Ghostbusters star Ernie Hudson on the new sequel, pay disparities, and the ‘disappointing’ 2016 reboot: ‘Just make another movie’

Ernie Hudson: ‘We can say it’s a racial thing, but I think if Eddie Murphy had played the role I played, he would have been paid very well’  (Scott Garfitt/Shutterstock)
Ernie Hudson: ‘We can say it’s a racial thing, but I think if Eddie Murphy had played the role I played, he would have been paid very well’ (Scott Garfitt/Shutterstock)

Ernie Hudson sits under a bright light, cameras pointed squarely at him. The Ghostbusters star shot to fame in 1984 as the fourth member of the iconic ghoul-fighting quartet, alongside Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and Harold Ramis. Today, he’s seated for a round of interviews, to speak about the latest sequel – Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire, which sees his character, Winston Zeddemore, return as a philanthropist masterminding a new generation of paranormal pest-removers. “It’s been 40 years. Over half my life has been Ghostbusters on some level or other,” he tells me – but he’s got no problem with that. “I’ve been acting close to 60 years and there are some films I’ve made that I hope they never even think about making again.”

Legs crossed in a kind of sanguine, confident recline, Hudson looks almost preposterously good for 78 – you’d swear he still had 50 years of petrol left in the tank. In the scheme of things, Ghostbusters makes up just a small part of Hudson’s career; he’s been working steadily for nearly all his adult life, in projects such as the Brandon Lee thriller The Crow, HBO’s gritty prison drama Oz, and FBI comedy Miss Congeniality.  But Ghostbusters, understandably, looms over it all.

“Most things come and go,” he says. “Not a lot of people noticed that I was in three films last year. But it’s just a job. It doesn’t give you special status. I haven’t been so successful, like some friends who can barely walk down the street or made so much money that they can’t count it. I’m still a working guy.”

Recapturing the magic of Ghostbusters has always been a tricky proposition, going back to the first derided sequel, Ghostbusters II, in 1989. After the divisive 2016 gender-switched reboot, 2021’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife was a quite spectacularly errant first attempt at reuniting the original ’busters (including, via a much-criticised CGI scene, the late Harold Ramis). Frozen Empire picks up more or less where that film ends, with ghostbusting duties having been passed down to the daughter of Ramis’s Egon Spengler, played by Carrie Coon, and her family (husband Paul Rudd, and two teenage children – McKenna Grace and Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard). It’s a pretty crammed billing: alongside these younger pups and a host of side characters, Aykroyd, Murray and Hudson all return to don their beige jumpsuits.

The backstory to Hudson’s involvement in Ghostbusters is Hollywood lore at this point. Sony had originally wanted Eddie Murphy for the role, fresh off the back of 48 Hrs. and Trading Places. He turned them down, and they ultimately turned to Hudson – but by the time filming rolled around, the part had been reduced significantly, and excised from the first act of the film entirely. While Winston – an affable, plain-speaking late hire to the team – proved hugely popular with fans, the fourth Ghostbuster was absent from much of the marketing.

It’s too reductive, says Hudson, to put this down just to racism. “You know, being a person of African descent anywhere in the world, we’re all just learning how to live together and get along together and realise that we’re all connected,” he says. “And it’s very tempting, sometimes, to blame anything that doesn’t work in your life on racism. But there are a lot of things that play into it. It’s not quite that simple.”

Not giving up the ghost: Ernie Hudson and Bill Murray in ‘Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire' (Columbia Pictures)
Not giving up the ghost: Ernie Hudson and Bill Murray in ‘Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire' (Columbia Pictures)

Stating that he was paid less than his co-stars, Hudson adds: “We can say it’s a racial thing, but I think if Eddie Murphy had played the role I played, he would have been paid very well. I think studios are in the business of making money and they pay what they feel they have to.”

I ask him about one of the more intriguing aspects of Ghostbusters’ origins: Aykroyd’s deep-seated – and rather eccentric – belief in real-life ghosts. Hudson smiles amusedly, describing the SNL funnyman as a “wealth of information” on the subject of the paranormal. But then again, Hudson can relate on some level. “I grew up in a family that believed in spirits, in the supernatural,” he says. “But nobody wanted to investigate it. Most of them wanted to stay the hell away from it! It wasn’t something you welcome.”

Credit to Sony for being open to hearing my feelings, because in the first one – they didn’t

Hudson was raised in Michigan by his grandmother after his mother died of tuberculosis when he was just two; he never knew his father. He wanted to enrol with the US Marine Corps but couldn’t because of his asthma, prompting him to train as an actor. “When I first went to college [at Wayne State University] I was already a single dad,” he recalls. (Hudson has four children, two from his first marriage, and two from his second, to his wife of nearly 40 years, Linda Kingsberg.) “I’ve always had the responsibility of raising a family, which requires me to, you know, get this job,” he says. “If it’s dramatic, I gotta make somebody cry. If it’s funny, I had to make somebody laugh.”

And he did get the jobs – everything from more sci-fi Leviathan, to psychological thrillers (1992’s The Hand That Rocks the Cradle), to comedies even broader than Ghostbusters, such as 1994’s Airheads. Over the past couple of decades, he’s become more known for his work on television, earning particularly high praise for his layered performance as prison warden Leo Glynn in Oz between 1997 and 2003. He has, it’s true, never stopped working, and has around 250 credits to his name, including recurring roles on ER, Heroes, Desperate Housewives, and Modern Family.

Hudson alongside Rita Moreno in ‘Oz' (HBO)
Hudson alongside Rita Moreno in ‘Oz' (HBO)

After Ghostbusters first became a sensation, Hudson had a bit more sway – but only a bit. In 1986, when they were casting The Real Ghostbusters cartoon spinoff, he was the only original cast member to offer to voice his animated counterpart. Producers told him to audition – which he did – before ultimately handing the role to a pre-late night Arsenio Hall. During negotiations for Ghostbusters II in 1989, it was Murray who fought for a bigger role for his co-star. (“[Murray] said he wouldn’t do another one unless I was involved… That doesn’t happen very much in this industry.”)

Decades passed, and Ghostbusters interest subsided, until the female-led reboot in 2016. Hudson had a small cameo in the film, playing a new character; asked about the project now, he’s somewhat sceptical. “Look, I’m a fan of [director] Paul Feig so I have nothing negative about him to say. Other than: I don’t quite understand why you do a reboot, you know what I mean? Just make another movie.”

He seems as bemused by that film as many of the fans were – though stipulates that the cast (Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones), are all “brilliantly funny on their own”. He adds: “Fans were really invested in the story and the characters and I think it was disappointing. I enjoyed the movie but I think it wasn’t what fans were hoping for.”

After Winston’s return in Afterlife and Frozen Empire, Hudson feels that the character, originally introduced as a kind of audience-surrogate everyman, has finally been given his flowers. “Sony is not the same studio it was 40 years ago and they’ve really stepped up and given some dimension to the character,” he says. “Credit to Sony for being open to hearing my feelings, because in the first one – they didn’t.”

Ernie Hudson as Winston Zeddemore in ‘Ghostbusters II' (Sony)
Ernie Hudson as Winston Zeddemore in ‘Ghostbusters II' (Sony)

The ending of Frozen Empire leaves the door opening for more films down the line – something Hudson says hasn’t been discussed yet. But he’s all in. “I’d love for Winston Zeddemore to be the Nick Fury of the Ghostbusters,” he says, alluding to Samuel L Jackson’s eyepatch-wearing fulcrum of the Marvel film universe. More than anything, though, he’s glad things have worked out for Winston: of all the original ghostbusters, his arc is the most successfully triumphant, turning him from marginalised follower to influential leader. The slightly aimless fates of Ray and Venkman seem almost dispiriting by comparison: they ran out of road years ago.

“I wanted Winston to be an example of what’s possible,” he says. “I mean, I’m 78 years old. I want to be a healthy man. I want to be a man with at least a few dollars. My wife and I have been together almost 50 years. I want to be just an example of a good life.”

When the inevitable sequel swings around, who are they gonna call? I don’t think there’s any question.

‘Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire’ is in cinemas now