It’s a busy month for Ernie Hudson. He’s starring in two TV series: The BET+ crime drama “The Family Business,” in its fourth season, and the NBC reboot of the time travel series “Quantum Leap.” He also stars alongside Brian Cox in the film “Prisoner’s Daughter,” which premiered last week at the Toronto International Film Festival.
That’s three major projects premiering in a span of weeks. “I’ve been doing this for over 55 years,” said Hudson. “You want to be in a position where they’re calling you as opposed to you begging them.” That wasn’t always the case — especially after his breakout performance in the original “Ghostbusters” movie in 1984.
“After I did the movie, everything dried up,” he said. “It was the opposite of what I thought it would be. It was like I couldn’t get arrested. I couldn’t even get an audition at Columbia, and Columbia released ‘Ghostbusters’! I don’t know why. Nobody can explain it.”
It was during this fallow period that he experienced an unusual career low that led to not one but two job offers. Here’s that story.
My worst moment …
“Things were slow after ‘Ghostbusters.’ And then I got an audition for a TV show that Steven Bochco was doing called ‘Cop Rock,’ which was a musical police procedural. (The short-lived 1990 show would become infamous for its unsuccessful blending of the two genres.) Randy Newman was writing the music and it was the coolest thing ever. I really wanted to do this show and I thought I was just perfect for the part, which was the police commander.
“But the audition was one of the worst of my life. It felt like everything was riding on this moment — and I was awful. You can’t really apologize when the work is bad, you know? You can’t explain why you’re not good: ‘I don’t know why I’m not, I just know I really suck and I really need this job.’ But you can’t beg for it. So they said, ‘Thanks for coming in,’ and I knew I wasn’t getting it.
“It was devastating. Because if I don’t get this job, the rent doesn’t get paid. Every audition determines if you can get the car fixed or pay the phone bill. So I walked out to the parking lot and I broke down in tears. Not just because I didn’t get the job, but because I felt like I was the crappiest actor on the planet. It was the worst. I felt so low. Like, why am I even an actor? I just wanted to lay down in the road and let somebody run over me. It was that bad.
“I went home and my two oldest boys were excited to hear what happened, and I had to explain that sometimes you prepare but it just doesn’t work out and I had blown it.
“And then the phone rings and I find out that I actually did get the job (laughs). This is after I had apologized to my kids for being such a bad actor dad.
“And then the worst thing was this: There was another police show that producer Stephen Cannell was doing called ‘Broken Badges’ that I had auditioned for and I got that show, too. And they somehow pulled rank, and so I ended up having to do that one instead.”
Hudson does have a single “Cop Rock” credit for appearing in the pilot episode.
“Right! It’s all coming back to me now. It went from that awful day in the parking lot when I was crying, to getting the role, which was redeeming — I’m not that bad of an actor if they want me — to my agent saying I had to do ‘Broken Badges.’ But ‘Cop Rock’ was the one that I wanted.
“So I went from having no work to suddenly landing two shows. It’s funny how that happens.
“‘Broken Badges’ didn’t last for very long either. I went up to Canada with my family to do it and they had record-breaking rain that year. My wife and kids were so depressed and I was thankful the show didn’t get picked up. We came home for the Christmas holiday and found out that it was canceled and it was for the best. I just couldn’t bear the thought of taking them back to Canada.”
“Ghostbusters” was one of the biggest comedies of 1984 and it burnished the careers of the movie’s other stars, all of whom were white. But Hudson couldn’t get an audition after that. What was going through his mind during that period?
“If you grow up Black in America (laughs), everything that happens to you, it goes through your mind: If I wasn’t Black, this wouldn’t be happening. And sometimes you’re right, and sometimes you’re not.
“There was a different pay scale in Hollywood, especially for Black actors. I mean, I worked with white actors who had not even a fraction of my credits and they were making much more money than I made. And most of the movies I’ve done, I’m the only Black person in the cast and there would be no Black people behind the camera.
“Luckily and thankfully, in the last few years, there’s been a tremendous change and a real effort to be more diverse and give people opportunities.
“Which is why doing ‘The Family Business’ feels meaningful.
“Because in the old days, if I was in the movie: I’m in it and they want me there — but I don’t really get to do much because it’s not about me. It wasn’t written as a Black character and they don’t know how to write for a Black character. So it was: We want you here, but we don’t know what to do with you. Everyone else’s character would be alive, and I’m just there. Not for everything, but a lot of stuff. But it’s work.
“There was this period right after ‘Roots’ (in 1977) when everybody was so excited because it was such a huge event that everybody watched. This is going to open the door and we’re all going to be working — and it went just the opposite. I saw very talented friends struggle because there was just no work.
“I was, thankfully, one of the few who has always managed to make a living as an actor. But I’d be in movies where I’m the only Black person. I was in a movie with Jay Leno and Pat Morita called ‘Collision Course’ (from 1989) and it takes place in Detroit and we were downtown and there weren’t even any Black extras! I’m like, what’s going on?
“So sometimes we get these explosions of something new — progress — and then it backtracks. I hope we keep moving forward.”
The takeaway …
“I am the worst judge of my own work because I can get really critical of myself. I don’t know how good or bad I am, but I know I’m here for a reason.
“I’ve worked as much as I have, but I don’t have a shelf filled with Academy Awards and sometimes I’ll think: Well, geez, does that say anything about me? (laughs) But it’s really important to keep the faith — to stay in the game and keep showing up.
“And I can look back and appreciate things. I look back and see the kindness that people have always shown.”
Nina Metz is a Tribune critic
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