Let’s be clear: Ernie Hudson, the “Ghostbusters” star who has been in more than 200 films and TV shows, is as healthy as a thoroughbred. Fit and poised, he moves with the grace of a gym rat considerably younger than his 73 years.
Still, when he talks, it’s with the honesty and serenity of someone who’s made peace with his hardscrabble past, even as he continues to build his legacy.
“I love who I am, where I come from and don’t need to hide from any of it,” he said recently at his Burnsville home.
Hudson and his Minnesota-bred wife, former flight attendant Linda Kingsberg, bought a place in the Twin Cities several years ago to be near her father, who is 98. They also own a lake place in Brainerd, even as they keep their home near Los Angeles in an area devastated by wildfires. (Their house was spared, but many of their neighbors’ places were reduced to ashes.)
Minnesota has special meaning for him, and Hudson is equally meaningful to the Twin Cities theater community.
His 1975 role as boxing champion Jack Johnson in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Great White Hope” at Theatre in the Round helped inspire the founding of two landmark theaters, Penumbra and Mixed Blood. On Saturday, Mixed Blood is hosting Hudson at a fundraiser where he will be interviewed onstage by T. Mychael Rambo.
Hudson’s powerhouse performance on a Minneapolis stage gave him the confidence to pursue a career in Hollywood.
“Before that show, I was basically homeless; my life looked grim,” he said. “But after the show, I could take on the world.”
He soon moved to L.A., and booked a job the very first day.
Currently he is involved in three TV projects: “Grace and Frankie,” the Jane Fonda/Lily Tomlin Netflix series in which he plays Tomlin’s boyfriend; “L.A.’s Finest,” a “Bad Boys” spinoff for the Spectrum cable network starring Jessica Alba and Gabrielle Union; and “Carl Weber’s The Family Business,” a BET series in which he plays the patriarch of a family that owns a car dealership.
“Living my best life,” as he says.
And what a life it has been, marked by privation, prayer and strokes of luck.
Up from sharecropping
Hudson’s family originated in slavery in Arkansas. In the 1930s and ’40s, they fled north as part of the Great Migration after the death of his grandfather, a sharecropper.
Some ended up in Benton Harbor, Mich., where Hudson was born and raised. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was 3 months old. He never knew his father.
“I was raised with my grandmother in the projects,” he said. “The schools were integrated but they had three tracking systems: academic for special students, a general program and the practical program, which was where all the black kids were. We were the unteachables and unlearnables who weren’t allowed to take algebra, geometry or any of that stuff we would never need.”
Hudson wanted out and signed up for the Marines before graduating from high school, only to be discharged because of food allergies and asthma. Listless and ready to get out of his grandmother’s apartment, he married Jeannie Moore. He was 18, she was 16.
“We didn’t know each other,” he said. “I was trying to help her out because she was complaining about having to wash dishes.” She got pregnant with the first of Hudson’s four sons, and the family moved to Detroit for her education. “She was much smarter than me,” he said.
Nonetheless, he got accepted into Wayne State University, studying theater and writing. By the time he came to the Twin Cities — again, following his wife, who was in graduate school at the University of Minnesota — he had a clear sense of his path forward.
“Everything clicked when I was acting,” he said.
Mixed Blood founder Jack Reuler recalls how Hudson’s performance in “The Great White Hope” caused a hubbub about pay and opportunity for actors of color. “It showed a need,” he said — one that led to the founding of Penumbra and Mixed Blood in 1976.
Hudson has a checkered educational background. Opportunities, and life, kept interrupting. He had a full scholarship at Yale School of Drama, where his schoolmates included Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver, but left after a year when he was cast in Gordon Parks’ 1976 film “Leadbelly.”
For all his success, Hollywood has not given him the kind of artistic satisfaction he found onstage playing Jack Johnson, a role he reprised many times.
“He’s fully fleshed out,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of parts [in film] where I’m supporting other people’s stories. Jack demanded all my concentration and energies.”
He’s hopeful he can bring some of that concentration to his role in “Family Business.”
Feet on the ground
Hudson is a star who gets recognized everywhere he goes. He signs autographs at conventions. He inks people’s bodies, signatures that they turn into tattoos. He’s sometimes surprised when people lift up an article of clothing to show his face on their bodies.
He deals with fame differently from some of his friends. Hudson recalled being with Sylvester Stallone one time when some fans came up. “Sly took off running,” he said.
For him, life is about getting to a good place, and taking everything as it comes.
Recently, one of Hudson’s sons — he has two from his first marriage and two with Kingsberg, whom he wed in 1985 — did a DNA ancestry test and discovered some long-lost family members.
“I found out that my father had come up and lived in Benton Harbor for a while and might have approached my grandmother,” he said. “But his life was pretty rough and she [probably] said, ‘Unless you come right, don’t come at all.’ She was really protective of me.”
When he met his half-siblings for the first time, they told him about his father.
“I’m still waiting for them to give me a good story about him,” he said. “For the longest time, I wished that I had had male guidance when I was growing up. But they look at me as the lucky one.”