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One cool character

It’s not always easy being a towering figure in Hollywood -- just ask 6-foot-6 veteran character actor Ken Howard.

For one of his first jobs in Hollywood, the wardrobe department tried to put him in an old Union Army uniform that had been worn by John Wayne in “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” but the sleeves were too short. More recently, when the 65-year-old was cast as New York white-shoe lawyer Phelan Beale in the HBO film “Grey Gardens,” the costumers had to sew round the clock because they couldn’t find real 1930s suits that fit.

Yet in politics, “height helps,” says Howard, with a laugh. And he’ll need any advantage he can get for his new role as president of the fractious Screen Actors Guild.

The former college basketball player -- who famously played a basketball coach in the cult favorite TV series “The White Shadow” -- knows he can always stand out in a crowd, even in Hollywood’s largest union. Late last month, days after winning an Emmy for “Grey Gardens,” Howard was decisively elected head of Hollywood’s biggest dysfunctional family, backed by a wing of moderates whose famous faces include Tom Hanks and George Clooney. Howard’s main campaign pledge was to reunite SAG with its longtime collective bargaining partner, the smaller American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which also represents recording artists and news announcers. He also wants to bring a tone of civility back to a union beset by destabilizing infighting under the leadership of the scrappier -- and, yes, shorter -- Alan Rosenberg. In contrast to his predecessor, Howard has a decidedly more low-key style.

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“One of the things that make actors good is their capacity to listen,” says Howard in a restaurant near his Santa Clarita home. “I’ll keep reminding myself that. If ever there was a job that requires a lot of listening, it’s this one. To be in any way tone deaf or have a tin ear is disastrous at this point.”

A bear-like presence in black trousers and a black vest, Howard exudes easygoing confidence and a gift for gab. He’s also keenly aware that his mug, with its distinctive hang-dog eyes, is probably more famous than his name, given 40 years in showbiz, seven series (including “Dynasty” and “Crossing Jordan”), multiple movies and plays too numerous to count. He might be the SAG member with the most U.S. presidents on his resume, including portraying George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and even Warren G. Harding on a camping trip.

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Always cool

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It was Howard’s natural inclination to calm the waters that caught the attention of Ned Vaughn, a leader in SAG’s moderate camp. The two acted together on the 2007 TV series “Cane.” Howard was playing a nefarious sugar baron, and the actors were shooting for hours in 110-degree weather in a sugar field in El Centro, east of San Diego.

“It was hotter than hell, and people were losing their tempers left and right,” said Vaughn. “Ken never lost his cool. He said, ‘Come on, guys, let’s get this done.’ He doesn’t pitch a fit when there’s work to be done.”

Howard actually had gotten his first taste of SAG several years earlier, when his friends Mike Farrell and James Cromwell urged him to witness firsthand the free-for-all at SAG meetings. He ran for the national board in 2008 because “I figured I could help.” When his moderate group, which goes under the rubric Unite for Strength, first began considering presidential candidates, Howard initially demurred, believing he wasn’t famous enough to run.

Past presidents have included Ronald Reagan, Charlton Heston and Ed Asner, and name recognition can tilt elections. Howard and his colleagues tried to enlist better-known actors, such as Sally Field and William H. Macy. Finally, the moderates turned to Howard. “He said whatever he could do to help us achieve our goal he would do,” said Amy Aquino, who was elected secretary-treasurer on Howard’s slate. “I’ve never seen an actor with so little ego.”

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Not everyone has such a high opinion of the new leader, however. “He’s done nothing in his board service to show what kind of leader he will be,” said Rosenberg, who backed Howard’s opponent and bitterly clashed with Howard’s supporters over bargaining strategy, the split with AFTRA and the firing of the union’s former executive director. “I’m skeptical of his motivation and intentions.”

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Off and running

Howard had an unusually fast break to his Hollywood career. He was raised in Long Island, the son of a stockbroker, and he played basketball and sang in a choir that traveled to Carnegie Hall and Europe. He attended Amherst and opted for a fellowship to Yale Drama School, in part to escape the Vietnam draft. He quit after only two years to join the cast in Neil Simon’s “Promises, Promises” on Broadway, and soon after he won a Tony for his turn in “Child’s Play.” That performance snagged the attention of director Otto Preminger, who cast the square-jawed classic hunk opposite Liza Minnelli in “Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon.”

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“She was a wise 23. Talk about born in a trunk and professional. I was 25, wet behind the ears,” recalls Howard. One day, a fan came up to Minnelli, asked for her autograph and then turned to Howard for his. He scribbled down his name demurely, just like writing a check. Minnelli was appalled. “Oh no. You got to work on this! You got to have an autograph that you do fast,” says a laughing Howard, who subsequently upped the panache of his signature.

In 1978, he hatched and starred in the groundbreaking TV series “The White Shadow,” inspired in part by his own experience as the only white player on his high school basketball team. Howard brought the idea to TV producer Bruce Paltrow, whose wife, Blythe Danner, he’d worked with numerous times. “I was always sleeping with, kissing or dancing with his wife,” jokes Howard. Says Danner, “He’s got a great brain. He was so quick to learn his lines. He saved me many, many, many a day.”

Paltrow and Howard sold the pitch to CBS, but when the network picked up the show, the brass warned them, “Stay away from sex, drugs and crime,” says Howard. “Well, it’s not going to be ‘Welcome Back, Kotter.’ ” That CBS TV series lasted three seasons, and many other shows followed, although in the mid-'90s, Howard got disillusioned by showbiz and did a three-year stint at Harvard, teaching acting and public speaking as well as a course in oral argument at Harvard Law School with famed legal scholar Charles Ogletree.

In 2000, he came close to dying of kidney failure but was saved when his and his wife’s friend, Jeannie Epper, a prominent Hollywood stuntwoman, offered him one of her kidneys. Howard thanked Epper by name in his recent Emmy speech, noting, “Without you, I wouldn’t be here on this planet, let alone at this event.” Of late, perhaps because of his natural air of gravitas and intelligence, Howard often plays beleaguered patriarchs. “We needed someone who the audience would perceive as carrying a lot of weight on his shoulders, the weight of sadness and grief,” says director Curtis Hanson, who cast him as Toni Collette and Cameron Diaz’s father in “In Her Shoes.” In “Michael Clayton,” he played the unscrupulous head of a pharmaceutical company. In “Grey Gardens,” his patrician Phelan Beale is the rational counterbalance to his wife and daughter, played by Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, respectively.

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“Mr. Beale was harsh and stern and determined to have his way, but I wanted to make sure he was infused with a certain level of humanity,” says writer-director Michael Sucsy, “You could understand why he was exhausted by his wife and daughter, who wouldn’t take things seriously.”

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Ready to reunite

Asked about this recent turn in his screen persona, Howard notes, “What we are, the experiences we’ve had, come to the surface.” As for his new volunteer job, Howard seems leery about making any grand pronouncements about his plans for the union, except for noting the importance of merging with AFTRA. After their split last year, AFTRA snagged 84% of the contracts for new prime-time shows -- an area that SAG has traditionally dominated. Howard calls the status quo “just a self-destructive path” and says that both unions will be better served by joining forces.

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This said, Howard insists that everybody in SAG will get their say. “I want to very much serve the task of president as it’s written, which means me serving the wishes of the national board and chairing the meetings fairly.

“Totally fairly,” he emphasizes. “If I can manage that, I’ve accomplished something.”

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rachel.abramowitz @latimes.com

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richard.verrier@latimes.com


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