Ken Howard, star of the popular ’70s drama, “The White Shadow,” has died, according to the Screen Actors Guild, where he had been the longtime president. He was 71.
Howard, who was born in California but raised in Manhasset, had a long career on stage and on Broadway, more recently appearing in an arc on “30 Rock” and in HBO’s 2009 “Grey Gardens,” where he starred alongside Jessica Lange. Howard won an Emmy for “Gardens,” and in 1970, a Tony for “Child’s Play,” in which he also played a coach.
But “The White Shadow” was Howard’s best-known role, as Ken Reeves, a former pro basketball player who becomes head coach at an inner-city Los Angeles school where most of the kids and players were black. (Created by Bruce Paltrow, the show was also to become a launchpad for many other ambitious, young writers — like Joshua Brand, John Falsey, John Masius and Steven Bochco, who would go on to create “Hill Street Blues.”)
Howard’s Reeves was the tough-but-good-hearted coach who would learn more from his kids — invariably about their life, and challenges — than they from him.
As an ensemble drama with black and white actors, “Shadow” was a rarity on television. The show lasted just three seasons (1978-81).
Howard, who attended Manhasset High and played all-county there, was inducted into the school’s hall of fame in 2009 along with his former coach, Fritz Mueller. Coach Reeves from “Shadow” — which Howard created — was inspired by Mueller. “I played at Manhasset High on Long Island, for a wonderful coach named Fritz Mueller,” he told The Sporting News in 2005. “My nickname, then, was White Shadow. My senior year, I was the only white guy in the starting five. Our colors were orange and blue, like Carver High.”
According to a profile in the Harvard Crimson in 1987, “he garnered the nickname ‘White Shadow,’ from the rival Great Neck basketball squad. Regarding that nickname, Howard’s former high school coach Fritz Mueller says, ‘sure he liked it, but he’d love any nickname. He was very funny and would spend hours singing in the showers with the other guys after practice, because Ken is a great singer, and they would keep me late.’ ”
Howard went on to appear in other series, including “Dynasty,” “Murder, She Wrote” and (even) “Melrose Place.” His longest run with a series was “Crossing Jordan” from 2001 to 2005.
He took the reins of SAG in 2009 — a historic and fractious period for the huge actors’ union which was considering a merger with rival union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, or AFTRA. The proposed merger was in fact Howard’s platform, arguing that it was necessary to present a united front to studios, which had also consolidated. “We’re talking about how to share the pie,” he told members at the time. “Some of these battles [with the studios] are going to be very tough. We have to do this from a position of strength.” The unions merged in 2012.
In a statement, SAG-AFTRA acting president Gabrielle Carteris 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.”
Howard was born March 28, 1944, in El Centro, California. He is survived by his wife of 25 years, stuntwoman Linda Fetters Howard, and had three adult stepchildren from a previous marriage.