Ken Howard, 71, TV star, president of screen union

Mr. Howard had starring roles on “White Shadow’’ and “30 Rock.’’
Reuters file 2013
Mr. Howard had starring roles on “White Shadow’’ and “30 Rock.’’

LOS ANGELES — Ken Howard, the strapping character actor who starred in the 1970s TV drama ‘‘The White Shadow’’ and was serving as president of SAG-AFTRA, has died at age 71.

The union announced Mr. Howard’s death Wednesday. No cause was given.

His career spanned four decades in TV, theater, and film. In the acclaimed CBS series ‘‘The White Shadow,’’ which aired from 1978-81, he starred as a white coach to an urban high school basketball team — a part, one of Mr. Howard’s best known, that drew on the personal history of the 6-foot-6 actor, who played basketball growing up on Long Island in New York and at Amherst College.


The series’ title came from Mr. Howard’s nickname as the only white starter on the Manhasset High varsity team.

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He was a staple character actor on television, starring opposite Blythe Danner in ‘‘Adam’s Rib’’ on ABC in the 1970s and appearing as the chipper Kabletown boss Hank Hooper on NBC’s ‘‘30 Rock.’’

In early seasons of NBC’s ‘‘Crossing Jordan,’’ which premiered in 2001, he played the father of star Jill Hennessy, a retired police detective who gave behind-the-scenes advice to his daughter, a crime-solving forensic pathologist. He starred opposite Jimmy Smits in the 2007 CBS drama ‘‘Cane.’’

His other TV credits included ‘‘The West Wing,’’ “NYPD Blue,’’ “The Practice,’’ “Boston Legal,’’ “Law & Order: SVU,’’ “Curb Your Enthusiasm,’’ and ‘‘The Office.’’

He won an Emmy for his performance in HBO’s ‘‘Grey Gardens’’ in 2009.


George Clooney recounted Mr. Howard’s influence on him, writing in a statement that when he first met him on a studio lot in 1983, the actor said he hoped they'd work together in the future. When Clooney told Mr. Howard he had an audition across town but only had a bike, Mr. Howard put the bike in his car and drove the aspiring actor to the other studio.

‘‘Today his obituary read that he was six foot six, but he was so much taller than that,’’ Clooney wrote.

On Broadway, Mr. Howard played Thomas Jefferson in ‘‘1776,’’ a role he reprised in the 1972 film. He won a Tony award for Robert Marasco’s Catholic boarding school drama ‘‘Child’s Play.’’

After making his film debut opposite Liza Minnelli in 1970’s ‘‘Tell Me That You Love Me,’’ Mr. Howard had roles in “Rambo,’’ “In Her Shoes,’’ “Michael Clayton,’’ and last year’s Jennifer Lawrence movie, ‘‘Joy.’’

He was also familiar to viewers of the Screen Actors Guild Awards, providing an update on the union’s accomplishments during the televised awards ceremony.


He was elected SAG president in 2009 and was a catalyst for its 2012 merger with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists union. Combined, the groups represent 160,000 actors, broadcasters, and recording artists.

He was the first president of SAG-AFTRA and was reelected to the post last year.

‘‘Ken was a remarkable leader and his powerful vision for this union was a source of inspiration for all of us,’’ SAG-AFTRA executive director David White said in a statement.

Mr. Howard leaves his wife of 25 years, stuntwoman Linda Fetters Howard. He had previously been married to Louise Sorel and Margo Howard.