Ernie Hudson remembers his last conversation with Brandon Lee during 'The Crow,' how Woody Harrelson tried to make him go vegan and refusing to get naked for Barbra Streisand
The "Ghostbusters" star revisits some of his signature roles, from "The Basketball Diaries" to "Champions."
When you need a champion character actor who has been a memorable presence in movies and TV shows for almost fifty years and counting... who you gonna call? You'd better believe that you're picking up that phone and dialing Ernie Hudson. While the now 77-year-old actor might be best known for his role as Winston Zeddemore in the Ghostbusters franchise, Hudson's list of credits on both the big and small screen is extensive enough to fill the ghostbusting team's famous firehouse headquarters many times over.
"Thankfully my career is not dependent on Ghostbusters," Hudson tells Yahoo Entertainment, while also adding that he's happy to still be a part of that series. "I've been able to keep working almost in spite of it — I can't think of any other movie I've gotten because I was in Ghostbusters."
Hudson's latest roles are an example of his cross-media ubiquity: He's currently in movie theaters opposite Woody Harrelson in Bobby Farrelly's acclaimed sports movie, Champions. And you can also catch him on NBC every Monday at 10pm as one of the leads of the network's Quantum Leap reboot, which just scored a second season renewal. "It's kind of odd, because every time I do a TV show, I feel like I'm the guy just starting out," Hudson says, chuckling. "But on this show, I'm clearly the old guy! I'm the senior citizen who gets to play with these kids — or, at least, they seem like kids to me. I also referred to the cast of Champions as kids, and I was corrected. They're not kids, they're young adults."
In Champions, Hudson plays basketball coach Phil Perretti, who is good friends with Harrelson's temperamental instructor, Marcus. After a drunk driving accident lands him in front of a judge, Marcus is required to perform 90 days of community service leading a community center basketball team consisting of intellectually disabled players. Needless to say, he and the young players get off on the wrong foot, but as the season goes on and their skills improve, Marcus finds new purpose in their accomplishments.
Farrelly has a history of featuring disabled characters, often played by disabled actors, onscreen. Films like 1998's There's Something About Mary and 2015's The Ringer — which he directed and produced respectively in collaboration with his brother, Peter Farrelly — were celebrated for their positive portrayals of people with intellectual and physical disabilities. And Hudson says he has a personal connection to that community as well.
"I had friend with a daughter who had disability issues and they put her in a home when she was two or three years old," he recalls. "She was still there, but he never talked about her. I was like, 'Dude, I've known you for 15 years and you've never mentioned her.' There was a way of trying to hide [disabled] people when I was growing up. So when I read the script for Champions, I loved the fact that it showed this community. These young actors in the movie are amazing, and I hope it opens the door to them getting more work."
Hudson also enjoyed the chance to reunite with Harrelson, who he previously worked with in the 1994 comedy The Cowboy Way. "I'm the kind of actor who, when I'm not shooting, will retreat to my dressing room to be in my own space," he says. "But Woody would still hang out and play basketball when he wasn't working, and he encouraged those kids to be their best. He's genuine, and his humanity comes through even when he's being a jerk onscreen."
Since he's already a main cast member on one other ongoing series — The Family Business, which is headed into its fifth season on BET — Hudson wasn't necessarily looking to add another series regular role to his portfolio. But he found he couldn't say no when NBC approached him to be part of its Quantum Leap reboot where he serves as the main link to the '80s series as Herbert "Magic" Williams, a character that Christopher Kirby originated in a popular Season 3 episode of the original show that starred Scott Bakula and the late Dean Stockwell. In the revival, Herbert now oversees the Quantum Leap project that's stranded a new traveler, Raymond Lee's Ben Song, in the past.
"Doing network TV can be a big commitment," says Hudson, speaking from personal experience having starred in primetime shows ranging from The Last Precinct and Broken Badges to Meteor and APB. "And at this stage in the game for me, it's always about asking, 'Do I want to sign up for something if I'm not going to enjoy it?' Earlier on in my career I had to make a living, but now my mortgage is paid and my kids are all grown up, so I want to like the people I'm working with and I want to enjoy the location. Quantum Leap is a really fun group of people who make it fun to go to work."
Now that his career is in a secure place, Hudson finds himself getting increasingly choosy about the kinds of roles he accepts — and he's especially eager to find that juicy dramatic role where he's driving the narrative. "I'm a little tired of being the facilitator, you know?" he says. "The role where it's someone else's story, and I kind of pop in. I'm not looking for just another credit — I want to be the guy and really dig in and be challenged. That's the point of doing this."
"Maybe it's time to create something for myself," he muses, when it's suggested that he channel Ben Affleck and Matt Damon and write his own Good Will Hunting. "I've started doing some of that, but I haven't finished any of those ideas. But I want to work with a really talented filmmaker in a role that shows what I can do. So instead of waiting for someone else to write that part for me, maybe I'll figure it out for myself."
While he's pondering his next move, Hudson revisited some of his signature roles as part of our latest Role Recall, from his close encounter with Barbra Streisand on the set of the 1979 boxing comedy, The Main Event, to mourning Brandon Lee after the young actor's death on the set of 1994's The Crow.
Born and raised in Benton Harbor, Mich., Hudson discovered acting after a brief stint in the Marines, and later scored a scholarship to study at the Yale School of Drama. But after his first year, an offer came along that he couldn't refuse: the chance to star in the latest film from acclaimed photographer and director Gordon Parks, who helped launch the Blaxploitation era with his 1972 box office smash Shaft. Hudson was hired for a featured role in Leadbelly, based on the life and times of the eponymous blues legend Huddie William Ledbetter played in the film by Roger E. Mosley.
"Gordon was a great guy," the actor says of that formative collaboration. "I remember that I had a big dance sequence in the movie, and it was exhausting. So at one point, I said, 'Stop, cut,' and he came over to me and said, 'I say cut — you never say cut.' So I never, ever said 'Cut' again! It was my first movie, so I wanted to make a good impression."
Hudson's desire to impress Parks occasionally led him to take some potentially unwise risks, like agreeing to drive a team of horses over a bumpy Texas backroad even after the stunt team refused to do it. "Growing up without a dad myself, I think I would always sort of latch onto people looking for someone to be my dad," he says now. "There was something in Gordon that I was looking for in that way. I don't want to say that he was a father figure, but he was really important to me and I wanted to not only just do well in the movie, but also make him proud. I think I did."
Interestingly, Leadbelly proved to be Parks's final feature film as a director, though he continued to pursue other artistic passions, from photography to composing, until his death in 2006. "He was so multi-talented, and I think he didn't want to get locked into that form of expression," Hudson says when asked why Parks left filmmaking behind. "For me, filmmaking and acting has been all I've ever had, but Gordon didn't want to limit himself. He was always exploring other expressions of creativity, and I admired that."
Fantasy Island (1978)
After leaving the Leadbelly set in Texas, Hudson headed further west to California, where he joined the ranks of working actors booking guest spot roles on the biggest TV shows of the day. One of Hudson's earliest episodic appearances came on a first season installment of Fantasy Island, where the Hollywood newbie got to see established star Ricardo Montalbán in his element.
"The episode had all these stars that I had grown up watching on TV, and I'm just starting out," he says now. "I was feeling awkward so I just stayed in my dressing room. But then there was a knock on the door and there was Ricardo Montalbán. He shook my hand and said, 'Hi, I'm Ricardo. Welcome to Fantasy Island.' He brought me out to the set and introduced me to everyone. He's the only actor I remember ever writing a Thank You note to, because he was so generous and gracious."
That's a trait that Hudson sought to emulate in his own career. "I'm always amazed when people are nice when they don't have to be, especially to someone just starting out," he says. "After working with him on that episode, I felt that I wanted to be that guy: I wanted to be gracious and kind to people I didn't know. When you're starting out, that kind of experience is very, very special."
The Main Event (1979)
When you're a young actor in Hollywood, learning how to say "No" is one of the first — and hardest — lessons to master. Hudson cracked the code on the set of Howard Zieff's hit boxing comedy that starred Ryan O'Neal as a retired fighter and Barbra Streisand as down-on-her-luck businesswoman hoping to rebuild her fortune as a manager. The actor shares a brief scene with the legendary singer and actress at the beginning of the film, and he made such a positive impression that the producers offered to expand his role... provided he was willing to go brief-less.
"The wanted me to be the boxer standing there nude when she first comes into the gym," Hudson says, laughing. "The joke was that she'd be walking into the gym unknowingly and bump into me. But I was like, 'You know what? No thanks!' Even then I thought, 'Nah, I'm not gonna do stuff like that.'"
Even if he rejected the offer for more screentime, Hudson remembers Streisand — who was at the apex of her stardom at that point — being "very complimentary" of his work. And he reunited with O'Neal again years later when they both appeared on a 2007 episode of the hit Fox procedural Bones. "It was great to be in the mix on that movie and meet people," he says. "I was just so excited to be out here and to be working."
Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (1983)
Sometimes your fortune can change on a dime... and sometimes it changes on the whims of Henry Winkler. In the early '80s, Hudson was up for a leading role in an ABC medical drama called Ryan's Four, which counted the Happy Days star among its producing team. "I really, really wanted that part," Hudson says now. "My agent told me that everyone liked me, but Henry wasn't convinced. So I had to go back to read for them again, and as I went in, Henry was walking out of the room! The person who wasn't convinced about me wasn't even in the room to see me. So I didn't get that part, and I was so disappointed, because I wanted to play a doctor on TV. To me, that was the epitome of making it as an actor."
After that near-miss with Winkler, Hudson's agent called him back with some good — and bad — news. The good news? He had booked a featured role in a sci-fi movie. The bad news? It was called Adventures in the Creep Zone. "I was like, "'Adventures in the Creep Zone?'" he says, chuckling. "That was the last thing I wanted to hear at the time."
But Hudson took the job anyway, and three very important things happened in his life as a result. First, the movie's title mercifully changed from Adventures in the Creep Zone to the more impressive-sounding, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone. Secondly, he got to act opposite a young Molly Ringwald the year before she shot to fame in Pretty in Pink. "She was just a kid then," he recalls. "We worked together again on a TV show called The Secret Life of the American Teenager decades later, and it was great to see her all grown up."
Finally, the Spacehunter set was where he first met his future Ghostbusters director, Ivan Reitman, who replaced the movie's original director/producer, Jean LaFleur, a week into shooting. (Reitman produced Spacehunter, while Lamont Johnson took over as director.) "That's also where I met [Ghostbusters star] Harold Ramis, too, because he was one of the guys hired to rewrite the script," Hudson adds. (Reitman and Ramis had previously worked together on the blockbuster comedies Animal House and Stripes.)
But before they could go off and make Ghostbusters, Reitman, Ramis and Hudson first had to get through Spacehunter, a Mad Max-meets-Star Wars hybrid that was plagued by janky technology and 3D that didn't pop off the screen. Hudson plays Washington, an intergalactic mercenary who drives around far, far away planets in a Road Warrior-style tank. "That tank never worked," he says now. "We'd drive it enough to get it into the shot, and then it would keep breaking down! It was a weird set."
That weirdness continued up to the film's premiere when a surly projectionist decided to screen the movie without properly syncing the 3D in the booth. "We all had the glasses on, and kept turning our heads trying to get the 3D to work," Hudson says of that disastrous screening. "It was one of the worst premiere nights I ever went to. At the after party, you'd walk over to people and they'd sort of look at the ground and not say anything. But later on, I saw the movie without the 3D effects, and it was actually not that bad!"
The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1992)
Decades before appearing alongside the intellectually disabled actors in Champions, Hudson played a disabled handyman in Curtis Hanson's hit horror movie, starring Rebecca De Mornay as a murderous nanny. "It was important for me to be respectful and get it right," he says of his character, Solomon, who is framed as a child molester by De Mornay, but continues to protect the family she's menacing. "There weren't a lot of films dealing with those kinds of characters then. In the past, American society has kept those communities undercover and they weren't well represented in film."
"When I was growing up, there was an [intellectually disabled] young man whose parents kept him locked inside," Hudson continues. "Every once in awhile he would escape, and he'd run around the neighborhood excited to be out. And, of course, we would act like we were afraid. Then they would come get him and put him back inside. I'm so happy that we're now opening our minds to that community and seeing their humanity in an honest way."
The Cowboy Way (1994)
When Hudson reunited with Harrelson on the Champions set, he was thrilled to see that his Cowboy Way co-star was the same jocular guy he first met nearly 30 years ago. But he says that Harrelson has changed in one key aspect.
"Back then, he was always trying to get me to become vegan," Hudson recalls with a laugh. "We were having breakfast one morning, and there was a muffin he didn't want me to eat, because it had been cooked with an egg. And I just said, 'Dude, please — I'm eating this muffin.' He spent 20 minutes telling me about the harm it would do. I was just like, 'Maybe in 20 years it'll do some harm.' By now it's been 30 years, and I don't think there's been any harm."
But Harrelson's commitment to his beliefs is also one of the things Hudson appreciates most about the actor. "We always agree to be who we are despite our differences," he says. "Woody's one of the most likable and genuine people I've ever worked with. He always makes me laugh, and he comes from such a natural place. He's not trying to be someone else. I have a lot of respect for him."
The Crow (1994)
It's impossible to talk about Alex Proyas's cult comic book adaptation without discussing the death of its star, Brandon Lee, who was notoriously killed on set after being struck by a bullet tip that had been lodged in the barrel of a prop gun. Hudson — who played a police officer on the trail of Lee's avenging spirit — wasn't on set when Lee was shot, but remembers the shock and trauma that permeated the cast and crew.
"When Brandon died, I just had a hard time processing it," he says now. "We shut down the film for weeks, and I didn't want to go back. I just felt like we couldn't continue. But then I got a call from some people who told me how important it would have been to Brandon to have us finish the movie. And I do think that Brandon would have been very proud of his work, because he's wonderful in the movie."
Still, returning to that set was an eerie experience for everyone involved. "We were shooting at night, and there was a photo double for Brandon who looked just like him. At lunchtime, he would sort of go off to the side, because he didn't want people to feel awkward. The whole thing was weird. But we finished it, and now that time has passed I can say that I'm thankful I made the movie."
Lee's tragic death bubbled up in the public consciousness again in 2021 after another prop gun shooting on the set of the Alec Baldwin film Rust claimed the life of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins. "You know, we do this stuff and we make it look like its real," Hudson says. "But when somebody dies on a set, that's a whole other thing. My heart really broke for Alex: He's a talented director, but I think he was pushed around by the studio and shortcuts were taken. If somebody had checked that weapon, this whole thing wouldn't have happened."
Hudson still treasures the memory of his last conversation with Lee. "We had gone out to dinner — Brandon, myself, my wife and a bunch of other people — and we got into a discussion about the business. I was telling him how long I had been working and that I felt like I wasn't getting the breaks I deserved to get — all those actor sort of things. And he was trying to be encouraging, talking about how he had a three-picture [lined up] and was about to get married. He was like, 'Hang in there — if it can happen to me, it can happen for you.' And then the next day, he was gone. It was a real wake-up call. He was such a sweet guy, and it's such a shame what happened to him."
The Basketball Diaries (1995)
Hudson has worked with a lot of young actors over his decades in the business, and he has an eye for spotting the ones he knows will go far. That was the case with Leonardo DiCaprio, who was already making a name for himself in the early '90s on the heels of films like This Boy's Life and What's Eating Gilbert Grape. Based on the memoir by recovering addict Jim Carroll, The Basketball Diaries cast Hudson as Reggie, who teaches DiCaprio's drug-addled basketball player some key life lessons on and off the court.
"There are some people who are just meant to be in this business," Hudson says of acting opposite the then-20-year-old DiCaprio. "So many people get distracted, but he was really focused on the work. I'm not surprised that he's been incredibly successful in this business. If there are any disappointments from that experience, it's that I haven't gotten the chance to work with him again!"
The Basketball Diaries also gave Mark Wahlberg one of his earliest attempts to move away from his "Marky Mark" rapper persona. "I think that was one of the first movies he did," Hudson says. "He's had an incredible career as well. I never like to give young actors advice, but you always want to be open to them and be a mentor when they need it. Honestly, I've probably learned more from the young people I've worked with than they've learned from me."
Hudson will always be proud of his status as fan favorite Ghostbuster, Winston Zeddemore, but he's also been candid when talking about the ways the franchise has failed him over the years. That's why he feels some solidarity with the female stars of Paul Feig's much-maligned Ghostbusters reboot, whose brief proton pack-carrying tenure continues to be lambasted by toxic internet trolls. "I just don't understand the unfair treatment," he says of the quartet, which includes Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones.
Hudson was particularly bothered by the hate Jones received online. (Hudson cameos in the reboot as Jones's uncle.) "A lot of fans came for her especially," he says. "I was like, 'Woah, she's just doing her job! She's bringing her best to entertain you and make the best movie she can.' I didn't understand it. I think it's partly about being American: We grew up with this ideology that it's the land of the free and the home of the brave and everyone's treated equally, which is not true. Something's out of balance, and it's obvious, so when people deny it, I just don't understand."
At the same time, the actor does acknowledge that the 2016 Ghostbusters perhaps didn't put its best foot forward by rebooting the franchise from the ground-up instead of playing in a different corner of the existing universe. "At that point, it had been thirty years since the first Ghostbusters and over twenty years since the sequel, and if you're just going to re-do that original movie, I think it creates a bit of a problem," Hudson explains. "It wasn't quite what fans were hoping for after all those years. They really wanted the franchise to continue."
Although Feig's Ghostbusters grossed nearly $230 million worldwide, the toxicity surrounding the movie scared Sony off from moving forward with another adventure for the all-female team. Five years later, Jason Reitman wrote and directed Ghostbusters: Afterlife, which does take place in the universe his late father created in 1984 and even featured Hudson, Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray suiting up again as their classic characters. Hudson suggests that he'll likely be back in the next installment of the revived franchise — currently shooting under the working title Ghostbusters: Firehouse — and he hopes that Reitman can find some role for Jones and the rest of her crew as well down the line.
"I would love to see them included in a way that really demonstrates their contribution and what they're capable of doing," he says. "These are women who are all really talented, and the reason that people were upset with them had nothing to do with the choices they made — it just happens that they are women."