The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Ernie Hudson
By Mother Brain
I have written about my love for almost all things Ghostbusters on countless occasions for the blog. It still remains one of my all-time favorite movies ever and not one single character is forgettable in it. Yet, when the original was released in the summer of 1984, one actor was left off the poster and most advertisements: Ernie Hudson. As the actor best known for the role of Winston Zeddemore in Ghostbusters 1 and 2, Hudson has had the most prolific career of all the cast. It wasn’t because of the franchise’s success. It was all about paying bills.
Born Earnest Lee Hudson in Benton Harbor, Michigan, the future Ghostbuster endured tragedy way too young. His father was absent from his life while his mother passed from tuberculosis while Hudson was just an infant. Raised by his maternal grandmother, Hudson found an escape through writing. He wrote short stories, poems, and songs throughout his youth and into high school where he had ambitions to write for the stage. Upon graduation from Benton Harbor High School, Hudson joined the Marine Corps and was eventually discharged after three months due to asthma.
Hudson moved to Detroit and became a playwright at the famous black theatre company, Concept East. He was also pursuing his writing and acting studies at Wayne State University as well as the Actors’ Ensemble Theatre, then graduated from Yale School of Drama. While attending Yale, he caught the attention of Shaft director Gordon Parks who was casting Leadbelly, a biopic about blues singer Huddie Leadbetter. It was Hudson’s first film role and he followed up with comedian Rudy Ray Moore’s blaxploitation romp, The Human Tornado. Unfortunately, neither film did much to attract any attention to Hudson.
The next six years of Hudson’s career consisted of guest starring roles of several popular TV shows and small parts in box office hits such as The Main Event and The Jazz Singer. He was still studying and performing in theatre during this period, including the lead for a Minneapolis Theatre production of The Great White Hope. Then in 1982, a friend of Hudson’s helped him land the main villain role of Half Dead in Penitentiary II which was also Mr. T’s first film role after Rocky III. His over the top performance of a vengeful con with a fetish for cross-dressing made Hudson a favorite for the cult fan base of the Penitentiary trilogy. Next, he paired with the late John Candy and the rest of the Second City troupe in the 1983 comedy, Going Berserk. Initially called in for a smaller part, Hudson convinced producers he was right for the part of the dead man handcuffed to Candy on the streets at night.
Before Hudson auditioned for Ghostbusters, co-writer Dan Aykroyd had the part of Winston written in mind for Eddie Murphy following their successful collaboration in Trading Places. He was described as “an Air Force major something, a demolitions guy.” Murphy turned down the film due to his real fear of ghosts and the part was up for grabs when Hudson auditioned and got cast. But a few weeks before production began, Aykroyd and Harold Ramis cut back on Winston, saving his introduction for after the first act. It had more to do with the studio’s call to increase Bill Murray’s presence as Ghostbusters would be the film that made him a worldwide attraction.
Despite his disappointment in a decreased role, Hudson made the most out of Ghostbusters. His character served as the mouthpiece for the audience even more than Murray’s Peter Venkman. Winston would bring the grounded spiritual aspect to the supernatural science jargon being spit around the film and still managed to come out of the film with some memorable lines. For me, my personal favorite scene was one that nearly got cut from the film: Winston and Ray Stantz driving the Ecto-1 on the Manhattan Bridge while having a deep conversation about the existence of God. It’s a moment like this that keeps one foot in reality for a film manifested by ghosts, groundbreaking special effects, and commentary about city politics.
In spite of Ghostbusters’ massive success, Hudson found it difficult to capitalize on its success because of the fact that the marketing overshadowed him. Subsequent roles after Ghostbusters were just more character parts on television, including the short lived comedy series The Last Precinct. Most casting directors considered him a comedian and refused to cast him because of Ghostbusters. He was even turned down by the show runners of the animated series in favor of Arsenio Hall! Although he was given more weight to the Winston role in Ghostbusters 2 (plus his likeness on the poster), he was still overshadowed by the rest of the cast. If anything, his career at the time was similar to the first scene where he and Aykroyd show up at a kid’s birthday party in full gear. Ironic considering his appearance on The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! around the time of the film’s release.
The 90s proved to be a more kinder period for Hudson where he could now prove he was more than a guy with a proton pack. Before Ghostbusters 2’s release, Hudson was part of the ensemble of the sci-fi thriller, Leviathan, where he plays the member of an underwater mining crew who sacrifices himself to protect them from a mutagen creature; however, it was the surprise 1992 Curtis Hanson hit, The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, that turned casting directors’ heads with Hudson. He played the mentally disabled neighbor and caretaker to the family being tormented by Rebecca DeMornay’s psycho babysitter role. It was the most challenging in Hudson’s career and the most carefully researched. Now Hollywood was ready to take Hudson seriously.
More high profile parts came to Hudson after Cradle. In 1994, he headlined opposite Ray Liotta in the sci-fi thriller, No Escape; played an ex-fighter-turned-drug dealer opposite Wesley Snipes in Sugar Hill; a badass African guide in Congo; a neighborhood friend helping Leonardo DiCaprio off drugs in The Basketball Diaries; and a hostage negotiator cop in Adam Sandler’s earliest comedy, Airheads, which also featured a cameo by Harold Ramis.
Hudson was also the third billed star in Brandon Lee’s tragically final film, The Crow, where he played the cop investigating the title character’s death. Hudson and Lee had been friends for years until the film went into production as Hudson was a major fan of his legendary father Bruce Lee. Like many of the people involved on the shoot, Hudson never fully recovered from the circumstances of Lee’s on set death; however, Crow still remains one of his favorite films.
A new following of fans came to Hudson’s attention when he played Warden Leo Glynn for seven seasons on HBO’s prison drama, Oz. The Tom Fontana-scripted series surrounded Hudson with the best actors in television during that period including Chris Meloni, J.K. Simmons, Eamonn Walker, Dean Winters, and countless others. It also gave him the opportunity to work with his son, Ernie, Jr., who played a Muslim inmate for a few episodes.
From the 2000s and on, Hudson has worked restlessly on television with occasional film roles in Miss Congeniality 2 and Dragonball Evolution. He has received positive notices for roles in the HBO movie, Lackawanna Blues, and recurring roles on shows such as Law & Order, Psych, and Desperate Housewives. His biggest compliment was playing himself on How I Met Your Mother in 2011. There have also been several voiceover roles including Agent Fowler in Transformers: Prime and of course Winston in the critically acclaimed Ghostbusters video game from 2009. It was the last time we would see all four actors together before Harold Ramis’ passing earlier this year. It was the very fear Hudson had that would end any hope of a third Ghostbusters movie. Since then, he has been vocal about the unnecessary attempt to revamp the franchise with an all-female group under the direction of Bridesmaids director Paul Feig.
I end this on a personal note as Andre´ Joseph to share my brief encounter with Hudson. When I was casting my first feature film, Priceless, I had a mutual connection through a friend who thought Hudson would be good for one of the roles. It lead to a ten minute phone conversation while he was working on Desperate Housewives where I told him how much I admired his work in the past and pitched the role I had in mind for him. He was a gentleman, extremely humbled, and very open about the blessings in his career. While we were unable to collaborate due to financial and creative reasons, that phone conversation made me feel like my childhood and my career were coming full circle. I’m eternally grateful to him for taking the time to talk to me and I still hold hope we can work together down the road.