The Card-Carrier

Profile by Soo Youn ’96

Ken Howard as Phelan Beale in HBO's Grey Gardens. As President of the Screen Actors Guild, he now faces his most demanding role yet.

During a teaching stint at Harvard, Ken Howard instructed a class to give an introductory speech two minutes long. One of the students questioned how a life—how anything, really—could be summarized in two minutes.

At the next meeting, after the class had settled in, Howard waited for silence and started speaking. “Four score and seven years ago,” he said, and then recited the Gettysburg Address.

“I got you at one minute and 52 seconds,” called out a student who clocked the speech, Howard recalls.

In addition to Lincoln, Howard has played several U.S. presidents both on stage and on screen, as well as senators, justices and business moguls. But he may face his most demanding role yet as president of Hollywood’s highest-profile and most dysfunctional union, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). In doing so, he’ll have to draw upon the political finesse cultivated from navigating his own acting career for more than four decades.

A stockbroker’s son who grew up in Manhasset, Long Island, the 6-foot-6-inch Howard explored acting at Amherst and also played basketball and sang with the Zumbyes. In time, the head of the theater department mentioned a fellowship to Yale. “It was the height of Vietnam, and a lot of guys went to grad school instead of going to Penang. I thought the fellowship was a great idea, and I took to it like a duck to water,” Howard says, although he remembers showing up at Yale in a blue crewneck sweater and loafers, while “everyone else was wearing black.”

Howard finished two years of the three-year fellowship before landing a role on Broadway, in Neil Simon’s Promises, Promises, and things took off from there. He played Thomas Jefferson in the Tony-winning musical 1776, then won a Tony as the gym coach at a Catholic boy’s school in Child’s Play. Starring roles in Broadway productions of Seesaw, The Norman Conquests and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and in the national tour of Equus followed.

But it was an Amherst friend who gave Howard the idea for what might be his most famous role, that of retired Chicago Bulls player turned inner-city basketball coach Ken Reeves. David Morine ’66 remembers telling Howard, “I’ve got a great idea for you. Why don’t you go be a retired pro working with inner-city kids?” Howard, who had worked frequently with his friend Blythe Danner, took the idea to the actress’s husband, producer Bruce Paltrow. The White Shadow, a television series featuring a mostly African-American cast and based loosely on Howard’s own experiences as a high school basketball player, ran on CBS from 1978 to 1981.

Since then, Howard has played a judge on The West Wing, business executives in Michael Clayton and Cane and a senator on Dirty Sexy Money. In September 2009 he won an Emmy for best supporting actor for his role as Phelan Beale (another patrician lawyer) in the HBO movie Grey Gardens, playing husband to Jessica Lange and father to Drew Barrymore.

Those roles as prominent members of the establishment make it somewhat surprising to hear him talk about representing a union against management and studios. “Acting is labor,” he explains. “What I’ve done for the last 40 years involved carrying three union cards in my pocket.” As president of SAG, Howard has campaigned for a more cohesive union and for better relations with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which, though often viewed as the stepchild union of on-camera talent in Hollywood, ratified a new contract with the studios a year
earlier than SAG did. Howard told me he favors a merger of the two unions. “I’m still amazed at how violently opposed to merger [with AFTRA] that some SAG actors are, that we’ll be seen in the same category as TV hosts, weathermen, but they—management—do see us as the same,” says Howard, who in November was also elected to the AFL-CIO executive council.

“The SAG president’s role,” says entertainment lawyer Jonathan Handel, “includes representing all of the members of the union and also building bridges to other Hollywood guilds and unions and to management. Ken gets that. Add to that the economy and the technological changes roiling the entertainment industry, and SAG finds itself in a tough place: actors’ incomes (and thus membership dues) are down, pension plan assets have shrunk, health plan costs are up.”

Howard seems to embrace the challenge of leading SAG—a role he initially demurred because he felt he wasn’t famous enough—but the responsibility has drawbacks. Tinseltown has fostered the growth of prolific bloggers who watch every movement of the unions. One blogger recently claimed, falsely, that Howard had undergone back surgery and was stepping down from the presidency. Howard seems to take the gossip in stride. It’s “so wildly inaccurate,” he says, “but there’s nothing I can do.”

His traits as an actor might serve him well as he helms SAG. Matthew Gross, executive producer of Dirty Sexy Money, told me, “When you hire Ken Howard, you know what you get. He shows up and is professional and brings an honesty and truth to every role. He’s a very, very intelligent guy. He’s not narcissistic at all. When you’re at the top of your game and you have that kind of humility, it’s not only refreshing, it’s such a great example.”

Youn, a freelance writer and producer in Los Angeles, covers Hollywood and the world around it. Her work has aired on NPR and appeared in the New York Daily News, The Washington Post and New York magazine.

Video of Howard accepting his 2009 Emmy.

Photo courtesy of HBO/Peter Stranks