Sequestered in the Twin Cities after Hollywood shut down, charismatic actor Ernie Hudson sometimes dons his old "Ghostbusters" jumpsuit and records messages to cheer up fans. Or he may sing happy birthday to a kid stricken with cancer.
Hudson is doing his part to bring light and joy to the populace during the pandemic.
"I'm thankful that we're OK, but I really feel for people and what they're going through," Hudson said. "If you do get the virus, are you going to be hit with a crazy bill? And if you're already in financial crisis, is the bill still going up? It's a rough time with everybody getting cabin fever or worrying about money."
Hudson decamped from the West Coast in March just as California was about to shut down. He had been working on two shows that were brought to a halt — Carl Weber's "The Family Business," a crime family series that started on BET and is now on its streaming service, and "L.A.'s Finest," the "Bad Boys" spinoff headlined by Gabrielle Union and Jessica Alba.
Just before jetting to Minnesota, Hudson, 74, had a close call with the novel coronavirus.
A cast member on "The Family Business" tested positive for COVID-19 in the waning days of shooting. Hudson had close contact with the actor.
"The last scene we shot was a shootout where the guy jumps out, gets shot and the wife cradles him," Hudson said. "I go pick him up and put him in the car. Well, that [actor] ends up with coronavirus. Totally freaked me out. He's recovered now, but I had to check myself for weeks."
While Hudson has a house in Hollywood, Minnesota is his go-to retreat for respite. It's a place that's had special meaning for him, given his breakout role in "The Great White Hope" in 1975 — a performance that inspired the founding of both Penumbra and Mixed Blood theaters. It is also because of the play that he met his future wife, Minneapolitan Linda Kingsberg Hudson.
The pair's frequent returns to the area are to see her father, who is nearing the century mark.
"This is the weirdest time we've had here because we can't see our friends or do many of the things we love to do, like go to the Swedish Institute," Kingsberg Hudson said.
Partners for 45 years, they will celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary in a few weeks. They have two 30-something sons, Andrew and Ross, who also are riding out the pandemic in the Twin Cities.
Hudson's two older sons, Ernie Hudson Jr. and Rahaman Hudson, live in New York, the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. They are safe, he said, knocking on wood.
At first, Hudson welcomed the breather that the shutdown provided.
"Usually, necessity drives you, and you're just running, running," he said. "All those gotta-go, gotta-do things are on hold."
Then he wanted to get ambitious — to do something big to remember the pandemic by.
"People are always talking about all the things they would do if they had more time," he said. "Well, for me, that excuse doesn't carry water anymore. I have more time, and I'm just at the place now where I'm kind of tired of it. I'm just trying to get myself downstairs to work out."
Still, he's savoring the days that he has with family, including nightly dinners. "We don't have TV or anything on," Hudson said.
But there's one thing that he can't wait to have — and that's a proper haircut. Seven weeks into the pandemic shutdown, his hair is getting unruly. Social media is full of partners and spouses cutting or styling each other's hair. Would Hudson allow his wife to cut his hair?
"The way I grew up, I've always been leery of any white person cutting my hair," he laughed. "So being in Minnesota with Linda cutting my hair — I don't know."
"That's because his brother is a barber and he's the only one to cut his hair," she chimed in. "I don't know. He's looking at me like it's not happening. We'll see."
Both bust into laughter.
Messages of hope
The messages that Hudson records for fans are through the Cameo app, where celebrities do such gestures for a nominal fee. Actor Marla Maples is on it for $72 a pop. Debra Messing of "Will and Grace" fame will set you back $300.
It costs $135 for a message from Hudson, with or without his Winston Zeddemore ghost-busting jumpsuit.
"Generally, it's people celebrating anniversaries, welcoming new babies and things like that," said Hudson, who records about a dozen messages a week.
"You can do it from your home on the phone — it doesn't take a lot of time and it feels very connected and positive," he said. "If someone picks me out, it's personal. They're a fan of something I've done."
The spirit-cheer requests have changed with the pandemic.
"I'm getting things like, 'My mom's inside. Can you send me a Cameo to lift her spirit,' " Hudson said.
One recent Cameo was for a husband and wife who are going through cancer treatment, which struck a personal chord. Hudson was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1998, and with rectal cancer in 2011.
In both cases, early screening was key.
"I'm cancer-free and very grateful," Hudson said. "When I'm talking to people going through stuff, I know how they feel."
The pandemic has heightened his introspection about his life and career, both ongoing. The release date for "Ghostbusters: Afterlife," where he reunites with co-stars Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd, has been pushed back from July to March. And he acted in "Redemption Day," a political action thriller that was shot in Morocco last year.
"I'd always wanted to go there, and this was a chance to see the country," he said. "When you're younger, everything's about acquisition, about getting things. But we're about giving back now — to young people, shelters, everything we can. I guess that's a natural stage; you go from get-get-get to give-give-give."
He does charity work for a number of causes, including the Boys and Girls Clubs of Benton Harbor, Mich., where he grew up. The club, located in a region hit hard by COVID-19, is providing meals to young people during the shutdown. It pains him that his hometown is hurting so.
His career has been a good one, but he's always been ambitious.
"I won't lie, I would love to have an Oscar on my mantel, but that's not the only measure of a life," Hudson said. "For a kid who grew up in the projects of Benton Harbor, it's been nice."
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390