Wednesday, March 23, 2016

RIP Ken Howard, 1944-2016

I was saddened today to hear about the death of Ken Howard, who began his career in 1968 with a role in Broadway's Promises, Promises, and the following year, created the role of Thomas Jefferson in the Tony-winning musical 1776.  Ken himself received a Tony for his role of a young gym coach at a Catholic boys' school in the 1970 stage drama Child's Play; interestingly, it would later be the 6'6" actor's starring role as a former NBA pro-turned-inner city basketball coach in CBS' The White Shadow (1978-81) that would make him a household name for TV audiences.  In 1974-75, Ken had his first TV starring role as bounty hunter Dave Barrett on CBS' The Manhunter, and he would continue to pop up in later years in recurring roles on such shows as Dynasty and its spinoff The Colbys, FameMurder, She Wrote, Melrose Place, Crossing Jordan and, most recently, in the hilarious recurring role of Kabletown CEO Hank Hooper on NBC's 30 Rock.  Elected president of the Screen Actors' Guild in 2009, Ken continued to juggle his SAG-AFTRA duties with performing, such as in HBO's adaptation of Grey Gardens, for which he received his second Emmy Award in 2009.

And apart from all that, Golden Girls fans will of course forever remember Ken as Jerry, the gentlemanly gentleman caller of Blanche's who preferred old-fashioned romance to bed-hopping, and who ultimately left Blanche speechless with their first kiss, which made her feel "like a lady."

A few years ago, I happened to have been seated next to Ken's lovely wife Linda at the taping of the pilot for CBS' sitcom The McCarthys, in which he was appearing, and soon thereafter in February of 2014, I had the pleasure of interviewing them both by phone, as they drove up the coast, about Ken's work on The Golden Girls.  A shorter version of that interview is included in my book Golden Girls Forever, which hits stores on April 5.  But in light of the news today of Ken's passing, I'd like to share his full recollection about working on the show, with its brief glimpse into the life of this beloved actor.

The opportunity to guest star on The Golden Girls came out of the blue, in December of 1991, as my then-fiancĂ©e Linda and I were planning our upcoming wedding in February. It was a busy time, but I was excited to do the show because I was a fan. I knew Bea Arthur a little through Broadway circles, and Betty White a bit, too – and now that Linda and I are on the board of directors for the animal charity the Onyx and Breezy Foundation, we’ve gotten to know Betty much more dearly. And I’d just worked with Rue McClanahan on a TV movie, The Man in the Brown Suit, which had filmed on location in Spain in the summer of 1988. We’d had a lot of opportunity on the set to chat, and so when I heard I’d be working with Rue again, I knew it would be great to see her again. 
Working on The Golden Girls was a wonderful experience, although it goes by so fast. I had a few loving scenes with Rue, which is what I remember most. But I also remember how I enjoyed watching those women work, as they rehearsed their scenes together. That week, I even developed the impression to imitate Bea Arthur -- the trick was to let all the air out of my lungs before I would talk.
When the week was over, Linda had the idea to send each of the ladies flowers. So we sent each a bouquet, a dozen roses. And they were all so touched – but the way Bea Arthur expressed how touched she was, she got mad at me. She said, “You mustn’t spend your money that way, and don’t you ever do that again. Do you hear me?!” And she read me out, which was so her. Her way of saying “Thank you” was to say, “That’s excessive, and don’t ever do it again!” --Ken Howard