Recalling Ken Reeves of 'The White Shadow' and Ken Howard of SAG-AFTRA

Recalling Ken Reeves of 'The White Shadow' and Ken Howard of SAG-AFTRA
Ken Howard starred as high school basketball Coach Ken Reeves in "The White Shadow," a CBS series that ran 1978-81. (CBS Photo Archive / Getty Images)

Rare these days is the labor leader whose death is mourned much beyond his union's industry.

Much of the response to news of Ken Howard's death Wednesday at age 71 did not center on his role as head of a 160,000-member collective-bargaining powerhouse born of his efforts to unify rival labor groups, however.


That was behind the scenes, and as significant as Howard was there, he was far more memorable front and center, whether on stage, in movies or on television.

He was an actor who could seem at once larger than his 6-foot-6 frame yet also, as needed, not so big as to be unrelatable or intimidating.

No role showcased this quality better than his 1978-81 star turn as Ken Reeves, a former Chicago Bulls forward who coaches basketball at an inner city Los Angeles high school in CBS' "The White Shadow," a short-lived drama with a long legacy.

Though Howard worked practically till the end of his life, it remained his signature role.

Among the legion of "White Shadow" fans airing their grief were filmmaker David O. Russell, who directed Howard in a small role in last year's "Joy," and George Clooney, who, in a statement, recalled first meeting Howard on the Fox lot in 1983.

Upon learning Clooney had an audition across town at Paramount he wasn't going to make, Clooney recalled Howard thought nothing of putting the then-unknown actor's bike in the trunk of his car and driving him there.

"White Shadow" was created by the late Bruce Paltrow, whose wife, Blythe Danner, had been Howard's co-star in a TV adaptation of the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn film "Adam's Rib" that ran just a few months despite some good reviews.

While also a critical success, "The White Shadow" was never a hit. It launched to solid numbers, then was moved all over the schedule. One Tribune columnist wrote of "Shadow" early in the second of its three seasons that "CBS seems determined to wreck one of its best new programs by switching it from one night to another with little rhyme or reason."

As it headed into what would be the series' final year, another Tribune columnist bemoaned its "anemic 26 share."

The reason so many 50-somethings on Facebook and Twitter had a fondness for Howard, sharing memories of "Shadow," is that an "anemic 26 share" represents 26 percent of all households watching TV at the time.

That's the stuff of blockbusters in today's multichannel universe, where the sway "Shadow" held over young people would make it incredibly valuable to marketers and networks even with far fewer viewers.

Part of what made "The White Shadow" stand out was it unflinchingly dealt with such hot-button issues as race, crime, class and sexuality. In a particularly affecting episode, one of Reeves' teen players was killed in a liquor store robbery for being an eyewitness to the murder of the store owner, who was shot only after drawing out his own weapon.

The series also was cast for realism, which meant diversity among its young performers before that was widely given much consideration. Between Howard, Paltrow, producer Mark Tinker and others, it was a show about a role model made by and with a bunch of them and teamwork was prized on camera and off.

It is no accident that several of the actors cast as ballplayers — Thomas Carter, Kevin Hooks and Timothy Van Patten — went on to become award-winning directors and producers.


The same emphasis on inclusiveness — and sense of responsibility that comes with it — of "The White Shadow" informed Howard's work heading Hollywood's biggest union.

Howard, who for a time was the son-in-law of Chicago's Eppie Lederer (aka advice columnist Ann Landers), was re-elected just last summer as president of SAG-AFTRA. That union came into existence when the Screen Actors Guild he led merged in 2012 with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, a logical partner with which it had long sparred.

"One thing I know is you cannot rattle a saber that's broken in two, and management knows that," Howard said in a video message rallying support within SAG before members voted on the marriage. "You have to have one strong, if you will, swift sword that you can go into battle with. … We are going to be one swift sword for labor, ready to go into battle with management.

"Any labor lawyer I've talked to has used the phrase, 'It's a no-brainer.' If you have two unions representing one workforce, management will divide them. It will be their purpose to divide them, and why wouldn't they? We are so much more powerful in collective bargaining united as one."

Howard's powers of persuasion were well-honed. He spent three years teaching at Harvard in the 1990s, including leading a Harvard Law School course in oral arguments with noted legal scholar Charles Ogletree.

"Let's remember," Howard said in selling the SAG-AFTRA merger. "These big studios fight each other tooth and nail. They don't agree about a lot of stuff. But they all get together and, boy, when they come into collective bargaining — TV, theatrical, commercials, whatever — they are one voice and they will not bend, no matter what, unless you have one single voice on the other side.

"Now we've got a really good heavyweight fight."

It was a pep talk worthy of Coach Reeves.

Twitter @phil_rosenthal