Ken Howard

From Rachel Hockett on the 23rd on Facebook, a personal note about the actor Ken Howard, who died that day:

I once auditioned with him for a show at the Manhattan Theatre Club (many years ago). He was already well known, I was a newbie. We had both gone to Yale (he to the drama school, which he left before finishing his master’s, to star in a Broadway show [the musical 1776, in which he played Thomas Jefferson], and I to Yale College), and we had a lovely chit-chat waiting for the audition. He put me totally at my ease, and then he got the part (I didn’t). Ken went on to epitomize the life of the working actor.

Howard in the original Broadway show:


(from left) William Daniels as John Adams, Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson, Ron Holgate as Richard Henry Lee, and Howard Da Silva as Ben Franklin

(On William Daniels, see my 4/5/15 posting about him.)

“Epitomize the life of the working actor”: just perfect. He was a rock-solid actor who immersed himself in whatever part he played (on stage, in the movies, on television), and he played an enormous number of characters, of a very wide range of types. He was widely respected, in the business and by fans, but never became a celebrity (and that probably suited him).

(As it happens, the comedian and tv actor and director Gary Shandling died on the 24th, at the age of 66, and his career was widely celebrated in the media; he was in fact a (cult) celebrity.)

Now from the NY Daily News on 3/23/16 by Peter Botte, “Ken Howard, star of ‘The White Shadow’ TV series and actors union president, dies at age 71” (ordinarily I wouldn’t treat a story in the Daily News as serious reporting, but there’s nothing sensationalistic in this one; instead, it’s an affectionate look at the career of someone the paper viewed as a local boy who made good):

Actor Ken Howard, a Long Island product best known for portraying high school basketball coach Ken Reeves in the groundbreaking 1970s television series “The White Shadow,” [1978-81] has died at age 71.

Howard, who most recently served as president of the actors union, SAG-AFTRA [from 2009 until his death], had other key roles such as playing Thomas Jefferson in “1776” both on Broadway [where it opened in 1969] and on the big screen, as well as dozens of movies, including “The Wedding Ringer” and “Joy” in 2015.

… The 6-foot-6 Manhasset H.S. product, where he first earned the nickname “The White Shadow,” played college basketball at Amherst College, which later led to him pitching [for] and starring in his most memorable acting role.

… Following “The White Shadow,” Howard also appeared as a regular on TV in “Dynasty,” “Melrose Place,” “Crossing Jordan” [2001-07, playing Max, the father of star Jill Hennessey’s character Jordan Cavanaugh] and later as Hank Hooper, the CEO of the cable company that buys NBC from General Electric on the sitcom “30 Rock.”

… Howard was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild in 2009 and helped foster its 2012 merger with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists union – which combine to represent more than 150,000 actors, recording artists and broadcasters.

Howard with his kids from The White Shadow (the high school in the series was almost all black and Hispanic):


(A rare occasion on which Howard wasn’t (quite) the tallest person in the room.)

The story of the show’s development, from the Wikipedia article:

The concept for the show originated from Ken Howard’s own experiences as a high school basketball star at Manhasset High School on Long Island. Howard was one of the few white basketball players at the school and the only white player in the starting lineup, and had been nicknamed “The White Shadow”. According to Howard, there were few racial tensions at his own high school, which was also not located in a “ghetto”, but the team encountered such tensions when they played elsewhere. Howard has said that the humor in The White Shadow was based on that of his former teammates, who were “really funny”. After graduating high school, Howard went on to be captain of the basketball team at Amherst College.

When Howard and Bruce Paltrow pitched the idea for a show about a white coach and a racially mixed basketball team, CBS initially wanted it to be a half-hour sitcom and avoid dealing with controversial material involving sex, drugs and crime. Howard later said that he and Paltrow were “not going to turn this into Welcome Back, Kotter“. They persuaded the network to make it a one-hour drama series and furthermore allow the show to address realistic, controversial subjects. They also strove for realism in the basketball scenes.

Howard’s pitch for the show grew out of his own love for basketball and his passionate personal commitment to racial justice: he insisted that the kids should be treated, with respect, as conplex characters living in a very tough situation, and that they be seen, ultimately, as winners in more than the athletic sense. That was revolutionary on mainstream American television in the 1970s.

Later in his career, I very much enjoyed his performance as Max Cavanaugh in Crossing Jordan. In the first two seasons, Max and his daughter Jordan were together in every show, doing re-enactments of the cases Jordan was working on for the Boston P.D. Wonderful chemistry between the two (and Howard got to do a working-class Boston accent). In later seasons, Howard as Max returned as an occasional character. Hennessey and Howard together in a publicity shot:


Then came his election to the presidency of the Screen Actors Guild and his husbanding of the union between SAG and the American Federation of Television and Radio Actors (AFTRA), to serve as a single voice acting on behalf of radio and tv actors.

As commenters said on Rachel Hockett’s Facebook page, he is much missed.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: