R.I.P., Coach: Tim Goodman on Ken Howard and 'The White Shadow'

Ken Howard was a consummate character actor, but on 'The White Shadow' he was also a compelling leading man, writes THR's chief TV critic.
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The passing of Ken Howard meant a lot of things — the loss of another quality person and exceptional actor, for starters. But for a certain segment of TV viewers — myself included — Howard will always be remembered as The White Shadow.

As soon as word of his death popped up on Twitter — where seemingly all news breaks — that's the first thing that popped into my head. Carver's coach was gone.

That's fictional Carver High School to you, set in South Central Los Angeles, a tough area where members of the high school basketball team at the center of the show were going to experience their own tough times coming of age. They had absent dads and lacked goals, sometimes hope and definitely a coach who could mold them into a good team. Coach Reeves, or really just "Coach," arrived to fill a lot of roles.

The White Shadow was totally in my wheelhouse, as I was starting high school and such. But hell, lots of people just liked The White Shadow because it was good television, especially for the time. And it was about basketball. Come on.

Created by Bruce Paltrow and featuring a stellar writing team over the years that included John Falsey (St. Elsewhere, I'll Fly Away, Northern Exposure, Providence), Joshua Brand (St. Elsewhere, I'll Fly Away, Northern Exposure, The Americans), John Masius (St. Elsewhere, Providence, Touched by an Angel), Steve Kline (Lou Grant, The Cosby Show) and many others (including Steven Bochco, who wrote an episode), it was a series that seemed to be a think tank for people who wanted to tackle serious situations (then mostly found in film) or go on to help expand the horizons in television's early wave of quality dramas.

But that's way more wonky than what I was feeling at the time I was watching it. Mostly, I was enjoying how broken-down former NBA player Ken Reeves (Howard) was making a go of it with the game he loved, many rungs below his days with the Chicago Bulls. He was teaching the game — and life lessons — to Coolidge, Thorpe, Gomez, Salami, Goldstein, Reese, CJ and Vitaglia: your rainbow of struggling young folks trying to find themselves in high school, at home, out in the world.

If I couldn't tell what the higher goals of Paltrow and The White Shadow were back then, I could certainly tell that this was maybe the first drama I wanted to watch every week. It seemed pretty real to me. And it didn't look like other TV shows.

Of course, Howard went on to have an amazing and varied career. (I don't recall his four or five different roles on Murder, She Wrote, but I'm sure he made my mom happy.)

He was one of those character actors who stood out in pretty much everything — and not because of his size. He had a face you remembered, a presence. It doesn't matter if it was Melrose Place or The Practice or Arli$$ or Curb Your Enthusiasm (or, more likely, his long stint on Crossing Jordan or his quick bits on 30 Rock); he was immediately familiar and nailed his part. When you're a character actor, that's what you do. That's how you live and survive in the business for a long, long time.

From television to films, Howard made his mark (and of course was integral to SAG-AFTRA away from the camera). A lot of character actors would give anything to have the kind of career he did — the variety of it was the truly impressive thing. But for a kid who didn't watch much television at all, I'm always going to remember him as Carver's most influential coach, who sometimes had to deal with the idiots clowning around — come on, Salami! — when he wanted them to hustle harder or learn the system, and sometimes he had to be there for those same kids when life got hard and all too real.

Hey, part of television's appeal is identifying and escapism; I got both with The White Shadow. It was arguably my first experience of really falling under TV's storytelling spell and really loving a show. Ken Howard might ultimately be remembered as an actor who could play any part you wanted to wedge him into, but back in the day he was front and center — a lead who made an impression.

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