Ken Howard, Tony-Winning Actor, Dies at 71

Obituaries   Ken Howard, Tony-Winning Actor, Dies at 71
Howard played Thomas Jefferson in 1776 and starred in TV's The White Shadow.
Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson <i>1776</i>
Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson 1776 Martha Swope

Ken Howard, the tall, blonde actor who made an impression in the original Broadway production of 1776 and in the television series The White Shadow, died March 23, just days before his birthday. He was 71.

Handsome and strapping at six-feet six-inches, Mr. Howard communicate all-American virility in his youth. He burst upon the theatre scene playing a witty, oversexed, violin-playing Thomas Jefferson in the 1969 musical 1776. Taking part in the songs “But Mr. Adams” and “The Egg,” his Jefferson was a playful antagonist to the show’s hard-charging John Adams. He won a Theatre World Award for his performance, and repeated the portrayal in the 1972 film of the musical.

His arrival as a stage actor was completed in 1970 when he won a Tony Award as Best Featured Actor for the play Child’s Play, which took home multiple Tonys that season.

Mr. Howard was a regular presence on Broadway throughout the early 1970s. He starred opposite Michelle Lee in Seesaw, a musical version of the romantic comedy Two For the Seesaw, written by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, and directed by Michael Bennett. He was one of a sextet of characters in The Norman Conquests, Alan Ayckbourn’s three-play sex farce. And he played The President in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the short-lived Alan Jay Lerner-Leonard Bernstein musical from 1976.

Mr. Howard made two attempts at series television—playing a young assistance DA in Adam’s Rib in 1973 and a 1930s private eye in The Manhunter in 1974—before hitting paydirt in The White Shadow in 1978. In the hour-long, warm-hearted drama, he played Ken Reeves, a former NBA player who takes a job coaching the mainly black students at an inner-city high school. The show was praised for its sensitive handling of real-life issues having to do with race, poverty and life in the city.

The series drew on Howard’s real-life background. A high-school basketball star at Manhasset (Long Island) High School, he was nicknamed “The White Shadow” by the local press.

In the ‘80s, Mr. Howard continued to concentrate on television work, taking not terribly challenging parts on the series It’s Not Easy, Dynasty and The Colbys, and the mini-series The Thornbirds, as well as a variety of television movies.

As he aged, he settled into a new career as a dependable character actor, typically embodying a certain kind of morally ambivalent American businessman. He was a CEO in the 2007 Tony Gilroy moral drama Michael Clayton, Steve Carrell’s predecessor Ed Truck at a regional paper company in the sitcom The Office, and a cynical mop executive in David O. Russell’s 2015 film Joy. The latter was his final film role. In each of these, he made an impact with relatively little screen time.

He relayed the same sort of qualities, but to satiric effect, in 30 Rock, in which he had a recurring role as Hank Hooper, Alec Baldwin’s smiling, hugging, yet ruthless boss.

Other theatre roles included the national tour of Equus and Camping with Henry and Tom Off-Broadway in 1995, in which he portrayed President Warren G. Harding. Beginning in 2009, he served several terms as president of SAG and then SAG-AFTRA.

Ken Howard was born March 28, 1944, in El Centro California. e is survived by his wife Linda Fetters.

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