The role of Winston Zeddemore has always been a double-edged sword for Ernie Hudson. Playing Winston made Hudson a key part of Ghostbusters, one of the most beloved franchises of the 80s. The part the Michigan-born actor got to play, though, was a shadow of what was originally written.
Despite being a huge hit, Ghostbusters did not launch Hudson to more major parts. And so, when Ghostbusters II came around in 1989, Hudson pushed for Winston to be given a more prominent role – yet once again, Winston proved to be little more than a background character.
“They said this role was going to make my career”
Hudson was 38 years old when the original Ghostbusters first opened back in June 1984. After first breaking into theatre as a writer, Hudson side-stepped into acting in the early 70s, and had appeared in 11 films and over 30 TV shows (most prominently St. Elsewhere). Then, after Yaphet Kotto and Eddie Murphy turned the role down, Hudson landed the part of Winston Zeddemore.
The Ghostbusters script went through many different iterations (originally it was set in the future), but Hudson says the draft he first saw featured Winston far more prominently. “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.” However, after Hudson signed on to play the part – agreeing to “only half of my quote, because they said this role was going to make my career” – he found the role substantially reduced.
Hudson was presented with a new Ghostbusters script “the night before filming begins”, and found his character didn’t even appear until page 68. On asking Ivan Reitman what happened, Hudson says the director told him, “The studio felt that they had Bill Murray, so they wanted to give him more stuff to do.” This included the famous sliming scene; originally it was Winston, not Murray’s Peter Venkman, who was to have met the icky wrath of the ghost that became known as Slimer.
Hudson’s Ghostbusters co-stars – who he insists he does not feel “any kind of animosity towards” – were already stars, but Hudson himself was still just a jobbing actor at the time of the first Ghostbusters. A single father who needed the work, Hudson had little choice but to simply accept the changes, secure in the belief that the role would indeed take his career to the next level.
This, however, did not come to pass. The actor says he entered “almost a three-year drought” after the 1984 blockbuster (“I couldn’t even get an interview for another movie”). While he clocked up a reasonable number of TV guest appearances, Hudson didn’t make another film until 1987’s Weeds. Bizarrely, Hudson was even turned down as the voice of Winston in animated TV spin-off The Real Ghostbusters, which the actor calls “a little weird.” Comedian Arsenio Hall voiced Winston in the cartoon instead.
In a 2023 interview, Hudson said the blame for his sidelining lay not with Reitman or his co-stars, but with studio Columbia Pictures. “They were all welcoming and inclusive. The studio wasn’t, and the studio continued not to be. So it made it very, very difficult because I was a part of it but then I very selectively was pushed aside.”
“When the posters came out, I’m not on the poster. It took a long time… I got nothing bad to say about anybody but it was hard. It took me 10 years to get past that and enjoy the movie and just embrace the movie. Ghostbusters was really hard to make peace with.”
When the time came to do Ghostbusters II, Hudson was at least able to demand a spot on the poster. Unfortunately, any hopes Hudson might have had for an increased role were largely dashed once work on the sequel was underway.
“They got us in the sequel under false pretences”
A sequel had not originally been something that the Ghostbusters filmmakers had planned, but it got the green light for a very simple reason: studio Columbia Pictures were badly in need of a hit after a slew of flops. The studio’s then-president Dawn Steel, declared Ghostbusters II to be “the most important, eagerly awaited sequel in the history of Columbia Pictures.” For this reason, the studio were not too keen for the filmmakers to take a chance on anything too different from the original.
Bill Murray has said that he and his co-stars, Hudson included, were lured to sign on to the sequel “under false pretences,” as Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis’ original story idea (which saw the Ghostbusters battle a banshee in Scotland) was abruptly ditched in favour of another New York-set adventure.
If Murray felt dissatisfied with his role as written, one can only imagine how bad things were for Hudson – who, tellingly, would not be mentioned once in a 5,000-word report on the sequel published in the June 1989 edition of Rolling Stone. After hoping for a more central role, Hudson soon found “they did the same thing” all over again, with Winston hugely underemphasised in Ghostbusters II.
While Winston appears early in the film, appearing at a child’s birthday party alongside Ray, the character is absent for much of the first act, and given little to do otherwise. Ghostbusters II does give Hudson at least one major comedy moment: as an apparent apology for him missing out on being slimed in the original, Winston is petrified by a ghost train in an underground tunnel. (This sequence was added in last-minute reshoots, in the hopes of adding some laughs and scares to what the filmmakers already recognised was a somewhat lacking movie.)
While Ghostbusters II was a respectable hit at the box office, the sequel’s reviews were tepid and the film made significantly less popular impact than the 1984 original. As well as plunging the Ghostbusters franchise into a long hiatus, Ghostbusters II once more seemed to have a negative impact on Hudson’s career: once again, it would be three more years before he appeared again on film (with a role in 1992’s The Hand that Rocks the Cradle).
Winston’s sidelining in the Ghostbusters series hasn’t gone unnoticed by fans and critics. It may be primarily down to the fact that unlike his castmates, Hudson has never been considered a star – and director Ivan Reitman was semi-notorious for treating lower-rung actors badly. Another Ghostbusters II cast member, Vigo actor Wilhelm von Homburg, was not informed that his dialogue had been overdubbed by Max von Sydow, and only found out when watching the film at the premiere. (It has also been claimed that Reitman treated his actresses poorly over the years.)
“If I blame racism there’s nothing I can learn from it”
Hudson has dismissed the idea that his diminished status in the Ghostbusters movies was due to him being black: “If I go to the racial side of it and blame that, it takes all my power away, because if I blame racism there’s nothing I can learn from it, and the message to my sons becomes really blurred. I’m telling my boys, you can step out and grow and be and do – and then all of a sudden I’m saying, I’m being shut down because I’m black.” Still, Hudson agrees that “had I been as big a star as Eddie Murphy, I don’t think the part would have been cut.”
Over the years, fans have recognised the poor hand Winston was dealt and have made efforts to redress this, including editing Winston into the 1990 Ghostbusters video game, which originally left the character out. Happily for Hudson, two of the biggest Ghostbusters fans in his corner are Jason Reitman (son of Ivan) and Gil Kenan, who co-wrote 2021 legacy sequel Ghostbusters: Afterlife with the younger Reitman directing.
After making a cameo appearance in Ghostbusters: Afterlife alongside Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and a CGI recreation of the late Harold Ramis in ghost form, the film’s post-credits scene sees Winston – who, we are informed, has in the interim earned a doctorate and become a tech billionaire – re-open the old New York firehouse that had previously been the Ghostbusters HQ.
Another sequel is in the works, and Jason Reitman has stressed that “the character of Winston Zeddemore and Zeddemore Industries figures strongly into the future of Ghostbusters.”
Hudson has described his return to Winston as “a spiritual thing,” and that despite his heartaches associated with the role, “it had such a huge impact on my life. The fans for 35 years have been so loyal. I always wanted to do another because I felt the fans wanted to continue that… The fans themselves kept it going with a genuine love for the movies. I am touched by that. I wanted to be a part of it.”