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Peter Venkman was the mouth, Ray Stantz the heart, Egon Spengler the brain, but Winston Zeddemore was perhaps the most important Ghostbuster of all.
As the wide-eyed everyman quick to admit that he’d believe anything as long as there was a steady paycheck involved, Zeddemore — played by screen veteran Ernie Hudson — was quite literally us. Recruited part way through the 1984 hit, his healthy skepticism helped audiences digest complex ghost containment tech, drooling demon dogs and 100 foot marshmallow men like they were just another day in the office. However, while a key part of the cohort, this wasn’t the full plan for Ecto-1’s unflappable fourth member, as explained in Cleanin’ Up the Town: Remembering Ghostbusters (available now on Rakuten TV).
In fact, Zeddemore was initially set to play a much larger role before a last minute script tweak changed everything. By shifting the character’s first appearance from page one to page 60 and giving most of his best lines to Venkman (Bill Murray), Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) and Spengler (Spengler), a ripple effect was created that can still be felt today. However with Jason Reitman’s nostalgic canon threequel Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Winston — or Dr. Zeddemore as he’s now known — finally seems to have found his rightful place within this much loved franchise, and his real-life alter-ego couldn’t be happier.
“It’s almost comforting,” Hudson tells Yahoo on finally continuing the character’s arc after a 32-year gap.
“This movie has been such a big part of my life for almost 40 years. It’s something I’ve never been able to get away from — not that I’ve tried — but the fans have always kept Winston at the forefront and really connected to him. To be on the set and to see the guys in the jumpsuits, Sigourney Weaver, Annie Potts and to meet this new cast, I realised this is something that’s going to move into the future. It’s nice to have it finally resolved.”
A bit of resolution surely goes a long way, especially considering the marginalisation Hudson’s character faced during the production of director Ivan Reitman’s original film. As detailed in filmmaker Anthony Bueno’s expansive documentary Cleaning Up The Town: Remembering Ghostbusters (available now on Rakuten TV), in addition to a hefty role reduction, the actor found Zeddemore largely absent from Ghostbusters’ posters, with parent studio Columbia Pictures seemingly keen to prioritise their trio of comedy leads. For Hudson, it was a hard pill to swallow.
“It was a mixed blessing because it was the most amazing script,” he says, recalling his first encounter with the project. “I was a single dad, the rent was due and I needed a job. If I got this role, it was going to change my world. Then, the night before we were to shoot, all that changed.”
Zeddemore’s intriguing military background? Gone. The scene where he (not Stantz) conjures Stay Puft? Reallocated. “I’ve had several conversations with Ivan about it and his recollection is very different to mine,” smiles Hudson, caveating his memories with the fact that he only saw the decision making process from an actor’s perspective.
“Now that I’m older, I understand the studio wanted to make sure the guys they’d invested a lot of money into had things to play with, so all of my best bits were given to other people. But for me as an actor, it was really devastating.”
He adds: “Winston had all this military training. He was the sensible guy who held things together. When the script changed, it was an... adjustment.” Ultimately it was the fans that sprang to Zeddemore’s defence, cementing his status as an integral member of the team.
“Bill, Dan and Harold were so inviting and welcoming but, while I don’t know this for a fact, it felt like the studio always wanted to make sure it was the three guys on the posters. It was the fans who really embraced Winston and I’ve talked to a few people at the studio who felt almost a little surprised by that. I credit the fans for forcing me to take another look at Ghostbusters.”
Watch a trailer for Ghostbusters: Afterlife
Cut to 2021 and Ghostbusters: Afterlife passes the proton pack from father to son, with Juno director Jason Reitman helming a nostalgic feel-fest that brings 1984’s story full circle. It’s something that’s been long-teased and even promises to propel the franchise into unexpected new places.
“For the past 30 years they’ve been talking about doing another one but it never seemed to happen. They’d announce I’m in it but nobody would’ve talked to me about it so I lost faith it would ever really happen,” admits Hudson. “Then I got a call from Jason, and I was still a little skeptical,” he laughs. “It wasn’t until we got on set that I thought: ‘Okay, we’re really doing this’.”
At the story’s core is Egon Spengler, the bouffant haired brain-box played by Ramis, who passed away back in 2014. For Hudson, returning to this world without one of its key players was a melancholic experience.
“I’ve always said Harold was the glue that held this thing together because there were a lot of personalities. I learned a lot from him and in some ways I attribute the longevity of my career to watching how he operated,” he says. “I think people found a way to be part of saying goodbye and thank you - and I don’t think we ever felt we’d get a chance to do that.”
He’s not wrong, especially considering director Paul Feig’s 2016 reboot and the unfortunate fan fallout that appeared in its wake. While Hudson appears briefly alongside stars Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and Melissa McCarthy, he has his own thoughts on why this retooled Ghostbusters failed to connect with some fans.
“I’m a big fan of Paul and the four women, they’re all very funny people — but I felt they put themselves in a bind because they didn’t make it part of the Ghostbusters universe,” he reasons. “I think Paul wanted to do his thing and the fans saw Ghostbusters in a very specific way. I think Jason took that into account in the new movie. It would’ve been easier if they hadn’t done a reboot.
"If it had been 20 years later and these were our daughters, that would’ve tied it in better, but when you do a reboot, you’re forcing a comparison,” suggests Hudson. “It would’ve been much funnier if they had fresh material and could do their own thing. I enjoyed it, even though I felt it was stand alone and wasn’t really part of that Ghostbusters universe.”
Set your neutrino wand to spoilers, because what comes next delves into Afterlife end-credit territory. In the new film’s final moments, we see Dr Zeddemore — now a wealthy philanthropist — purchase a certain New York firehouse with an eye on bringing Ghostbusters HQ up to date.
We briefly glimpse a ghost containment that looks dangerously full before Reitman ominously cuts to black. “We shot part of it after the movie was done,” reveals Hudson, commenting on the clip that seemingly sets up Zeddemore as the Ghostbusters’ new leader. “Jason, in his own way, gave a tribute to Winston and that was very special to me.”
As for what comes next? “I believe they’re writing the new one,” he reveals. “Whether Winston’s involved, we’ll wait and see. I’m sure the other guys look at it very differently in terms of their involvement,” he adds on whether he thinks Murray and Akyroyd might return for more spectral fun.
“Clearly it’s a new family’s movie so I don’t know if any of the old Ghostbusters can be major players - but being involved as mentors in some way would be a lot of fun.” With Winston seemingly tipped to lead the franchise forward, it’s nice to see the character finally get his due.
“He certainly seems set up to be a part of it,” agrees Hudson. “He understands the Ghostbusters better than anyone. He’s almost like Sam Jackson’s character [Nick Fury] in the Marvel Universe. Whatever comes out of it, I’d love to see Winston connected to it.”
Cleanin' Up The Town: Remembering Ghostbusters - the definitive documentary chronicling the enduring popularity of one of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters Ghostbusters – is now available on Rakuten TV. Watch a trailer below.