Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Ernie Hudson made his film debut alongside Dolemite in the 1976 Blaxploitation classic The Human Tornado, but it was his 1984 performance as Winston Zeddemore in Ghostbusters that proved to be the turning point in his career. Since then, Hudson has appeared in numerous films (The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, The Crow, Congo) as well as TV series ranging from St. Elsewhere to Childrens Hospital. He can currently be heard giving voice to the gruff Agent Fowler on Transformers: Prime, which airs Saturday evenings on The Hub.
Transformers: Prime (2010-present)—“Agent William Fowler”
Ernie Hudson: Fowler is my alter ego, I guess. We’re at that point in life where we’ve just had a great run, but things are slowing down a little bit, and he’s still seeing himself at 19, but the mirror is saying something different. He’s one of those guys who’s being phased out but wanting very much to be involved. He still feels very useful and he’s not ready to give it up yet. And he finds his purpose with these Transformers. It’s his life; he’s found a place to be. And I go through that personally, because that’s how I look at the industry now. It’s like, “Okay, we’ve been there, done that, but what’s next?” Fowler feels that he’s a part of this, and this is a very cool part of his life. He’s still got a lot to give. Just not as much as he did at one point.
The thing that makes Transformers: Prime so cool is that the cast is the best in the business. Being with them and watching them do what they do, I’m just so impressed. I’ve gotten over my fright that I had in the first place, but these guys—Frank Welker, Peter Cullen, Kevin Michael Richardson—are really it. But then you get in there, you learn to hold your own, and it’s just so much fun.
The A.V. Club: Given the state of the entertainment industry, it must be nice to know that you have a regular-series gig.
EH: Well, I do some recurring roles on a few shows. It’s just a different dynamic now, between recurring roles on The Secret Life Of The American Teenager or Transformers: Prime or whatever. Independent films here, speaking engagements there, the conventions… I’m working on my own one-man show that we hope to have up in a couple of months. So, really, it’s about redefining yourself and still being useful and not taking it personally. I think that’s what Agent Fowler is teaching me. [Laughs.] There’s a place for you. You just have to find it. When I find my Transformers, I’ll know.
The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians (1985)—“Cyborg”
AVC: Transformers: Prime is not your first gig as a voice actor. You started doing this back when you played Cyborg on a later incarnation of Super Friends, correct?
EH: Yeah, Cyborg was a fun character. I love doing voiceover [work], because it’s a different talent. There are different chops involved if you do it right. It’s acting, but it’s just different. I loved working on Cyborg, and I did some guest spots on Batman and different things. But after Ghostbusters came out, my wife and I decided to leave the area, and it was hard getting into town [to audition]. Now, of course, it’s a little bit different, ’cause I’ve got a little studio in my house, and I can do a lot of the auditions from there. But I love doing it; it’s great.
The Human Tornado (1976)—“Bo”
EH: Oh, yeah. Rudy Ray Moore! [Laughs.] That was back in the day, and I was just getting started. It was… an experience. We had a caterer who only served spaghetti. And there’s a moment in the movie where my brother’s killed. It was an interesting time for me. [Laughs.] I’d been doing a lot of theater up until then. That was the early stages of film for me.
AVC: How did you land on acting as a career?
EH: I’d tried a lot of different professions for… It seemed to me like a long time, but it really only lasted a few months before I went to college. When I finally decided that my only hope was to go to college, I took an acting class, and once I walked onstage, I just knew I was home. It was where I belonged. That’s where I found that purpose. And I’ve been there ever since. I’ve always made my living as an actor for the last 47 years. It hasn’t always been the best living. [Laughs.] But I’ve always been able to do that. Once I committed to acting, this has been it. So I’ve been very fortunate.
St. Elsewhere (1984)—“Jerry Close”
EH: Yeah, that was really fun. Once again, it was just a great cast of people. Denzel [Washington] was on the show. Sometimes, there are three reasons for doing it: Either the character’s great, the money’s great, or it’s the people you work with. That was just a great company to work with. Tom Fontana, who was the editor and writer, we became friends, and later he did Oz. But it was nice to be a part of that. I had done the Ghostbusters stuff, but then film slowed down, so it was great to segue into some TV stuff. I just thought that was the best of TV.
Oz (1997-2003)—“Warden Leo Glynn”
EH: Oz was a great experience. The cast on Oz is the best acting troupe I think I’ve ever had the good fortune of working with. A really talented group of people. Tom Fontana’s an amazing writer. Unfortunately, we only did eight episodes a year. I think when you’re on a series, you get a chance to learn and grow every time, with some amazing guest stars coming in, but we only did eight a year, which made it impossible to make any real money. But I loved doing it, and there are fans, no matter where I go, who show up because of that. I really appreciate that.
AVC: There were a lot of disconcerting moments during the run of the show. Is there anything particularly horrific that sticks out for you?
EH: Well, when it comes to moments that stick out, I have to go back to when my son was on the show. He was a recurring character during the third season, playing Hamid Khan—the Muslim who took control from [Kareem] Saïd. He worked that whole season, and at the end of the season—we knew this early on—his character was killed, in the ring with Cyril. It was a boxing thing. I didn’t think much about it when we were doing it, but when I saw the episode—in the next episode, I had to go and dress the body—it was just… When he was a little kid, he always used to say, “Dad, if you’re gonna die in a movie, let me know, ’cause I don’t really want to see it. I know it’s make-believe, but I don’t want to take my head there.” And I would laugh at that. Later on, though, I was like, “Okay, I get it.” Make-believe or not, you just don’t want to think along those lines.
Penitentiary II (1982)—“Half Dead”
EH: Yeah! In fact, Jamaa Fanaka, who directed it and produced it, just passed away. That [film] was like The Human Tornado. A friend of mine [Badja Djola] portrayed the first Half Dead, and there were some problems. But another good friend of mine, Cliff Roquemore, who was directing a lot of those kind of films, asked me to do it. He was producing that. And it was stupid. [Laughs.] But it was fun. It’s one of those characters where I go, “I have no idea what this is, I don’t know any human being on the planet who would be this stupid, but I’m committed to it.” And, surprisingly, it developed a huge fan base. No matter where I travel—Africa or Europe or wherever—people will come up and say, “Half Dead!” Calling me by the character’s name. I really don't understand, but these things have a way of going around the world, so I think that’s pretty cool.
AVC: How was Mr. T to work with?
EH: Oh, Mr. T. I worked with him on that, and we also did The A-Team. The episode was called “The Taxicab Wars,” and I played the owner of a taxi company who was being blackmailed. So I saw him early on when we did Penitentiary II, before he exploded to being the Mr. T. Yeah, at that point, he just had a weird haircut. [Laughs.] But he was such a sweet guy. Then, of course, he blew up with The A-Team, and it was interesting seeing that transformation and seeing the change in him. But he’s a friend, and I saw him a few years back. Yeah, it was a lot of fun. I love him.
It’s interesting. All actors come in differently. Doing Transformers and seeing all of the different personalities, we don’t have our physical apparatuses to tell the story; all we have is voice. And it’s amazing how that signature is on everything that we do. I see guys who have been Shakespearean-trained actors, and I see guys like Mr. T, who has so much personality and dynamics that it’s actually amazing. I totally love him and respect him, and I certainly wish him well.
The Crow (1994)—“Sergeant Albrecht”
EH: The Crow is so near to my heart. It’s one of my favorite films, and it’s the one film that all my kids—I have four sons—think of as one of their favorite films as well. It’s so tragic what happened. I knew Brandon [Lee] for about eight years before we did the movie, and I just loved him and considered him a good friend. When this happened… I am still trying to recover from that. It’s amazing that it could happen. But I’m so glad I did it, because I think the movie really highlighted his abilities as an actor, and if we have to go, at least let it be on a good film, as opposed to something really stupid. But I love Albrecht because he was a different character than a lot of the characters I’ve played, and I think he was just a genuinely good guy. He was there, and he was well intentioned. I like that character. But The Crow was a hard shoot. And it’s really unfortunate what happened.
Lackawanna Blues (2005)—“Dick Barrymore”
Law & Order (2009-2010)—“Frank Gibson”
EH: Lackawanna Blues was one of those movies that I’d heard about and wanted to be a part of. Then it got cast, and somehow, I got overlooked. And I thought, “Ah, man, that sucks.” [Laughs.] But later on, they called me, and they had this character. I wasn’t doing a lot in the movie, but it had a real connection with Epatha Merkerson, who I just love and have so much respect for. We also did Law & Order together, where I played her boyfriend. But, yeah, he was cool. He was a gambler, and I was doing my uncle, basically. [Laughs.] He had his hair sort of way back, and I liked that gambler guy. He so reminded me of my uncle. It was only a moment, really, but that’s another one where I have fans come up who remember that moment. I’m actually a little surprised, because I was like, “Nobody’s ever gonna notice me in this.” But people somehow do.
How I Met Your Mother (2011)—“Ernie Hudson”
Modern Family (2012)—“Miles”
EH: Well, How I Met Your Mother was just silly. [Laughs.] It was funny. I mean, I’ve reached a point where I can go on a show, and they can say, “Ernie Hudson,” and somebody actually knows who that is. Maybe that’s a compliment. But I loved Jason Segel. It’s a great cast, and everybody was just so sweet. As an actor, I think you always want to be challenged, and especially when I came into the business, I loved the challenge of finding things. Transformers: Prime is a great show because I’m discovering things about Fowler. That’s what keeps it exciting. But when I do a TV show like How I Met Your Mother—I recently did Modern Family, and I loved that cast as well—I’m like, “Okay, but I’m not really challenged here.” So that becomes a little frustrating. But at least How I Met Your Mother was fun. It was a fun day. Not even a fun day. It was a fun couple of hours. So I’m glad I did it. I mean, those things are always fun to do, but it’s just not very challenging as an actor.
The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (1992)—“Solomon”
EH: Which is just the opposite. [Laughs.] That was very challenging as an actor, and I felt responsibility not to tell that story and that character badly, because I felt it represented a lot of people. I did a lot of research, which I don’t always do, ’cause sometimes you don’t feel it’s necessary, but I’m proud of it. I’m proud of that character, and I think he represented the best of everything I could possibly be. He’s a better person than I am, and I’m really glad to have had an opportunity to do that, because it’s not the kind of role I’ve normally been asked to do. Not before or since. Once I did Ghostbusters, there was the whole thing of being thought of as a comedian. The Hand That Rocks The Cradle broke that a little bit.
Going Berserk (1983)—“Jerome Willy Muhammed”
EH: Yeah! John Candy. Loved John. He was a good friend. David Steinberg directed, and I got a chance to work with those guys for the first time, that whole Second City troupe. They brought me in to read for the role of my character’s buddy—who comes in later, looking for me—but it was a smaller part, and I was just so determined to play Jerome Muhammed, but David had already cast the part. I just went in and said, “Let me show you how it should be done,” and I convinced him to fire the other guy and give me the job. [Laughs.] It’s one of those audition stories I tell: Sometimes you can turn things around. But I loved the character. It was silly, but it was fun.
Congo (1995)—“Captain Munro Kelly”
EH: Congo was my film. It was my character, and I got a chance to do my version of whatever a leading man is, which has always been a bit of a challenge, finding those parts. I had so much fun with that character, and they allowed me, reluctantly, to do the accent and be the African guide. It was just so much fun, and it’s probably my favorite character of all. Yeah, I have nothing but fond memories. I’m so glad I got a chance to do that, and when people ask about my career, put Munro Kelly up against the guys I played on Oz and The Crow and The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, and that’s my career. That’s the range.
Childrens Hospital (2010)—“Hubert McGraw”
EH: [Laughs.] Some of these, you do them and you go, “This is funny, but I don’t really get the joke. But I’m here and I’m 100 percent committed.” I know it’s a takeoff on those Grey's Anatomy shows. But the guys are so silly and having fun. It’s kind of hard to jump into that kind of humor. Usually, you get to hang out with the guys for a while. You have a chance to go, “Okay,” but I just kind of got thrown in the water. But it was fun. Another case where I was only there for a day, but you always try to enjoy it, because once that’s not happening, then it’s really time to find another purpose.
Collision Course (1989)—“Shortcut”
AVC: How was Jay Leno as an action star?
EH: [Laughs.] That was one of those films that started with one director; he got fired. We brought in another guy; he got fired. Some of the cast got fired. We moved around; I’m still hanging on—I didn't get fired!—but then we got about halfway through it, and they said, “We ran out of money.” Which meant that I left early. So it was one of those productions that just had a lot of issues. But Jay was great. He’s had me on The Tonight Show a couple of times. But, they say all of us actors have our own signature and… [Starts to laugh.] I’m trying to find the right words here. As an action star, it just didn’t seem to fit him. But he was fun to work with, and he was funny in the film. And Pat Morita. I thought they played very well together.
The Basketball Diaries (1995)—“Reggie”
EH: That was a good experience. I loved that character. He was the only character that wasn’t in the book. I got to know Leonardo DiCaprio; he was great to work with. He’s a very talented guy; I look at that movie now, and I love the scenes that we had together. It certainly took everything I had. It was some of the best work I’ve ever done. Once again, it’s a film that has a small following. Not nearly as big as The Crow, nor did it do nearly what I thought it would do. I think it was a little bit of a challenge for America to see white kids in those urban drug situations. Whatever the case, it just never really caught on. But I’m glad I had the chance to work with Leonardo and Mark Wahlberg and some of the other guys. It was good.
Ghostbusters (1984)—“Winston Zeddemore”
Ghostbusters 2 (1989)—“ Winston Zeddemore”
EH: Probably the most frustrating job, yet the most rewarding job. Just getting the job was frustrating. But I loved the actors—Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis—and I still consider them very good friends. I’m so thankful that I got a chance to do it. After all these years, almost 30 years later, whenever I’m on the street, someone will call out, “Who you gonna call?” [Laughs.] So I’m glad to have been a part of that. I’m very proud of that, and I’d jump at the chance to do it again if it ever came up. I like Winston. I always felt like the cousin who had come to visit and was trying to find a place at the table. How do you fit in there? And when I look at it now, I realize it was just the way it should’ve been. And I have nothing but good thoughts about it and everyone involved. But it was very frustrating to be a part of it.
AVC: From what was the frustration derived?
EH: Well, you want to be in the mix. Like I said, I’m always looking for ways to stretch and grow and bring everything I got to the table. But not having been included in a lot of the press stuff, including the poster that I sign now wherever I go… I’m on some of them, but fans always ask me about that, because they’re confused [about] why I’m not on a lot of them, and I’m like, “It was the studio’s decision.” So there was always that feeling of wanting to be a full part and not quite feeling that. But the fans see the character; I’ve met people who’ve named their kids after Winston. [Laughs.] And I have a dog named Winston! So I guess it was memorable in its own way.
AVC: This may be an urban legend, but did you audition to do the voice of Winston for the Ghostbusters animated series, only to be passed over for the gig?
EH: Yeah, I did, and it was funny, ’cause they said, “You don’t have to audition for the part, but the director wants to hear you read the material.” So I went in to read the material, and the guy said, “No, no, no, that’s all wrong! When Ernie Hudson did it in the movie…” And I’m like, “Well, wait a minute: I am Ernie Hudson!” [Laughs.] So when I left, they said, “No, it’s not a problem, you’re gonna do the voice.” They called me about it—I was shooting a film; I can’t remember what film I was doing—and then I never heard anything from them. Then I found out that Arsenio [Hall] was doing it. I was very busy doing other stuff, but I was really disappointed because the thought of someone else doing Winston was not something I felt great about. Arsenio’s a friend, so there’s no disrespect to him. But they had me come in and read, and even though they said I wasn’t auditioning, I dunno, I guess I was just there to have the director get on my nerves. Who knows what happened there? Whatever the case, I didn’t get the part. Unfortunately.
The Last Precinct (1986)—“Sgt. ‘Night Train’ Lane”
EH: Oh, yeah! Finally, I got my own show, we’re gonna be doing it every week, I can bring everything to the role, and it’s gonna be really cool. And it’s with Stephen Cannell, who I had so much respect for. And then it didn’t go. We did, I think, 13 episodes or something. But it was a bunch of really good people. Crazy characters and kind of a weird concept, but “Night Train” Lane was kind of cool, I thought. It’s just one of those things that’s kind of hard to read, but I enjoyed it.
AVC: It’s surprising that it didn’t last longer, given that it had such huge exposure by premièring after the Super Bowl.
EH: Yeah, it did. But it was weird. We had one officer who had a sex change, we had one guy who was an exchange policeman from India, and all these weird characters in this mix. It might’ve been too over-the-edge. And Stephen had such a history of getting hits that I was surprised it didn’t go. I would’ve loved to have done it longer. But in this business, you just never know. The only thing you do know is that everything will come to an end at some point.