In college, 6'6" Ken Howard played basketball and thought about acting. Now he's an actor who thinks about basketball. As the star of the critically acclaimed and popular television series "The White Shadow," he plays a retired pro basketball player coaching at a racially mixed high school.
Offscreen, on a recent visit to Boston, he and his wife Margo found Boston's Ritz Carlton Hotel isn't particularly impressed by either television stars or basketball players. The bellhops wouldn't believe they were married, attempted to put them in separate rooms, took them to the wrong suite, and ended by addressing the Howards as "Mr. and Mrs. Keating."
"See, that's what happens when you're a big star," Margo Howard pointed out to her husband.
Moments later, slouched in an easy chair, Ken Howard is the picture of indolence. But when he starts talking about his 10-year career in acting, one feels the latent energy as words pour out in long rapid sentences with nary a stop for breath.
About his first major role as Thomas Jefferson in the Broadway musical "1776, " for instance:
". . . Peter Hunt, who was a lightning director and who had preceded me at Yale by a few years . . . called me when I was still on the road with 'Promises, Promises' to tell me he had managed to finagle the job of this musical called ' 1776,' that it was a real dark horse and everybody sort of giggled when they heard about it, but that he thought it would work, and he wanted me to play Thomas Jefferson and that I might be a little young, and a little tall and a little this and a little that, but he knew it would be just perfect for me and we'd work our way through the auditions. . . ."
Or, about a few months later when, still barely a year out of Yale Drama School, when he had added the Otto preminger film "Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon," and Tony award-winning role in the Broadway play, "Child's Play" to his list of credits:
"I can remember sitting by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel on a Sunday afternoon talking to my folks back home. My mother's from the South, and she said in this sort of Southern Way, "This must be beyond your wildest dreams,' and I said, 'No, these arem my wildest dreams right here, it's all ridiculous, it's all great fun, it's like somebody made it up out of an old movie.'"
The enthusiasm dims slightly as he talks about the next couple years when, just like in an old movie, things started going a bit sour.
"I had left California to do stage work, and although I think I was growing as an actor and as a person, I wasn't doing anything on camera. . . . I was no longer young, but I was not yet old. I was no longer new and I certainly wasn't particularly established."
A television series with actress Blythe Danner, "Adams Rib," lasted 6 months. Another, "The Manhunter," lasted a year and a half, but left him far from happy because he hadn't been able to identify with the character he was playing.
Then came the opportunity to play Dr. Martin Dysart in the Chicago production of "Equus."
"All the California representatives thught it was madness to leave this budding television and film career, which of course was nonexistent, to do this artsy play in Chicago. I thought just the opposite. . . . I considered it a real challenge, and quite an opportunity. I auditioned, it worked out, and I went on. It turned out to be an opportunity in terms of my own life, too, Because I met Margo, and we developed a whole life together," including an "instant family" -- three teen-age children from his wife's previous marriage.
It was also about that time that he and Bruce Paltrow began developing the idea for "The White Shadow."
"It was a lot of things coming together," says Ken Howard. "The idea, my playing an ex-pro basketball player who becomes a coach and goes to a racially mixed school. . . was suggested by a particular friend, and I took it to Paltrow , who I already had known for a long time."
Bruce Paltrow, executive producer of "The White Shadow," admits the show is often a "juggling act" between sheer humor and serious message.
"Our primary obligation to CBS and the American public is to entertain them . . . obviously we must entertain or people won't watch. However, for the money it costs to make a television show, I think it would be unconscionable . . . not to do something uplifting, or in some way enlightening. so . . . we try to infuse the show with enough humor so it doesn't sound like we're lecturing, while dealing with themes and concepts we feel are valid. . . ."
For Ken Howard, the show's emphasis on moral and ethical values is totally natural.
"Good coaches, as we all know, can have amazing influences on boys. The hard thing for us is to try to keep a show from getting too preachy, which we border on sometimes."
He cheerfully refers to the show's ratings as "not unreasonably low," compared to those of other shows previously run in that time slot.
". . . Other shows . . . supposedly stamped with the label of 'quality' very often wind up right on the bottom of the list, so we've managed to avoid that. Bruce was terrified that [critics] were going to start referring to us as an 'important' show -- he said that'd be the kiss of death, it'd be all over."
And there's no denying Ken Howard feels extremely comfortable in the role of Ken Reeves.
"It's fulfilling in a lot of ways, very much because Bruce Paltrow and I created it ourselves, and to be in on the creating is very much of a thrill. I have no theories about the divorce rate or things like that, but it does occur to me that dealing with kids and their problems can be real binding glue. It keeps you out of the range of too much ego. Kids hit you right at the ankles and bring you right back to earth."
"Ken is remarkably like the character he plays," says Bruce Paltrow. "The only major difference is that Ken's not a street guy, he's more elegant. I add the street element, the rough edges. He's more educated, he speaks properly and with the right accent. He went to Amherst and Yale, he's not from the street."
With his strong optimistic bent, it's not surprising to find him enamoured with musicals.
"I've always been entranced when it came to musical comedy, it's probably my favorite thing. It's a real true American form, and it's big, like Shakespeare big, when it's right. It's loud and it's big, you have to be ready vocally and physically. It can bring people to their feet and can be as thrilling as a circus."
At some point he wants to get back to stage and musicals.
"It's sort of a war between instant gratification and more long range financial gratification," he says slowly."The stage even at its very best and most lucrative can't compare to something like this as an industry. But in terms of what returns it offers, it's got to be more fun, you get to sleep later , you get laughs, people applaud -- and that's what it's all about."
But the stage may have to wait. The final network decision on the renewal of "The White Shadow" won't be made until April, but Bruce Paltrow says he's been led to expect a third season, "although I'll believe that when I receive a telegram that says it."
As far as Ken Howard is concerned, another season is fine.
"The official answer while we're awaiting our pickup is that it's the most thrilling and challening job i've ever had," he says, grinning. Then seriously, "I think next year the show will probably be a little lighter. . . I think the text requires that Reeves is what we prove him to be. He's no longer this coach who has walked into this crowd of unruly kids. He's been there, he's accomplished something. . . . I don't think the team should continue to be the source of all the problems. The same coach can't have the same eight kids who keep screwing up and never do anything right -- then he's failing, his methods aren't as insightful and effective as we hope they are. . . ."
He pauses for a second, then grins.
"Adam, our 14-year-old, said to me soon after we were married, 'When are you going to settle down and go into business?' This, I would say, is my feeble attempt to do just that. I'm no longer young, I'm getting older. This is a vehicular part -- an opportunity for me to be comfortable and relaxed and do whatever I can."
He leans back and stretches contentedly, then adds, "That's why I'd love to do a third year, we could take more liberties. And there are all sorts of avenues open to me."