Ken Howard, actor and president of SAG-AFTRA, dies at 71

Screen Actors Guild President Ken Howard speaks during The 22nd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on Jan. 30, 2016, in Los Angeles.

Screen Actors Guild President Ken Howard speaks during The 22nd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on Jan. 30, 2016, in Los Angeles.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Ken Howard, president of SAG-AFTRA and an actor known for his role on TV’s “The White Shadow,” died Wednesday at age 71.

Howard was a Tony- and Emmy-winning actor who in recent years became best known for championing the merger of Hollywood’s two largest actors’ unions, which had a history of sparring.

His death was announced in a statement released by the union. No cause of death was given.


In the statement, SAG-AFTRA acting President Gabrielle Carteris said: “Ken was an inspirational leader, and it is an incredible loss for SAG-AFTRA, for his family and for everyone who knew him. 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.”

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In the same statement, National Executive Director David White 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.”

He was first elected as union president in 2009 on a campaign to combine the Screen Actors Guild with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which occurred in 2012.

He was credited by his supporters, including Tom Hanks and George Clooney, with bringing stability and unity to a once deeply divided union. But Howard also faced opposition from a faction in SAG that opposed the merger.

In August he narrowly defeated “Home Improvement” actress Patricia Richardson for a second term as president of SAG-AFTRA.


Shortly after his election to union president in 2009 he said in an interview with The Times, “One of the things that make actors good is their capacity to listen. I’ll keep reminding myself that. If ever there was a job that requires a lot of listening, it’s this one.”

Howard was born in El Centro, Calif., on March 28, 1944, and grew up mostly on Long Island. He attended Amherst College and Yale School of Drama before joining the cast of Neil Simon’s “Promises, Promises” on Broadway. His stage performance in “Child’s Play” won him a Tony award in 1970. That performance captured the attention of director Otto Preminger, who cast Howard opposite Liza Minnelli in the film “Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon.”

In “The White Shadow,” which lasted for three seasons on CBS before ending in 1981, the 6-foot-6 Howard found his most iconic role as a former pro basketball player turned inner-city high school coach.

In the mid-’90s, Howard spent three years 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.

Howard continued to be an active and versatile performer even against the demands of his union leadership.

In the last few years, Howard appeared in films such as “Joy” and “The Judge,” and other roles included appearances in “J. Edgar,” “Rambo,” “Michael Clayton” and “In Her Shoes.” His recent television work included a recurring role on “30 Rock.”

Howard won a Daytime Emmy in 1981 for “The Body Human: Facts for Boys.” He also won an Emmy for his performance in the 2009 TV movie “Grey Gardens.”

Howard was married three times, first to Louise Sorel from 1973 to 1975 and then to Margo Coleman from 1977 to 1991. He is survived by his third wife, Linda Fetters, whom he married in 1992.

In a statement, Clooney recalled how he was still a struggling young actor when he first met Howard in 1983. Clooney wasn’t going to be able to get from one studio lot to another in time to make an audition. Howard put Clooney’s bicycle in the trunk of his car and gave the actor, whom he did not know, a ride across town.

“Today his obituary read that he was six foot six,” Clooney’s statement said, “but he was so much taller than that.”


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