brought him on her show in October 2005 in a segment called "The Man Who Kept Oprah Awake at Night."

    The book was propelled into bestseller nirvana — until The Smoking Gun revealed that Frey must have made up multiple segments of the book. Frey confessed, and then even more strangely went back on Oprah's show in January 2006, where she berated him for lying to the public.

    She apologized later — not that she needed to — and in a final coup de grace, Frey has been announced as one of her final guests, making another appearance before the May 25 finale of her show.

    What do you think is "The Oprah Winfrey Show's" most memorable moment? Tell us on our TV blog The Clicker's Facebook page.

    Randee Dawn is a freelance writer based in New York, and was born with a remote control in her hand. She is the co-author of "The Law & Order: SVU Unofficial Companion."

Video: Cruise, Beyonce say goodbye to Oprah

Photos: Oprah's farewell spectacular

loading photos...
  1. A lovely tribute

    Halle Berry, left, Katie Holmes, center, and Queen Latifah attend Surprise Oprah! A Farewell Spectacular at the United Center in Chicago on Tuesday, May 17. "The Oprah Winfrey Show" is ending its run May 25, after 25 years, and millions of her fans around the globe are waiting to see how she will close out a show that spawned a media empire. (Daniel Boczarski / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Shine a light

    Fans hold up lights as Rascal Flatts perform during a star-studded double-taping of "Surprise Oprah! A Farewell Spectacular" on Tuesday, May 17 in Chicago. (Charles Rex Arbogast / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A ha-ha moment

    Oprah Winfrey laughs with poet Maya Angelou during the taping of "Oprah's Surprise Spectacular" in Chicago on Tuesday, May 17. Winfrey kicked off one of her last-ever national talk shows on Tuesday with hugs from Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise and Madonna in a packed United Center. (John Gress / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Amazing Aretha

    Aretha Franklin performs "Amazing Grace" for Oprah Winfrey during the Tuesday, May 17 taping. She was introduced by Winfrey's longtime partner, Stedman Graham. (Daniel Boczarski / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. She likes Mike

    Michael Jordan, who lead the Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles in the 1990s, was also among the stars who feted the talk host. He told Winfrey that she inspires him. (Daniel Boczarski / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. At her side

    Stedman Graham, Winfrey's longtime partner, told her that he loved her and was proud of her during the taping on Tuesday, May 17. "It really does amaze me that I get to be around a woman who changes people's lives every day and who also takes her own lunch to work," Graham told the crowd at the United Center. (Daniel Boczarski / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Giving thanks

    About 300 Morehouse College scholarship students walked along the United Center aisles as Kristen Chenoweth sang "For Good" from the musical "Wicked" during the Tuesday, May 17 taping. (Daniel Boczarski / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Oprah and her friends

    Gayle King, left, and Maria Shriver, right, were at Winfrey's side during the taping of "Surprise Oprah! A Farewell Spectacular." Shriver appeared on the same day it was revealed her husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, fathered a child with a woman on his household staff more than a decade ago. (Daniel Boczarski / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Lady Madonna

    Pop superstar Madonna said she is among the millions of people who are inspired by Winfrey. "She fights for things she believes in, even if it makes her unpopular," she said. (Daniel Boczarski / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Serenading Oprah

    "America's Got Talent" phenom Jackie Evancho, left, Patti LaBelle, center, and Josh Groban perform "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" for Winfrey. (Daniel Boczarski / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Oprah's babies

    Actress Dakota Fanning, surrounded by children, told Winfrey "we call ourselves Oprah show babies. Your voice has been the soundtrack of our lives." (Daniel Boczarski / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A song just for Oprah

    Stevie Wonder serenaded Winfrey with an original song, singing to her, "Oprah thank you for using your gifts to uplift so many hearts." He also performed "Isn't She Lovely" with Jamie Foxx. (Daniel Boczarski / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Power couple

    Jamie Foxx pays tribute to Winfrey during "Surprise Oprah! A Farewell Spectacular" at the United Center in Chicago on Tuesday, May 17. (Daniel Boczarski / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Playing it straight from the heart

    Comedian Jerry Seinfeld was among the many stars who paid tribute to Winfrey. (Daniel Boczarski / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A Rosie tribute

    Talk-show host Rosie O'Donnell sings during the taping of "Surprise Oprah!" on Tuesday, May 17. O'Donnell has a new show set to debut on Winfrey's OWN network this fall. (John Gress / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Saluting the 'goddess'

    Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith also joined Winfrey on the stage. The couple started off the taping of the second show, which will air on Tuesday, May 24. Pinkett Smith, right, thanked Winfrey and told her she mothered millions and "that puts you in the status of a goddess." (Daniel Boczarski / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. No couch this time

    Tom Cruise, famous for his couch jumping on Winfrey's show, was among the stars at "Surprise Oprah!" on Tuesday, May 17. "You always had the power, and that is the message you brought into our lives," Cruise told Winfrey. (John Gress / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Girl power

    Beyonce sings "Run the World (Girls)," backed by dozens of dancers, during "Surprise Oprah! A Farewell Spectacular." (Peter Wynn Thompson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Just a few of her friends

    Oprah Winfrey is kissed by singer Usher, third from left, next to actor Will Smith, center, former NBA star Michael Jordan, third from right, actor Tom Cruise, second from right, talk host Rosie O'Donnell, right, and Simon Cowell, left, during the taping of "Surprise Oprah!" on Tuesday, May 17. (John Gress / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Farewell

    Oprah Winfrey wiped away tears as celebrity after celebrity surprised her during a farewell double-episode taping of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" that will precede her finale. "Thank you is not enough, but thank you," Winfrey told the crowd of 13,000 gathered at Chicago's United Center on Tuesday, May 17 for "Surprise Oprah! A Farewell Spectacular." "For your love and your support, thank you." (Peter Wynn Thompson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  1. Image: Surprise Oprah! A Farewell Spectacular
    Daniel Boczarski / Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (20) Oprah's farewell spectacular
  2. Paramount Pictures
    Slideshow (37) Oprah Winfrey

More on TODAY.com

  1. @HillaryClinton/twitter

    Hillary Clinton: Granddaughter led me 'to speed up' political plans

    4/10/2015 3:58:42 PM +00:00 2015-04-10T15:58:42
  1. Courtesy Bryan Morseman

    Marathon dad's victories help raise money for son with spina bifida

    4/10/2015 5:54:50 PM +00:00 2015-04-10T17:54:50
  1. YouTube

    8 great celebrity impressions of other celebrities

    4/10/2015 6:44:22 PM +00:00 2015-04-10T18:44:22