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Ernie Hudson, supporting player

The actor made a career of smaller roles, but is ready for his big break

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“Being a supporting actor is like playing in a jazz combo,” says Ernie Hudson. ”You could have stolen the scene, but you have to be true to the piece. You just don’t go off and do a solo.”

Indeed, the busy 48-year-old actor, who can be seen playing cops currently in both The Cowboy Way and The Crow, and in August’s Airheads, has enjoyed a successful career making beautiful background music. Perhaps best remembered as “the fourth Ghostbuster,” he was widely praised for his poignant portrayal of a mentally handicapped handyman terrorized by psycho nanny Rebecca De Mornay in 1992’s The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. These days, Hudson — who has completed five films in the past six months — is aiming for the chance to grab the spotlight for himself.

“I spent a lot of time working hard and trying to figure out how you get to be a star,” says Hudson, who made his movie debut in 1976’s Leadbelly. “I’d get great buddy-buddy roles. I’d think, ‘I’m in a major film from a major studio. I’m in the mix here.’ Your expectations are up. But then things would slow down, and there wouldn’t be work. It was very confusing.”

Hudson — a Michigan native who was a resident playwright at Concept East, a Detroit African-American theater company, before attending the Yale School of Drama — believes that race has played a part in his typecasting as a backup man, though he points to the emergence of black stars such as Wesley Snipes as a sign that things may be changing. “With my educational background and my list of credits, if I were not a black actor I believe roles would have opened up long ago,” Hudson says. “I worked with directors who didn’t know how to give me direction — they thought they had to give me a high five.”

Now in New Mexico filming the Geena Davis-Michael Keaton romantic comedy Speechless, Hudson hopes that taking on the role of a Machiavellian campaign manager — “a guy very much in control, with a definite dark side” — brings him one step closer to stardom.

“I’d like to be able to say, ‘This movie is an example of my work,'” Hudson says. “I can’t say that about anything I’ve done. I’d have to take five or six movies. It would be wonderful to have a role you can really be challenged by and say, ‘There’s my signature.’ I think it’s going to happen soon.”