Variety is reporting that Ken Howard, probably best known for his starring role as a fatherly basketball coach on the 1970s sports drama The White Shadow, has died. Howard, who also co-starred on the first two seasons of NBC’s Crossing Jordan, and who later had a notable recurring part as Jack Donaghy’s TV executive boss on the later seasons of 30 Rock, was 71.
Howard earned the “White Shadow” nickname during his high school sports career, when he was the only Caucasian starter on his New York high school’s basketball team. He later turned to acting, studying at Amherst and appearing on Broadway, earning a Tony for his 1970 appearance in Robert Marasco’s Child’s Play. At the same time, he steadily made his way into TV, starring in short-lived shows like Adam’s Rib and The Manhunter, before stepping into The White Shadow in 1978.
The series saw Howard star as Ken Reeves, a former member of the Chicago Bulls who retires to coach high school basketball after a debilitating knee injury. The show lasted for three seasons on CBS, with Reeves helping the players under his charge deal with numerous aspects of inner city high school life, from pregnancy scares, to gang violence, to homosexuality.
After the series ended in 1981, Howard continued to work steadily, appearing on high-profile shows like Dynasty and Murder She Wrote. In 2001, he signed on to Jordan, playing the retired cop father of Jill Hennessy’s titular forensic pathologist. He also had a role as folksy Kabletown boss Hank Hooper on 30 Rock, delivering smiling threats to the employees of TGS.
Outside of performing, Howard was an active advocate for actors’ rights; he served as the president of performers’ union SAG (and later, SAG-AFTRA) from 2009 until his death earlier today.