For decades, Ernie Hudson has worked steadily, appearing in such films as The Crow, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Congo, and Miss Congeniality. Later he would land a leading role on the trailblazing HBO series Oz. But for most of the world, Hudson will forever be Winston in the 1984 mega-hit phenomenon Ghostbusters, which turned out to be both a blessing and a curse.
Thirty-eight years later, with the recent release of his Quantum Leap reboot, the actor speaks candidly on making peace with the legacy of Ghostbusters, the obstacles he’s faced in his life and career, favorite roles and icons (including Yale classmate Meryl Streep), and looking ahead.
LEO: What made you want to become an actor?
ERNIE HUDSON: I was very bad at everything else. I got married right out of high school, went to the Marine Corp, was discharged after 10 weeks because I had asthma. I was dating a girl who had a bad family situation, got married, she got pregnant. I had to work a lot of jobs to make ends meet. And when I discovered theatre by seeing a professional play for the first time in my life, I thought, “Man, if I could do that.” So, I really committed to acting, and it’s the one thing that I never felt like I was about to be fired from.
You were in a few films, but then came Ghostbusters. What was it like dealing with that level of popularity at that time?
I used to joke that I came to Hollywood to be rich and famous. Ghostbusters taught me that you can be poor and popular. I didn’t really make a decent paycheck from Ghostbusters. The movie became very popular, but it didn’t increase my amount of work. In fact, it seemed to have had the opposite effect. We finally did the second movie and the same thing happened, work kind of dried up. So, where I had a lot of attention from people and fans, I got no attention from the studios, in terms of increased amount of work or increase in salary. By that point I was a single dad; how do I keep the rent paid and the phone on? Gas in the car? So, the fame part has never been overwhelming. I’ve never been famous. I don’t know what it means, to be honest. Michael Jackson or Paul McCartney, those guys are really famous. I’m a working actor.
How did the role of come to you?
I did a movie the year before with Peter Strauss and Molly Ringwald called Spacehunter that Ivan Reitman executive produced. And he said he was doing this movie Ghostbusters, but there was nothing in it for me. I don’t think he saw me as a Winston type character after playing the role in Spacehunter. It took me a couple of months to even get an audition because he was adamant that I was all wrong for it. And I ended up doing maybe three or four screen tests, and he kept calling me back, and finally they offered me the part. They didn’t make it a very attractive offer, but I really wanted to do the role. Ghostbusters for me, 40 years later… I’m excited about it. I love being a part of the franchise. It’s a blessing and I have fun memories. But it took me 40 years to get to this place.
Would you say it typecast you?
Yes. But if it had typecast me in a way that created work, I probably would’ve been very happy to be typecast. Finally, I did a movie with Nick Nolte [Weeds] and that kickstarted my movie career back up again. But it was an odd time, and just the opposite of what I thought it would be.
What are some of your favorite movies or shows that you’ve been in?
I’d love to have that one role that really defines your talent and what you’re capable of. I don’t think I’ve ever had that role. But I love The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, I love the character Solomon, I love that role. I love the character in Congo. I thought that was great. I loved the character in The Crow. And I loved doing the warden in Oz. Recently I did a television series with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, Grace and Frankie, I’ve liked that character, the simplicity of that character. So, there’s a variety of things, but there hasn’t been yet that one role that goes, “Wow, that shows the world what I can do.” On stage, I did a play called The Great White Hope. I did it for several years, and that role took everything I had. But I haven’t found that in movies.
You’re in the new Quantum Leap series. What can you tell us about this incarnation of the beloved show?
Quantum Leap is one of those shows I used to watch with my boys. In the new current show, it’s 30 years later, we reopened the project, and it’s about two people leaping, but in addition to that, it’s about the organization. My character finds out about this project, works his butt off to get the funding, to get the Pentagon on board, but of course with that comes people who don’t want to see it happen, or do want to see it happen but want to use it for the wrong purposes. In the original, we didn’t see behind the scenes, we just saw the leaps. And I think dealing with what’s happening in real time is pretty exciting as well, as saboteurs and bad players are threatening and jeopardizing what we’re try to do.
Is there anyone that you particularly look up to in the industry, or that has been an inspiration to you?
I like the old Westerns with Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster; those guys had a dignity about them. You learn things about life from movies. We learn how to consider behaving in certain ways. Sydney Poitier, for instance, the fact that he had broken in, in spite of all the restrictions, and created this amazing career. I didn’t get to know him well until much later in his life. And James Earl Jones, I got a chance to work with him and know him. Those people who somehow managed to break through and make a mark in spite of all the obstacles.
Sydney Poitier also directed an important African American Western, Buck and the Preacher. Since you brought up Westerns, is there a particular Western that you like?
I love High Noon. Gary Cooper was great in that. It wasn’t so much always a physical thing, it was that sort of quiet dignity that as a kid you go, yeah, that’s how I would defend myself. That to me is what it’s really about. When people treat you with a certain amount of respect. There’s an integrity that people feel is a part of you.
Is there anyone that you wish you could’ve worked with, or would like to in future?
Meryl Streep. We went to Yale at the same time. I never worked with her, but I love what she can take almost any role or any movie and just make it worth watching. I’d love to work with her. And Chadwick Boseman. What an incredible career he had. We’ve met and talked. There was some talk once in the Marvel Universe about me playing his dad. I wish I would’ve had that opportunity, but I didn’t get a chance to. I figured in time, but unfortunately he didn’t have time.
CHECK OUT ERNIE
As Herbert “Magic” Williams in the NBC series Quantum Leap
As Winston in Ghostbusters
As warden Leo Glynn in the HBO series OZ
As Solomon in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle