Ken Howard, SAG-AFTRA President, Dies at 71

Ken Howard
Mark Davis/WireImage

The Emmy and Tony winner starred as the basketball coach on the groundbreaking TV drama 'The White Shadow' and played a comical cable company CEO on '30 Rock.'

Ken Howard, the current national president of SAG-AFTRA who came to fame as the supportive inner-city high school basketball coach on the 1970s CBS drama The White Shadow, died Wednesday. He was 71.

Howard, who got laughs as Hank Hooper, the CEO of Kabletown, the cable company that buys NBC from General Electric, on the sitcom 30 Rock, died at his home near Los Angeles, the guild said. No cause of death was announced.

In January, his rep denied rumors that he was gravely ill.

Howard won a supporting actor Emmy Award in 2009 for portraying the absent father Phelan Beale (the uncle of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) in the HBO telefilm Grey Gardens. He accepted his trophy four days before winning the Screen Actors Guild presidency.

The imposing 6-foot-6 actor played lawyer Garrett Boydston on the ABC primetime soap Dynasty and its spinoff, The Colbys, in the 1980s and was the retired police detective father of a forensic pathologist (Jill Hennessy) on the 2001-05 NBC drama Crossing Jordan.

In 1970, Howard received a Tony Award for best featured actor in a play for his performance as a phys-ed teacher at a Catholic boarding school for boys in Robert Marasco's long-running thriller Child's Play.

Most recently, he appeared in two 2015 films — as the father of the bride (Kaley Cuoco) in The Wedding Ringer and as a mop executive in David O. Russell's Joy.

On The White Shadow, Howard starred as Ken Reeves, an NBA player who suffers a career-ending knee injury and takes over as head basketball coach at Carver High, a fictional school in South Central Los Angeles.

The MTM Enterprises hourlong series ran for three seasons, from 1978 through 1981, and remains notable as one of the longest-running U.S. network series with a predominantly African-American cast.

Growing up on Long Island, Howard had been the only white player on his high-school basketball team and was given the nickname "the White Shadow." He pitched his idea for the series to the late writer-producer Bruce Paltrow, the husband of a friend, actress Blythe Danner.

CBS was interested but wanted the series to be funny in the vein of Welcome Back, Kotter and to avoid such serious issues as teens dealing with sex, drugs and crime.

"And we said, 'Why do you think we are doing the show? That's all the stuff that is out there, the demons, that these kids are dealing with,'" Howard recalled in a 2005 interview. "And we were figuring out what we wanted to do as we were confronted with this stuff. … So the next thing you know, we are breaking all kinds of ground. I mean, we were dealing with [venereal disease] and teenage pregnancy and drugs and gambling. … We figured, why not?"

A stockbroker's son, Howard was born on March 28, 1944, in El Centro, Calif., and raised in the town of Manhasset, N.Y. After high school, he captained the basketball team at Amherst College and was a member of an a cappella group before attending the Yale School of Drama.

He left school after two years and made his Broadway debut in 1968 in the original production of Neil Simon's Promises, Promises. He soon was appearing in such productions as the Tony-winning musical 1776 (as Thomas Jefferson), Child's Play and as the neighbor Tom in Alan Ayckbourn's Norman Conquests trilogy.

His first onscreen appearance came opposite Liza Minnelli in Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970). He reprised his role as Jefferson for the 1972 film version of 1776 and later appeared, often as authority figures, in such films as Oscar (1991), Clear and Present Danger (1994), At First Sight (1999), Michael Clayton (2007) and The Judge (2014).

Howard was elected the 25th and final president of SAG in September 2009 and, after pushing for a merger with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, was re-elected in September 2011.

"Although AFTRA was a good union, SAG was the dominant union, and Labor Law 101 is that you don't have two unions representing the same workers because employers will exploit the divide — and they did," Howard remarked in a 2012 interview.

"There were some who wanted a war of sorts between the unions, but I always thought unions were stronger when they joined forces — look at the AFL-CIO. When unions work out their differences, they become more united, more monolithic and do a better job of representing their interests."

Actors overwhelmingly approved the merger in March 2012. Howard became co-president of SAG-AFTRA, then won re-election campaigns in August 2013 and August 2015.

"Ken was an inspirational leader, and it is an incredible loss for SAG-AFTRA, for his family and for everyone who knew him," SAG-AFTRA acting president Gabrielle Carteris said in a statement. "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."

In 1986, Howard took a break from the industry to lecture about acting at the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University, and he authored the book Act Natural, published in 2003.

Survivors include his wife, retired stuntwoman Linda Fetters Howard, and three stepchildren.

He earlier was married to actress Louise Sorel (Days of Our Lives) and Margo Howard, the daughter of Eppie Lederer, who dispensed advice as the syndicated newspaper columnist Ann Landers. Both marriages ended in divorce.

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