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Whatever Works / Ernie Warden

'Oz' Warden Had Key to Career: Commitment

May 17, 1999|CANDACE A. WEDLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Actor Ernie Hudson plays a prison warden in HBO's "Oz." Hudson, who was in "Ghostbusters" and "Ghostbusters II," lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Linda, and their sons, Andrew, 11, and Ross, 10. Hudson also has two grown sons from a prior marriage, 30-year-old Rahaman and 33-year-old Ernie Jr., who has joined the "Oz" cast. The series is filmed in New York City's Chelsea district.

Question: What's it like working with your son?

Answer: You know, he's very good. I mean, it took me awhile to say that because, when he first started, I wasn't sure he was prepared to give the kind of commitment that I know it takes. But he totally got into it. He really works hard. I'm so happy for him to be on it.

Q: What's your earliest work experience?

A: My mother died when I was 3 months old, so it was my grandmother raising me. I always worked growing up. When I was 3, we worked on the farms [in Michigan], picking berries. It took me all day long to fill up this quart of berries. I took it to my grandmother, who was so proud of me. I set the quart down, tripped and fell into the quart of berries. I remember crying, but my grandmother was always very supportive.

Q: Did you also work when you were in school?

A: In grade school, there was a fish market not far from the house and the owner would give me his boxes, and I'd chop up the wood and sell it. And I worked in the cleaners, ninth, 10th grades. Now, I mean, I can really fold sheets well. When I was in high school I sold [household] products. I did that through the first year or so of college from time to time, selling door to door.

Q: If you hadn't gone into acting, what would you have liked to do?

A: I think there's a part of me that wanted to be a singer--a soul singer would have been really good. But that was one of the things that was too embarrassing to admit out loud to anybody.

Q: What was the worst job you ever had to do?

A: The worst job was when I was in the 12th grade. My brother was a molder--you fill molds with sand and send it down the line. Well, in order to get the sand for the mold, you have to fill these cups on a conveyor belt. I had to shovel sand into cups that would continually go all the time. This is really hard labor. [And] I would get this dirt in my skin. The dirt would be like ingrained. You couldn't wash it off.

Q: Like coal miners.

A: Yeah. Exactly. I'd go to school in the morning, 8 until 12, run home, my brother would pick me up at 1:30 and we'd work from 2 to 11.

Q: What did you get to buy with some of your wages?

A: I bought a car. I paid $50 for my first car and that was a lot. Every time I shifted gears it would blow smoke up into the back window. You had to stick your head out the window every time you drove it.

Q: What other kinds of jobs did you do?

A: I worked at a cannery, as a janitor in a factory, and ran machines at several places. And I had about two years of college when I took a test for the telephone company and got a job. And then one day I didn't like it. It was a beautiful day in June. Just gorgeous. I was driving to work and I missed the turn. Then I missed the next turn. I thought, "I've never been to the state capital," so I went to Lansing. I kept driving and ended up in California. I stayed at my brother's house, got this stupid job. I mean, we were selling stereos on the street.

Q: What was one of the roughest times when you were trying to break into acting?

A: In '75 I got accepted at the University of Minnesota on a program that would lead to a PhD. But as school started in September, "The Great White Hope" was being done and they were casting. I auditioned for the play. I'm in Minneapolis and I have no money. I mean, no place to stay. But I had been cast in "The Great White Hope."

Q: Is that when you really concentrated on your career?

A: I dropped out of school and just totally committed to doing the play. And when the play opened, it was huge. I mean you couldn't get a ticket. And then life changed. I did the show for a couple of years. And shaving my head [for the role]--it was a weird phenomenon because suddenly women were noticing me. It totally threw me off because I don't think of myself in those terms. Now of course everybody has shaved heads so it's no big deal, but back then it was. My head was shaved and I was physically big. I'd go into a bank and if there was a line, people would look at me and say, "It's OK. You can go ahead." When I had hair, nobody noticed and don't even think about cutting in the line.

Q: Are you and Ernie Jr. rooming together?

A: Yeah. The biggest part of being in New York is I get so lonely so I'm really enjoying the fact that he's around. Also, he's so into his martial arts and boxing and this eating stuff that now I'm trying to get back in shape. So it's him schooling me. The roles are kind of reversed.

Whatever Works runs every Monday. Send e-mail to socalliving@latimes.com.

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