“March Madness” seems a poignant time to bid adieu to Ken Howard, who broke down many barriers with the basketball-themed television show The White Shadow. Howard, who friends and family report had been gravely ill in the months before his death, was most recently the president of the Screen Actors Guild, representing actors in the industry.
According to Us Weekly, Ken Howard, president of SAG-AFTRA, died on Wednesday at his home near Los Angeles. Though Ken Howard had many roles through the years, mostly in dramas and mysteries, he was best known for The White Shadow, which ran from 1978-1981, and can now be binge-watched on Hulu. Howard, who won an Emmy and a Tony, was considered an actor’s actor, and represented their interests as part of the Guild.
Oregon Live said that Ken Howard and The White Shadow changed television and the way high school drama is portrayed. At 6’6, Ken Howard will always be remembered as Ken Reeves, the NBA player who due to an injury found himself scrambling for a job, and ending up as a high school basketball coach in the drama The White Shadow.
The show was funny and timely, and Ken Howard as Ken Reeves, a bachelor, provided a father figure to a group of boys desperately in need of some guidance. They were very multi-cultural for the time, and though it took place in Los Angeles, this was no Beverly Hills 90210. The White Shadow took place in a poor neighborhood, and covered teen pregnancy, drugs, racism, learning disabilities, and gang violence. While this might seem like normal themes today, this was groundbreaking in the ’70s.
Ken Howard’s ex-wife, Margo Howard, who was also the daughter of the late advice columnist Ann Landers, said that The White Shadow was partially based on Howard’s own experience as a high school basketball star in New York, where he was nicknamed The White Shadow, because he was the only Caucasian starter on an all-black team. Howard insisted that there was always a level of realism in the show, and at Carver High, where the show was supposed to take place.
Also, for the ’70s, it was interesting that the staff, complete with degrees and titles, were mostly people of color. In fact, the woman who played the boss of Ken Reeves was a woman of color with a doctorate.
The chief TV critic for the Hollywood Reporter, Tim Goodman, said that Ken Howard and the character he played in The White Shadow changed television for the better, and put Ken Howard on the map as a leading man. Goodman said it also made a personal impression on him.
Goodman believed that Coach Ken Reeves on The White Shadow was a coach in the truest sense, accessible on and off the court. Howard played a character, fresh out of the NBA because of an injury, who comes to South Central Los Angeles, at a school that everyone forgot, to rebuild their basketball program and the lives of the players. Think Hoosiers set in South Central as a weekly series without the farming background. Ken Howard actually would give Gene Hackman a run for his money as the tough but lovable reluctant role model for wayward boys.
Bruce Paltrow, father of Gwyneth Paltrow, created The White Shadow, before going on to St. Elsewhere and Northern Exposure. As with those other shows, Howard and The White Shadow seemed to have a message and an intention, but didn’t hit you over the head with it. Even as a kid, and now a television reviewer, Tim Goodman says that The White Shadow still sticks out in his mind.
“If I couldn’t tell what the higher goals of Paltrow and The White Shadow were back then, I could certainly tell that this was maybe the first drama I wanted to watch every week.”
The White Shadow included characters with names like Coolidge, Thorpe, Gomez, Salami, Goldstein, Reese, CJ, and Vitaglia, all from different backgrounds, with their own unique baggage, but Ken Howard, through the character of Ken Reeves, met each with brusque charm and humor.
Were you a fan of The White Shadow and Ken Howard? What is your favorite episode?
[Photo by Hulu]