Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the Movie urban legends featured so far.
MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Winston Zeddemore was a much different character in the original Ghostbusters script.
When you look at the history of American films, you can see why some actors are so highly paid, as many of the most successful films each year are based on “star power.” That’s why so many scripts are rewritten to tailor to certain stars, because the studios know the actors often more important to the film’s success than remaining faithful to the original script.
That’s why we’ve seen a script for a Brandon Lee movie rewritten into a “Lethal Weapon” movie rewritten into a “Die Hard” movie, or the classic story of how “Beverly Hills Cop” was a vehicle for Sylvester Stallone before it was retooled for Eddie Murphy.
When it came to 1984’s “Ghostbusters,” the importance of certain characters increased and decreased in based on which actor was going to play the roles. That’s how Winston Zeddemore’s role changed dramatically until it ended up being one that has (pardon the pun) haunted Ernie Hudson for years.
When Dan Aykroyd first wrote the script for “Ghostbusters,” it was practically a different film, involving the “Ghost Smashers” traveling through time and other dimensions. There were only two roles that were written with specific actors in mind (Aykroyd would also later develop the Louis Tully role specifically for John Candy, but I do not believe that Tully was even in the original draft): he role of Ray for himself and Peter for his friend and longtime collaborator John Belushi.
Belushi’s death in 1982 from a drug overdose was a huge blow to Aykroyd personally, but also to the development of “Ghostbusters.” “I’d been working on it, on and off, for a couple of years — always with the idea of having John involved,” he recalled. “I was, in fact, writing one of his lines when I heard that he had died. It was a terrible blow, but eventually I came to realize that the picture really served any three guys.”
After Ivan Reitman became involved in the project, he brought in Harold Ramis to work on the script with Aykroyd. One of the big deals was to tone down the scope of Aykroyd’s original screenplay, which would have cost upwards of $200 million in 1984 dollars (they eventually produced the film for roughly $30 million, and that was considered exorbitant at the time by Columbia Pictures). One of the characters who became better developed at this time was Winston Zeddemore, who was originally written as the security guy for the group; now, however, he was a member of the team. In the early drafts by Ramis and Aykroyd, Winston’s role was a good one. For a time, he was perhaps the most qualified to be an actual Ghostbuster. Check out some of his qualifications:
- Served in the military for five years
- Air Force Police Captain assigned to administer perimeter security at Reese Strategic Air Command base
- Designed electronic barrier systems for Sentry Alarms
- Ended up as V.P. Tactics and Training at Pacific Headquarters until the offices were closed down.
- 15th Degree Black Belt in Wing Chun Boxing
- A qualified award-winning weapons handler
In addition, originally it was Winston who was slimed by Slimer in the famous hotel scene early in the film.
However, their intentions with the character changed with the level of fame of the actor they had in mind for the role. “At one point, we were talking with Gregory Hines about playing the part,” Associate Producer Michael Gross recalled. “We also considered getting a young, black comedian — somebody like Eddie Murphy. But, in retrospect, it’s probably just as well we didn’t.” Ivan Reitman claims they never considered Murphy (who had just starred with Aykroyd in “Trading Places”). It’s difficult to believe they never even thought about on one of the era’s hottest young comedic actors for the role, particularly one who had just worked with Aykroyd!
However, I can believe they never actually made an official offer to him. Murphy ended up doing “Beverly Hills Cop” during the time that “Ghostbusters” was filmed (“Beverly Hills Cop” actually beat “Ghostbusters” at the 1984 box office), but it’s possible his agents just made it clear he wasn’t available for “Ghostbusters” rather than officially rejecting the role. In either event, once they moved past getting Hines or someone “like Eddie Murphy,” they decided to significantly reduce the role, and signed the lesser-known Ernie Hudson. In addition, now that they didn’t cast a big name for Winston, they ended up giving a lot of Winston’s lines and scenes to the big star they did: Bill Murray. So Peter Venkman’s part grew while Winston Zeddemore’s shrank.
The painful part is that Hudson had read the earlier version of the script, so he knew what he was missing out on. He told EW:
The night before filming begins, however, I get this new script and it was shocking.
The character was gone. Instead of coming in at the very beginning of the movie, like page 8, the character came in on page 68 after the Ghostbusters were established. His elaborate background was all gone, replaced by me walking in and saying, “If there’s a steady paycheck in it, I’ll believe anything you say.” So that was pretty devastating.
I’m panicked. I don’t sleep that night. It was like my worst nightmare is happening. The next morning, I rush to the set and plead my case. And Ivan basically says, “The studio felt that they had Bill Murray, so they wanted to give him more stuff to do.” I go, “Okay, I understand that, but can I even be there when they’re established?” And of course, he said no, there’s nothing to do about it. It was kind of awkward, and it became sort of the elephant in the room.
Hudson has always had that “What If…?” in his career, as to how things might’ve been different had he played the original, more leading man version of Winston.
So Winston’s role was rewritten and significantly reduced, with Winston not joining the group until after they were well established. Even with that, the shooting script still had a lot of his qualifications come up in his interview for the job. All of those were cut, however, when the scene was shortened and all that was left was the Ghostbusters’ receptionist Janine asking, “Do you believe in UFOs, astral projection, mental telepathy, ESP, clairvoyance, spirit photography, telekinetic movement, full trans-mediums, the Loch Ness monster and the theory of Atlantis?” Winston replies, “If there’s a steady paycheck in it, I’ll believe anything you say.” Air Force Captain to “anything for a paycheck.”
Winston infamously didn’t even appear on the movie poster for the film!
Adding more insult to injury, Hudson wasn’t even allowed to voice Winston in the “Real Ghostbusters” cartoon series! Hudson is obviously grateful for how much people remember him for Winston more than 30 years later, but you can only imagine how the “What If…?” must get to him.
The legend is…
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