Ghostbusters has been an undeniable highlight in Ernie Hudson’s long, varied, and still-rolling career. But the experience of playing Winston Zeddemore—the fourth Ghostbuster, for lack of a better title—is also riddled with complicated emotions. Co-starring in one of the greatest comedies in movie history gave Hudson cinematic immortality—but it also lingers in his mind as a painful what-if.
On the film’s 30th anniversary, the 68-year-old actor writes about his bittersweet relationship with a beloved franchise.
I look back on Ghostbusters in a very fun way, but it’s got so many mixed feelings and emotions attached to it. When I originally got the script, the character of Winston was amazing and I thought it would be career-changing. The character came in right at the very beginning of the movie and had an elaborate background: he was an Air Force major something, a demolitions guy. It was great.
Now I’ve heard, over the years, that the part had been written for Eddie Murphy—all of which Ivan Reitman says is not true. But it was a bigger part, and Winston was there all the way through the movie. After a long audition process, I finally got the part and made the awful mistake of letting it be known that I really, really wanted it. In Hollywood in those days, you set your quote—so if anybody calls about wanting to work with you, they had to meet your quote. I had just worked with Columbia on Spacehunter, and my quote was pretty decent. For Ghostbusters, they came in at only half of my quote, because they said this role was going to make my career. I said to my agent, “I don’t care. Just take it, because I believe that.” So we go to New York and we rehearse for three weeks or whatever and I’m ready to roll.
The night before filming begins, however, I get this new script and it was shocking. The character was gone. Instead of coming in at the very beginning of the movie, like page 8, the character came in on page 68 after the Ghostbusters were established. His elaborate background was all gone, replaced by me walking in and saying, “If there’s a steady paycheck in it, I’ll believe anything you say.” So that was pretty devastating.
I’m panicked. I don’t sleep that night. It was like my worst nightmare is happening. The next morning, I rush to the set and plead my case. And Ivan basically says, “The studio felt that they had Bill Murray, so they wanted to give him more stuff to do.” I go, “Okay, I understand that, but can I even be there when they’re established?” And of course, he said no, there’s nothing to do about it. It was kind of awkward, and it became sort of the elephant in the room.
I see this differently now—and I don’t mean any kind of animosity or anything towards anyone, certainly not towards Ivan or the guys. I was a single dad, and we were struggling to kind of hold on and pay the rent. I still needed to do this job. 30 years later, I look back at the movie and it works very well the way it is. I think the character works with what he has to work with. But I’ve always felt like, “Man, if I could’ve played that original character…”
Winston wasn’t included in the movie poster or the trailer and all that stuff. I felt, had the original character been in play at the beginning, that would’ve been different because it would’ve clearly been four guys. It would’ve sent a signal to the studios and very likely impacted my career in a different way. I think the fans see the Ghostbusters as four characters. I do some of the conventions, and I’ve met thousands of people, and I deputize kids as Little Ghostbusters. And the question I always used to get was, “Where does Winston go?” That’s the thing with Winston: He will pop up and then disappear.
They used to like to say that Danny’s the heart of the Ghostbusters, Harold was the brain, Bill was the mouth, and Ernie was the soul. When I heard that quote, I was blown away. And then I saw them on the Tonight Show and there was no mention of the Soul. So Winston could always disappear.
People say, “Well, he’s sort of the Everyman, he’s kind of the guy who helps the audience understand.” I love the character and he’s got some great lines, but I felt the guy was just kind of there. I love the movie, I love the guys. I’m very thankful to Ivan for casting me. I’m very thankful that fans appreciate the Winston character. But it’s always been very frustrating—kind of a love/hate thing, I guess.
I credit Ghostbusters, actually, for lessons I learned—how you deal with stuff when it doesn’t work out the way you want and you still got to keep doing it, how you keep a career going when it doesn’t turn to be all these things you dreamed of doing. I’ve been blessed, and I don’t want to make it a negative. I’ve survived this 30 years because of what I learned on Ghostbusters; you learn to adjust. What I did was I turned to TV. I literally did a different television show almost every week, going from show to show. I was a single dad and I had to survive.
The sad part is the thing that I thought that Ghostbusters would do, which is really kickstart my career into high gear, it never really materialized. I’ve never been told that I’ve gotten a job because of Ghostbusters; I think there have been a few jobs that I’ve lost [because of it]. Since [the movie], I’ve been given and taken advantage of the opportunity to perform a myriad of challenging roles, so what am I complaining about?
Now 30 years later, seeing little kids with their Ghostbusters backpacks, seeing whole families dress up—the movie has a special place, and I’m very humbled and touched by it. I certainly am thankful to have been a part of it. I love being an actor. I still enjoy the process. I’m still hoping that I’m going to get that one great role that I thought I had in the original Ghostbusters. 30 years later, I’m still looking.