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Ken Howard Photo
gdcgraphics, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Ken Howard
March 28, 1944—March 23, 2016

Content warning: this article contains potentially disturbing content, including references to death, serious medical issues, medical mishap, and divorce. Please use your best judgment as to whether you wish to read this content. Language is PG-13.

Kenneth Joseph Howard Jr. was born on March 28, 1944, in El Centro, California. (Contrary to what the name implies, El Centro is located about as south as you can get in California.) His father was a stockbroker. Sometime during his youth, Howard’s parents moved the family to Manhasset, Long Island, New York, and gifted Howard with a younger brother, Don.

In high school, 6’ 6” (just shy of 2 meters) Howard was selected as a starter for the school’s varsity basketball team. The local press nicknamed him “The White Shadow,” which some people may consider politically incorrect now, but no one seemed bothered by it back then. He was also inducted into the National Honor Society. There are no verified reports of him acting in high school productions, but the smart money’s on betting he did.

After high school, he attended and graduated from Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he was a member of the basketball team, as well as a member of the singing group The Zumbyes (Amherst College’s oldest a cappella group!). From there, he moved on to Yale School of Drama, but left after a couple of years for a job on the Great White Way (a nickname for Broadway in deference to the massive number of white lights all along the street).

His first Broadway role was in the musical comedy “Promises, Promises,” which opened on December 1, 1968. It was a small part, but his costars included Edward Winter, Marion Mercer, and the venerable Jerry Orbach. From there, he moved on to the larger role of Thomas Jefferson in “1776,” a musical comedy about Congress. His performance in “1776” earned him a Theater World award. His next Broadway appearance was in the drama “Child’s Play,” for which he was awarded the 1970 Tony for Best Supporting or Featured Actor (Dramatic) for his performance.

Around this same time, he also started acting in films and television shows. His first television role was in a 1969 episode of the half-hour crime drama N.Y. P. D. Unfortunately, for some unknown reason his scenes didn’t make into the final cut. However, Howard was probably too busy to notice: besides working on Broadway, he starred in the 1970 movie Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon. He received second billing, after Liza Minelli. (Minelli, daughter of Judy Garland, was fresh from the film The Sterile Cuckoo, which had been a success to the tune of about $14,000,000 in box office revenues.) Junie Moon didn’t do nearly as well (less than $400,000), but apparently it wasn’t Howard’s fault, because he kept on getting steady acting work.

In 1973 Howard landed the lead in the half-hour television comedy Adam’s Rib, playing opposite Blythe Danner as Mrs. Rib. The show went off the air after 13 weeks. In 1974 Howard landed the lead in the hour-long television drama Manhunter, a role he reprised from the 1974 television movie of the same name. The show went off the air after 23 weeks.

In 1975-1976 Howard was back on Broadway, performing in several different productions.

In between jobs, he managed to find the time to marry actress Louise Sorrel, who also has had a robust career. They married in 1973 and divorced in 1975. In 1977, he married Margo Howard, daughter of “Ann Landers” columnist Eppie Lederer. (And you thought you had opinionated relatives.) He became stepfather to Margo’s three children, Adam, Abra, and Andrea. Adam goes by the name Adam Coleman Howard, although there’s no public information about Howard having formally adopting him or his sisters.

If Howard wasn’t already a household name by 1978, he became one when he starred in television’s The White Shadow (affiliate link), an hour-long drama series he co-created. He played Ken Reeves, a high school basketball coach in an inner-city school. It was one of those shows that had a lot of “very special episodes.” You know: “This week, in a very special episode of The White Shadow, character X gets into a sticky situation, and Coach Reeves tells him how he should feel about it.” But seriously, it wasn’t a bad show. [One of the actors portraying a team member was the late, great Nathan Cook (link to article).] The show ran from November 27, 1978 to March 16, 1981.

During the run of The White Shadow, Howard hosted The Body Human: Facts for Boys. For his efforts, he was awarded a 1981 Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Children’s Programming—Performers.

After The White Shadow ended, Howard kept busy acting. Most of the parts were guest appearances on television series, but there was a smattering of movie and theater jobs to keep things interesting. Some of his recurring television appearances included six episodes/five different roles on Murder, She Wrote, and stints on Dynasty, The Colbys, Melrose Place, and 30 Rock.

From 1986 through 1989 he also taught at the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard University and Harvard Law School.

Howard and his second wife divorced in 1991. In 1992, he married stuntwoman Linda Fetters Howard, his forever wife.

Howard started having health issues in the early 1990’s. He went to a doctor, who failed to diagnose a urinary tract issue, and by the time the problem was correctly diagnosed, his kidneys were functioning at 30%. Doctors warned him that he was on track to be needing a transplant in a few years, and they were right. In the late 1990’s, he started searching for a donor. Unfortunately, he couldn’t turn to his brother and fellow actor, Don, because Don was dealing with his own health issues and ended up dying from liver disease in August of 1999. Howard’s wife was tested but was not a match. However, her stuntwoman colleague and friend (and obviously a very benevolent human being) Jeannie Epper was a perfect match. Howard received one of her kidneys in July of 2000.

In early 2001, Howard landed a co-starring role on the hour-long television drama Crossing Jordan (affiliate link), playing the father of the main character. He left the show in 2005, for reasons unknown to me. During his tenure on the show, he published the book Act Natural: How to Speak to Any Audience (2003).

In 2007, Howard was diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer, but it didn’t seem to slow him down much. He continued to act in movies, television, and theater. In 2009 he appeared in the HBO television movie Grey Gardens (affiliate link), which earned him a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie. He was also nominated for an Online Film & Television Association (OFTA) Television Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture or Miniseries, but lost to James Ransone in Generation Kill.

In 2009, he ran for and was voted in as National President of the actors’ union The Screen Actors Guild (SAG). He was instrumental in achieving the merger of SAG and another actors’ union, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). Post merger, he became president of the merged union. He held that title until his death.

Some activities Howard enjoyed in his free time included recording dozens of books on tape, as well as volunteering for the National Kidney Foundation, Alzheimer’s Los Angeles, the Shambala Animal Preserve, and the Onyx and Breezy [animal advocacy] Foundation.

His last acting jobs included the feature films The Wedding Ringer and Joy, both released in 2015. On March 23, 2016, five days short of his 71st birthday, Howard died in Valencia, California. His cause of death was reported as pneumonia, with complications caused by shingles and prostate cancer.

If you would like to visit Howard now, well, you probably can’t, as he was reportedly cremated, and his ashes were given to a loved one.


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