(LOS ANGELES) MAR. 23 -- Kenneth Joseph “Ken” Howard, Jr., a Tony and Emmy Award-winning actor and president of the performers union SAG-AFTRA died today at his home near Los Angeles. He was 71.
Over a long career rich with great performances, the Yale-trained Howard parlayed his classic blond, blue-eyed handsomeness into a string of enduring characters on stage and screen, later becoming the first president of the 160,000-member performers union SAG-AFTRA.
Howard was elected president of Screen Actors Guild in 2009 and reelected in 2011 on a pledge to unite Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. The merger effort, which often dominated attention in the entertainment and media industries, was overwhelmingly approved by members in 2012. As the last president of the legendary Screen Actors Guild and the first elected president of post-merger SAG-AFTRA, Howard made history by leading the merged performers from a period of conflict to a stable, unified path toward the future.
An actor for nearly 50 years, Howard came to union leadership late in his career led by friends who asked him in 2008 to help them stabilize the then-troubled Screen Actors Guild. Thinking he might serve one two-year term on SAG’s board, Howard met destiny and committed himself body and soul to the job. Standing for election as SAG president a year later, he believed he had found the work he was meant to do. In a 2014 SAG-AFTRA Magazine message, Howard wrote to members that serving them as president of the union was “the most important thing I have ever done.”
Tall at 6’6 ½,” Howard was dashing, debonair and athletic. A high-school basketball star in Manhasset, NY, he turned down several athletic scholarship offers to focus on academics. He was also drawn to the arts, performing in high school musicals and singing in the Congregational Church of Manhasset choir with whom he played Carnegie Hall. At Amherst College he was a featured soloist with the choral group the Zumbyes, touring Europe and recording two albums. During his college years, Howard spent summers as a Key Page for NBC working on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.”
Howard’s interest in performing intensified and he was awarded a fellowship to the Yale School of Drama, which he attended after graduating from Amherst. Two years into his MFA program, he took an unplanned break to make his Broadway debut in the 1968 production of Neil Simon’s “Promises, Promises.”
With good notices for his performance in the show and firmly fixed on a career as an actor, Howard left Yale and never looked back. In 1969, he appeared as Thomas Jefferson in the musical “1776” for which he won a Theater World Award. He returned to Broadway the next year in “Child’s Play,” earning a Tony Award for his role as Paul Reese. His later Broadway credits included “Seesaw,” “The Norman Conquests,” “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” and the critically acclaimed one-man play “According to Tip” in which he played the iconic Speaker of the House Thomas P. 'Tip' O’Neill.
From Broadway, Howard was lured to Hollywood by legendary theater and film director Otto Preminger and made his feature motion picture debut opposite Liza Minnelli in Preminger’s “Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon.” He would go on to standout performances in dozens of movies including the feature film version of “1776,” “Clear and Present Danger,” “At First Sight,” “Rambo IV,” “Dreamer,” “In Her Shoes,” “Michael Clayton,” “J. Edgar,” “Better Living Through Chemistry,” “The Judge,” “The Wedding Ringer,” and “Joy” among others.
But it was in American living rooms and on the television screen where Howard deeply connected with audiences and realized his most compelling and memorable performances.
In 1978, Howard originated the role of Coach Ken Reeves on the groundbreaking television series “The White Shadow.” Based on his own experiences as the only white player on his high school basketball team, the show starred Howard as the coach of a diverse basketball team at an inner-city high school. Over the course of three seasons, “The White Shadow” served as a proving ground for some of television’s most prominent producers and directors including Bruce Paltrow, Tim Van Patten and others.
Innovative and even daring for its time, the show was recognized for its diverse casting and socially relevant themes. Even decades after the show ended, Howard was frequently recognized on the street by fans who greeted him with a handshake and a “Hey, Coach.”
Over several decades on television, Howard would appear in numerous series including starring roles on “The Manhunter,” “Crossing Jordan,” “The Colbys” and “Dynasty” among others. His frequent guest star appearances included work on “Boston Legal,” “Dirty Sexy Money,” “Eli Stone,” “Cold Case,” “Brothers & Sisters,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “The West Wing,” “Blue Bloods,” and “Cane.” Howard broke new ground in 2012 as the hilariously clueless Kabletown honcho Hank Hooper on “30 Rock.”
He starred in several television miniseries including “The Thorn Birds,” “Rage of Angels,” “Perfect Murder, Perfect Town,” and in 2009 earned his second Primetime Emmy Award for the role of Phelan Beale in HBO’s “Grey Gardens.”
A lifelong devotee of theater and especially Broadway musicals, Howard deeply missed live performance as his career trended toward Hollywood. However, he again put his compelling voice to work first in his Emmy-winning on-camera narration of "Facts for Boys: The Body Human” and later narrating more than 30 best-selling audio books.
He taught master classes at the American Repertory Theatre Institute and was an instructor at Harvard University, Harvard Law School and Amherst College. His teaching experience helped form the basis for his book, ACT NATURAL: How to Speak to Any Audience, published by Random House in 2003.
He was a brilliant and energetic performer, conversant with long passages of Shakespearean dialogue and thousands of lines from classic musicals and dramatic plays. His 2015 induction into the exclusive New York performing arts social club The Lambs was an enduring example of extemporaneous performance cum speechifying, with Howard delivering an unrehearsed 30-minute career retrospective that was both comedic and captivating.
Howard served on the board of directors of the SAG-AFTRA Foundation, the Actors Fund, the Los Angeles Alzheimer's Committee, and was the national spokesperson and an executive board member for the Onyx and Breezy Foundation for the Welfare of Animals.
As a kidney transplant recipient, he was eternally grateful to his transplant donor, family friend and well-known stuntwoman Jeannie Epper. He served as Chancellor of the National Kidney Foundation and faithfully worked to encourage organ donation.
Howard was a hardworking actor, a wry and witty observer, and a fierce union leader. In addition to leading Screen Actors Guild through the years-long process of merger with AFTRA, he chaired numerous successful contract negotiations both before and after merger. He also represented SAG-AFTRA members as a vice-president of the AFL-CIO and sat on its Executive Council.
But it was his direct outreach to fellow members that meant the most to him. During the merger process, Howard traveled extensively to hear input from members across the country. His unwavering desire to connect with members was later reflected in his founding of the SAG-AFTRA President’s Task Force on Education, Outreach and Engagement.
He will be remembered not only as the final president of Screen Actors Guild and the man who led it successfully to unite with AFTRA, but also as the first president to be elected by the members of SAG-AFTRA. He was proud and honored to embody that continuity.
Above all, Howard will be remembered for strengthening the working lives of the actors, broadcasters and recording artists to whom he devoted his time and effort as union president, and in whom he recognized the same passion for performing and service that ultimately defined his own life and work.
Howard was born March 28, 1944 in El Centro, California, to Kenneth Joseph and Martha Carey Howard. He had a younger brother, Donald Howard, also an actor. All are deceased. He is survived by his beloved wife of 25 years Linda Fetters Howard, a prominent stuntwoman and former president of the Stuntwomen’s Association of Motion Pictures, and three adult stepchildren from a previous marriage.
In lieu of flowers, remembrance contributions may be made to the SAG-AFTRA Foundation and the Onyx and Breezy Foundation for the Welfare of Animals.
To download a high resolution photo of Ken Howard, click here.