Emmy and Tony winner Ken Howard, the tall, barrel-chested actor known for starring in CBS’ late ’70s sports drama “The White Shadow,” NBC drama “Crossing Jordan” and, more recently, for his appearances on “30 Rock” as well as for his presidency of SAG-AFTRA, died Wednesday. He was 71.
SAG-AFTRA announced that he died at his home near Los Angeles. A cause of death has not yet been revealed.
“Ken was a remarkable leader and his powerful vision for this union was a source of inspiration for all of us,” SAG-AFTRA acting president Gabrielle Carteris said in a statement. “Ken was an inspirational leader and it is an incredible loss for SAG-AFTRA, for his family and for everyone who knew him. He was a light that never dimmed and was completely devoted to the membership. He led us through tumultuous times and set our union on a steady course of excellence. We will be forever in his debt.”
Howard earned an Emmy Award for his performance as Phelan Beale, the husband of Jessica Lange’s Big Edie, in HBO’s 2009 film “Grey Gardens,” which was inspired by Albert and David Maysles’ classic 1970s documentary.
Decades earlier, in 1970, he won a Tony Award as best supporting or featured actor (dramatic) for “Child’s Play,” in which he portrayed the gym coach at a Catholic boys’ school.
“The White Shadow,” created by Bruce Paltrow, was a progressive drama ahead of its time in exploring the sometimes awkward, sometimes tense and sometimes funny aspects of race relations in the context of a high school basketball team with mostly African American players and a white coach, a former NBA player named Ken Reeves, played by Howard. The series, which ran from 1978-81 on CBS, represented television’s first ensemble drama with a predominantly African American cast (though admittedly Howard, the star of the show, was white). While no saint, Howard’s Reeves was always sticking his nose into situations where the high school vice principal (played by African American actress Joan Pringle), didn’t think it belonged, but almost always because he was trying to do the right thing. While Reeves did his best for his players both on the court and in their private lives, the team ribbed Reeves in a manner not terribly unlike the dynamic on “Welcome Back, Kotter.”
On “Crossing Jordan,” an NBC procedural starring Jill Hennessy as Jordan Cavanaugh, a Boston coroner with a wild streak, Howard played Jordan’s father Max, a former cop — forced into early retirement for taking the law into his own hands — who now runs a bar. An air of mystery and melancholy surrounds the death of Jordan’s mother decades earlier, and Howard’s irascible Max kept a lot of information from Jordan — just one of the reasons the two characters squabbled on the show, which ran from 2001-05.
On NBC’s “30 Rock” Howard had a story arc as Hank Hooper, head of Kabletown, which in the universe of the series was a stand-in for Comcast, which purchased NBC Universal in 2011, in the middle of that critically acclaimed sitcom’s run. Howard’s Hooper was a self-described family man and Vietnam veteran given to frequent hugging and laughing. Though often angered by the actions of Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy, he always seems happy on the surface while directing passive aggressive insults to Jack and his staff. The character was loosely based on Comcast founder of Ralph J. Roberts.
Howard’s most significant recent film role came in Tony Gilroy’s 2007 thriller “Michael Clayton,” starring George Clooney as a fixer for a top law firm; Howard played the ruthless CEO of the corporation Clooney’s firm is representing in a multimillion-dollar class action lawsuit who employs the even more ruthless attorney played in the film by Tilda Swinton. In Clint Eastwood’s 2011 film “J. Edgar,” he played Attorney General Harlan F. Stone. In 2014’s “The Judge,” starring Robert Duvall as a crusty jurist on trial for murder, Howard played the judge presiding over the trial. In David O. Russell’s 2015 film “Joy,” starring Jennifer Lawrence, he played a mop company executive.
While Howard had many roles as establishment leaders (judges, business executives and several U.S. presidents), he long served the interests of labor in his multi-decade service to the Screen Actors Guild. He was elected president of SAG first in September 2009 — shortly after he had won his Emmy for “Grey Gardens” — and then to a second term in September 2011. After SAG merged with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists— an effort he championed — Howard became co-president of SAG-AFTRA and then was elected to the new presidency in 2013 and re-elected in 2015.
During his union presidency, Howard espoused a pragmatic approach and was the leading voice of the moderate-leaning Unite 4 Strength faction — which has dominated the leadership at the performers union since 2009.
He appeared on camera during the SAG Awards telecast on Jan. 30 in his role as the union’s president.
Kenneth Joseph Howard Jr. was born in El Centro, California, but grew up in Manhasset, Long Island. The six-foot-six Howard turned down several offers of basketball scholarships in order to attend the more academically focused Amherst College, where he nevertheless played basketball, sang with an a capella group and took up acting, graduating in 1966. “In time, the head of the theater department mentioned a fellowship to Yale,” according to a 2010 article in the Amherst alumni magazine. “It was the height of Vietnam, and a lot of guys went to grad school instead of going to Penang. I thought the fellowship was a great idea, and I took to it like a duck to water,” Howard told the magazine.
He subsequently left the Yale School of Drama before completing his master’s degree in order to make his Broadway debut in 1968 in the musical comedy “Promises, Promises,” based on the classic film “The Apartment” and starring Jerry Orbach.
He next starred as Thomas Jefferson in the hit musical “1776,” reprising the role in the 1972 film version. In 1970 he starred with Pat Hingle and Fritz Weaver in the original play “Child’s Play,” winning a Tony as best supporting or featured actor (dramatic).
In 1973 he starred opposite Michelle Lee in the hit musical “Seesaw.” He appeared in the Jesuit-themed play “Little Black Sheep” in 1975, and in 1975-76 starred as Tom in Alan Ayckbourn’s “Norman Conquests” trilogy of plays, with Richard Benjamin playing Norman. In 1976 he starred as the President in the original musical “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: A Musical About the Problems of Housekeeping,” with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Leonard Bernstein; despite the excellent auspices, it shuttered quickly.
Howard returned to Broadway in 1990 to star with Christine Baranski, among others, in the hit Neil Simon farce “Rumors.”
Other stage credits include playing Martin Dysart in a national tour of “Equus” and Warren G. Harding in the Off Broadway production “Camping With Henry and Tom” in 1995.
The actor made his film debut in 1970 starring in Otto Preminger’s “Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon” opposite Liza Minnelli. In time, however, he became predominantly a television actor.
In 1972 he guested on “Bonanza” as Samuel Clemens.
Howard starred opposite Blythe Danner in ABC’s brief 1973 adaptation of the classic Tracy and Hepburn film “Adam’s Rib,” with Howard and Danner playing dueling husband and wife attorneys.
He then starred in a CBS TV movie and subsequent series “The Manhunter,” in which he played a bounty hunter catching criminals to help his family make ends meet during the Depression. The series ran during the 1974-75 season.
Howard won a Daytime Emmy for outstanding individual achievement in children’s programming — performers for 1980’s “The Body Human: Facts for Boys.”
After “The White Shadow” Howard was a series regular on the brief ABC comedy “It’s Not Easy” in 1983.
He recurred on “Dynasty” and spinoff “The Colbys” as the lawyer Garrett Boydston, who had a complicated story arc involving Diahann Carroll’s Dominique Deveraux, during the 1985-86 season. Howard recurred from 1994-98 on yet another primetime soap, “Melrose Place,” as the biological father of Josie Bissett’s Jane Andrews.
In addition to his work in “Michael Clayton,” “J. Edgar” and “The Judge,” the actor had small film roles in the John Landis-directed Sylvester Stallone vehicle “Oscar” in 1991 and in Phillip Noyce’s 1994 Tom Clancy adaptation “Clear and Present Danger”; in Irwin Winkler’s 1995 thriller “The Net,” starring Sandra Bullock, the plot is set in motion when the U.S. secretary of defense, played by Howard, commits suicide after learning he’s HIV positive; in Winkler’s 1999 romantic “At First Sight,” starring Val Kilmer and Mira Sorvino, he played Kilmer’s father. Howard also appeared in the 2005 films “Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story,” starring Kurt Russell and Dakota Fanning, and Curtis Hanson’s “In Her Shoes,” starring Toni Collette, Cameron Diaz and Shirley MacLaine; 2006’s “Arc”; 2008’s “Rambo”; 2011 horror film “The Beacon”; and comedies “A.C.O.D.” (2013), “Better Living Through Chemistry” (2014) and “The Wedding Ringer” (2015).
Howard penned the 2003 book “Act Natural: How to Speak to Any Audience,” based on drama courses he taught at Harvard.
He was thrice married, the first time to actress Louise Sorel (1973-75), the second time to Margo Howard (1977 -91), the daughter of Ann Landers.
He is survived by his third wife, former stunt woman Linda Fetters, whom he married in 1992. His brother, actor Don Howard, predeceased him.
SAG-AFTRA National Executive Director David White said, “Ken was a remarkable leader and his powerful vision for this union was a source of inspiration for all of us. He was an exceptional person and we are deeply saddened by his passing. He had a remarkable career and he never forgot what it was like to be a working performer. The merger of SAG and AFTRA was something of a “North Star” for him and, once he fixed upon it, he never wavered from that goal. My heart goes out to his loving wife, Linda, and to their family. He will be deeply missed.”
Directors Guild of America President Paris Barclay said, “It is with great sadness that we learned of the passing of Ken Howard, president of our sister guild SAG-AFTRA. Ken was an industry leader whose passion was channeled in his selfless work to protect the rights of performers. His strong leadership of SAG-AFTRA through the merger was an inspiration to our industry. Above all, Ken was a man of integrity, honor, and unmatched spirit. He will be greatly missed. Our thoughts are with his wife Linda, his friends and the entire SAG-AFTRA family at this difficult time.”
Writers Guild of America West President Howard Rodman said, “It was with great sadness that I learned of Ken Howard’s passing today. He was a tireless advocate for social justice, for his union, and for its members. It is a fitting tribute to his commitment to improving the lives of actors, broadcasters and recording artists that he was the first president of the united SAG-AFTRA. He will be missed as a leader and as a bright light in the creative community. On behalf of the WGAW I would like to send our condolences to his family, his friends, and all those whose lives he touched throughout his long and exemplary career.”
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers said, “We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Ken Howard. Anyone who ever met Ken knew of his devotion to acting and to his fellow actors. Even as he achieved success in his own acting career, he never lost sight of the need to advocate for working actors. At the bargaining table, Ken spoke sparingly, but eloquently and intelligently, in support of improvements in working conditions for actors. It was no surprise that Ken became the leader of the movement to unite SAG and AFTRA, something that had twice been attempted — and twice failed –before he became President of the Screen Actors Guild. It took someone with his forceful personality, considerable intelligence and immutable commitment to the betterment of working actors, broadcasters and recording artists to unite them in a single union. This, together with his remarkable portrayals of characters on stage and screen, will become his enduring legacy — one fitting for such a remarkable man. We will miss him greatly.”
Los Angeles Mayor Erik Garcetti said, “Ken Howard was a friend and an impactful leader who dedicated himself to improving the lives of union workers and fighting for everyday people in our city. His commitment to supporting artists, and encouraging creativity in young people, helped countless Angelenos jump-start successful careers in the entertainment industry. His influence and work will live on, and we will miss him dearly.”
MPAA Chairman and CEO Senator Chris Dodd: “It was deeply sorrowing to learn about the passing of Ken Howard, a friend, gifted actor, and stalwart champion for creativity and artistic rights. On the screen, his talent was radiant and unforgettable. And as a leader, Ken was a unifier whose hard work and contributions will be enjoyed by many in the creative community for years to come. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”
The Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees: “We are deeply saddened at the news of SAG-AFTRA President Ken Howard’s passing yesterday. Ken was a leader during the difficult and important merger of the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and he led with a vision of stability for the union members.”
IATSE International President Matthew D. Loeb: “Ken Howard was a strong leader, and this is an incredible loss to his family, SAG-AFTRA members and the industry as a whole. We support our sister union during this difficult time.”
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka: “We mourn the loss of SAG-AFTRA President Ken Howard, and we honor his tremendous leadership built on unwavering dedication to the members he represented. Ken was a unifier, a true professional and a powerful voice for working people. From his roles as Thomas Jefferson to Tip O’Neill to the White Shadow, he leaves an indelible legacy. He will be greatly missed.”
Howard’s life will be celebrated at a ceremony on April 11 at 11 a.m. at LACMA’s Bing Theater.