I CAN’T SAY THERE AREN’T ANY ROLES for black actors,” says Ernie Hudson, “because obviously I’ve found some and obviously I’m making a good living.” Indeed. Hudson, 46, hit ectoplasmic pay dirt twice as one of the Ghostbusters (in 1984 and in the ’89 sequel) and these days can sit in the sunny living room of his four-bedroom house in the San Bernardino Mountains enjoying the acclaim for his work in the hit thriller The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.
Yet despite his own success, Hudson says that when it comes to casting, “blacks are usually an afterthought.” That was the case in Cradle, the story of a sweetly murderous nanny plotting to destroy a trusting yuppie family. Hudson’s character, Solomon, a mentally disabled gardener who senses early on that Nanny Peyton (Rebecca De Mornay) is more Medea than Mary Poppins, was scripted as white—with red hair and freckles, no less. Hudson won out with his “real warmth and solidity,” according to director Curtis (Bad Influence) Hanson.
Hudson’s preparation for the role included visits to a school for mentally handicapped children in Riverside, Calif. At one school dance, he remembers, “the students were so happy to see me, they laid their heads on my arms. I thought they knew who I was as an actor, and then I noticed they did it to everybody. They just wanted to be loved, to belong.”
Hudson, who grew up on welfare in a housing project in Benton Harbor. Mich., understands that desire. His mother, Maggie, died of TB when he was just 4 months old, and he never knew his father. (“Hudson” came from his mother’s ex-husband, Thomas Hudson, who fathered Ernie’s older half brother, Lewis, now 49 and a cosmetologist in Los Angeles.)
Ernie was brought up by his maternal grandmother, Arrana Donald. “She raised me and was my best friend,” he says. Still, he adds, “I couldn’t connect with why I never had a father. All the explanations in the world never made sense to me.”
But his grandmother, who died al 85 in 1979, urged him to do more than wait for answers. “She used her example of the children of Israel running from Pharaoh, and how they went in the Red Sea when the waters parted,” says Hudson. “She would say, ‘The thing you have to remember is that they had to gel into the Red Sea first. They couldn’t stand on the bank and wait.’ ”
Although Hudson had loved acting at Benton Harbor High and writing holiday plays for his Presbyterian church, he had to do a lot of wading before he found success. His first job after graduating was as a janitor with a manufacturing company at $2.14 an hour. At 18. he married Jeannie Moore, then 16 and a freshman at his old school. They moved to Detroit. where he worked as a machine operator at Chrysler’s tank plant, then as a customer representative with Michigan Bell before he realized in his early 20s that acting was his true calling. He studied drama at Wayne Slate University and spent a year on scholarship at Yale Drama School before being called out to Los Angeles for the musical play Daddy Goodness. After parts in movies and TV, he hit the big time—in his late 30s—with Ghostbusters. Hudson had a harder time landing that part—(Gregory Hines was also a possibility for the role)—than he did Cradle’s Solomon. As for memories of shooting with the likes of Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd, “I just remember traffic backed up everywhere in New York,” says Hudson.
Getting to Ghostbusters, though, had long since taken its toll on his marriage, which went bust when he and Jeannie separated in 1975. They hadn’t been getting along, he says, and he had been spending considerable time apart from his family as he pursued acting jobs. The same year as the split, Hudson met his second wife, Linda Kingsberg, a former flight attendant, when he was starring in a Minneapolis production of The Great While Hope. Hudson says he was reluctant to commit a second time, partly because Linda is white and he was nervous about their prospects as an interracial couple. “I knew there would be problems,” he says, and he was right. Realtors in the area where they bought their home five years ago were reluctant to show them properties. “And people told us not to have children, because the children would be confused,” says Linda, 38.
Disregarding such advice, Ernie and Linda married in 1985. five years after Hudson’s divorce, and now have two children, Andrew, 4, and Ross, 2. (Hudson has two sons from his first marriage; Ernest Jr.. now 26, will graduate this year from C.W. Post, and Rocky, 23, is at Columbia Film School.) And, surprise! The Hudson family has a nanny—but only two days a week. “We had a lady who came in five days a week for a while,” says Hudson, “but I thought, ‘That’s too much influence’. After all, he knows all about the hand that rocks the cradle.
TOM CUNNEFF in Los Angeles