SAG-AFTRA president Ken Howard, Jr., passed away yesterday at his home near Los Angeles at the age of 71. Over a long career, the Tony- and Emmy Award-winning actor played a string of enduring characters on stage and screen, later becoming the first president of the 160,000-member performers union SAG-AFTRA.
Howard was elected president of Screen Actors Guild in 2009 and reelected in 2011 on a pledge to unite Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. The merger effort was overwhelmingly approved by members in 2012. As the last president of Screen Actors Guild and the first elected president of post-merger SAG-AFTRA, Howard led the merged union from a period of conflict to a stable path toward the future.
An actor for nearly 50 years, Howard came to union leadership late in his career led by friends who asked him in 2008 to help them stabilize the then-troubled Screen Actors Guild. Thinking he might serve one two-year term on SAG’s board, Howard and committed himself to the job. Standing for election as SAG president a year later, he believed he had found the work he was meant to do. In a 2014 SAG-AFTRA Magazine message, Howard wrote to members that serving them as president of the union was “the most important thing I have ever done.”
A high-school basketball star in Manhasset, NY, he turned down several athletic scholarship offers to focus on academics. He was also drawn to the arts, performing in high school musicals and singing in the Congregational Church of Manhasset choir with whom he played Carnegie Hall. At Amherst College he was a featured soloist with the choral group the Zumbyes, touring Europe and recording two albums. During his college years, Howard spent summers as a Key Page for NBC working on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Howard’s interest in performing intensified and he was awarded a fellowship to the Yale School of Drama, which he attended after graduating from Amherst. Two years into his MFA program, he took an unplanned break to make his Broadway debut in the 1968 production of Neil Simon’s “Promises, Promises.”
In 1969, he appeared as Thomas Jefferson in the musical “1776” for which he won a Theater World Award. He returned to Broadway the next year in “Child’s Play,” earning a Tony Award for his role as Paul Reese. His later Broadway credits included “Seesaw,” “The Norman Conquests,” “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” and the critically acclaimed one-man play “According to Tip” in which he played the iconic Speaker of the House Thomas P. ‘Tip’ O’Neill.
Howard made his feature motion picture debut opposite Liza Minnelli in Otto Preminger’s Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon. He would go on to perform in dozens of movies including the feature film version of 1776, Clear and Present Danger, At First Sight, Rambo IV, Dreamer, In Her Shoes, Michael Clayton, J. Edgar, Better Living Through Chemistry, The Judge, The Wedding Ringer and Joy.
In 1978, Howard played coach Ken Reeves on the television series The White Shadow. Based on his own experiences as the only white player on his high school basketball team, the show starred Howard as the coach of a diverse basketball team at an inner-city high school.
Over the years, Howard appeared in numerous TV series, including starring roles on The Manhunter, Crossing Jordan, The Colbys and Dynasty. His frequent guest star appearances included work on Boston Legal, Dirty Sexy Money, Eli Stone, Cold Case, Brothers & Sisters, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The West Wing, Blue Bloods, Cane and 30 Rock.
In 2009 earned his second Primetime Emmy award for the role of Phelan Beale in HBO’s Grey Gardens.
He taught master classes at the American Repertory Theatre Institute and was an instructor at Harvard University, Harvard Law School and Amherst College. His teaching experience helped form the basis for his book, ACT NATURAL: How to Speak to Any Audience, published by Random House in 2003.
Howard served on the board of directors of the SAG-AFTRA Foundation, the Actors Fund, the Los Angeles Alzheimer’s Committee, and was the national spokesperson and an executive board member for the Onyx and Breezy Foundation for the Welfare of Animals. He also served as chancellor of the National Kidney Foundation working to encourage organ donation.
In addition to leading Screen Actors Guild through the merger with AFTRA, he chaired numerous successful contract negotiations both before and after merger. He also represented SAG-AFTRA members as a vice-president of the AFL-CIO and sat on its executive council.
Howard was born March 28, 1944 in El Centro, Calif., to Kenneth Joseph and Martha Carey Howard. He had a younger brother, Donald Howard, also an actor. All are deceased. He is survived by his beloved wife of 25 years Linda Fetters Howard and three adult stepchildren from a previous marriage.