The reasoning behind my love for Winston Zeddemore is summed up at the end of Ghostbusters. The team has defeated the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, rescued Dana and Louis, and the sun is rising over the lower East Side. Covered in marshmallow residue, a tired and beaten-down Winston throws his arms up in the air in an exaltation of “I love this town!” Winston is New York. The old New York of immigrants and endless possibility. The New York you can’t keep down, and where, if you put your mind to it, you can become anything. A good man. A Ghostbuster. A God.
It’s tough for me to say that Winston Zeddemore is the hands of the Ghostbusters. It sounds more demeaning than it is. A hired hand, a right-hand man, these are qualities of a man you can rely on and trust your life with. He’s not a doctor or a scientist (back off, man!) but someone who will do the job if given the tools and the talent. While the other three are off performing experiments, running tests, or conning beautiful women into their bedrooms, Winston is earning his paycheck. When Winston uses his equipment, he uses it the same way he would a jackhammer or a drill. It’s physical labour. It’s work. And damn if Winston isn’t good at his job.
Winston has the clearest arc of any character through Ghostbusters, and over the course of the film (what little of it he’s in) Winston goes from being an absolute outsider to central Ghostbuster through and through. We see the way he changes from skeptic to… I’d hesitate to say believer, but certainly an active participant. It’s different than when Louis put on the suit. Becoming a Ghostbuster made him something more. He’s seen shit that will turn you white, after all. And that was before Gozer.
Winston is also the only Ghostbuster I’d venture to call religious. Maybe it comes from being the outsider in a group of three scientists, but when Winston “likes Jesus’ style” it feels like a genuine revelation of his belief. And yet, he’s also not the kind of believer that looks to God as a figure to prostrate himself before in praise or worship. The way he screams “if someone asks if you’re a god, you say YES!” to Ray on the top of that building underlines this fundamental trait. For Winston, it doesn’t matter about being imbued with any power. You’re not born into anything. You want to be God? Decide to be God. You do the job that’s needed and you become a better person through the work.
Ernie Hudson makes the most of his time on screen and turns the role into more than what is presented on the page. Looking at the script, he practically has to considering how little hes actually given. Winston is criminally underused in both of the original two films, but Hudson makes the part shine by playing Winston as the straight man to the other three’s antics. Lines like “that’s a big twinkie” have still immortalized him in the history of film, and there’s always a twinkle in Winston’s eye that he just flat out loves everything he does.
When The Real Ghostbusters came around, Ernie Hudson even auditioned for the role of Winston once again. The role went instead to Arsenio Hall, who played Winston in the animated series for three seasons. While he was replaced by the serviceable Buster Jones in season three, it was a more amicable parting for Hall than it was for Lorenzo Music, who was ousted from the role of Venkman by the studio. It seems like Hall was learning from Winston at that time, as his career was on an upswing with his legendary talk show. He got to it through the work and dedication he put into what other actors may call smaller roles.
I love Winston. Flat out, unabashedly love him. I think he’s one of the most important ingredients of the core team. Leslie Jones has a lot of work cut out for her filling those boots. As an actress, she’s more than qualified. I look forward to seeing if she’ll keep the right balance between the carefully curated aspects of the “outsider” Ghostbuster’s personality. Winston is more than an everyman. He’s the hands of the Ghostbusters, and although he wasn’t an original member of the core three, they wouldn’t continue to function as a team without him.