Ghostbusters at 35: Ernie Hudson on Winston Zeddemore's proud legacy as a black movie hero
But in the 35 years since the debut of Ghostbusters, Ernie Hudson realized that his character of fearless and unflappable Winston Zeddemore was seen in places where it really mattered.
"I get a lot of — not just black kids — but a lot of minority kids who will come up to me and go, 'Oh, we're so thankful because it was the first big blockbuster movie and there was a black character and he didn't embarrass us,'" the 73-year-old actor tells EW. "Just having him be there and be one of the guys, that meant a lot to them … I get that a lot."
We're in the midst of a Ghostbusters revival. A new steelbook 4K Ultra HD disc debuts next week with both the 1984 film and its 1989 sequel, a new film is coming next summer from Up in the Air and Juno director Jason Reitman, and Hudson and co-star Dan Aykroyd will be among those appearing live at Ghostbusters Fan Fest this Saturday on the Sony Pictures lot.
In the era of cinematic representation, with a new push for diversity in front of and behind the camera, and the overdue acknowledgment from studio gatekeepers that all fans deserve to see themselves onscreen, Winston Zeddemore stands as an early point of pride.
Hudson especially cherishes one chance encounter with a young African-American who was a fellow actor. "I saw Denzel after the movie came out," Hudson says. "I ran into him at a bank and he said, 'Wow, man, I really loved the character and you didn't embarrass me.' And I knew exactly what he meant because a lot of times, you go, 'Oh, okay, here's a black guy. Here we go…'"
Embarrass. That's a loaded word. "A big Twinkie," as Winston himself might intone gravely.
Hudson said to look at it not from today's perspective, but from the vantage of a person of color coming out of the 1970s.
"Okay, you had the 'black movies.' Those movies, they weren't mainstream, they weren't movies that a lot of people would see, the blaxploitation films," Hudson says, noting that those movies often had African-American characters who were strong, brave, and aspirational.
"But in the big films, the blockbuster adventure movies, a lot of times if there is a black character, it's really the cartoon," Hudson adds. "He's doing something that makes people kind of cringe. 'Okay, you're representing us in a way.' And nobody should have to represent [everyone], but they see that, and this is going to be a reflection on me."
Hudson says he didn't set out to defy that trope. "I didn't think about that when I played the character," he said. "It wasn't about trying not to be something. It was just about trying to be true."
He credits Aykroyd, co-star and co-writer Harold Ramis, and director Ivan Reitman with crafting a role that wasn't demeaning. It was Hudson's job to bring Winston to life, give him heart and charm, and keep the other three weirdos grounded.
Part of the enduring appeal of Ghostbusters is that they're a blue-collar crew, working stiffs, and that element comes alive the minute Winston joins the team.
Cleaning Up the Town
Ramis' Egon Spengler was the brains, Aykroyd's Ray Stantz was the oddball, and Bill Murray's Peter Venkman was the wiseass. But Winston was the tough guy, the brave one, the Ghostbuster who brought a dose of much-needed common sense: "When someone asks you if you're a god … you say 'YES!'"
Hudson is the first to admit he's not a comedian, and co-starring as a relative unknown alongside icons of Saturday Night Live and SCTV cast a big shadow. "When you're working with Dan and Bill, you're not going to be funny so you can forget that," he says.
But Winston isn't necessarily the straight man. He gets some of the funniest and most quotable lines in the movie, including wheeling around a mayor's office full of less-than-diverse city officials and delivering the classic double entendre: "Since I've joined these men, I've seen s—t that'll turn you white!"
Hudson is proud that Winston could be funny without being a joke, without being the stereotypical black character who looks weak or silly while being panicked by ghosts. "It makes you feel like people are laughing down at you, as opposed to you're a part of it and they're laughing with you," Hudson says. "When I think on Winston, he wasn't that. And I didn't really see any reason for him to be that."
Hudson shares some qualities with his Ghostbusters alter-ego — they're both humble, dependable, and there to get the job done. A more ego-driven performer might have made Winston a caricature in a bid to upstage the others. "Sometimes I think people do it because they're fighting for screen time," Hudson says. "If that guy's funny, I'm going to do something really [over the top] to be funnier."
Like anyone who does good work, you hope people notice on their own. You hope that work is recognized and celebrated. Ghostbusters was a major breakthrough for the Yale Drama School-trained actor, but there were agonizing times when he felt pushed aside, too.
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"When the movie was introduced, it wasn't actually introduced with me starring along with the other guys. It was the guys, and then I just happen to be sort of [around] … The big poster on Sunset Boulevard, there were three guys."
It got better with Ghostbusters II in 1989, which featured him prominently in the advertising and one-sheets, and Hudson recognized that back in 1984 he wasn't well-known enough for studio marketers to place front and center. But it still hurt.
"When the movie came out, of course, it was huge so the studios would scramble and they called me and asked would I do a signing at Bullock's Department Store or someplace," he recalled. "I would go there and of course, I'm signing the posters that I'm not on, the photos that I'm not in." He sighs. "If you know that you're not going to be able to get Bill and Danny to do some of this stuff, at least be aware. Send a photo that I'm in, at least."
What bothers him now is that the snubs still happen. "I like to think I've sort of gotten past this but on the 30th anniversary when it had a run in theaters, there was a theater in Chicago that invited me to come back and introduce the movie," Hudson recalls. "I flew back to Chicago and I get to the theater and it's big posters of the three guys. I'm like, 'Wow, this is 30 years later and you can't…?' It's like, 'Really?'"
At times, it's almost surreal.
"Some of it, I actually laugh at," he says, recalling an appearance on The Today Show, where he played a game of Ghostbusters trivia with Al Roker. His prize: a bag of Ghostbusters stuff. "I thought, 'Oh, well that's kind of cool,'" Hudson recalls. "In the bag, they had a couple of toys of Bill Murray's character and Danny's character. My character wasn't in there. That's okay… But then they had a t-shirt."
Hudson still can't believe it. "I lift the t-shirt up and it's four Ghostbusters … but it's Danny Aykroyd twice!"
Like …. Seriously?
"I swear to God, the t-shirt's out there," Hudson says. "They put him on there twice. I thought, okay this is national TV. Don't say anything. So I didn't say anything, but you kind of go away thinking, 'What the f—k was that about?'"
The counterbalance is the reaction he's gotten from African-American kids over the years, who saw Winston not just as a cool and funny character, but as a decent guy, a protector, a hero.
"A lot of white kids will come and say they identified with the Winston character," he adds. "A lot of times their parents didn't understand why that character as opposed to the others, but I think it is he's just a very down to Earth guy. 'What's the job?' You commit to it. It's kind of my own philosophy in life, I guess."
Another racial stereotype that Ghostbusters defied — the black guy survives.
In many horror movies or adventure films of that time, Hudson notes, "If you have any significant role in the movie as the African-American, you're going to die. That's something to marginalize you, to keep you from being considered complete. There's going to be a boulder, it's going to roll down off the mountain as you're walking by. There's going to be a lion that'll jump out. As soon as [a black character] pops up, you go, 'Okay, when is he going to die? I know he's going to die.' Winston didn't die and that was a pleasant surprise for a lot of people."
It's a safe bet that Winston still endures today. As the new Ghostbusters movie goes into production this summer, there's a chance we might see him again.
"I love the franchise, I'd love to be a part of it. In spite of all those things, I really love all the guys and if it doesn't happen, it won't be because of a lack of willingness on my part," Hudson says.
"I'm like everybody else," the actor adds, keeping a tight lip on the secretive project. "I'm waiting to see what happens."