Friday, April 22, 2016

Friday Dance Party: Wouldn't You Like To Be A Pepper, Too?

When the news came over the interwebs this week, of the demise of this fellow, I was engulfed in a flood of memories.  Turns out reports of his death were greatly exaggerated.
My father always claimed Dr Pepper must be drunk from an ice-cold bottle (no cans).  I haven't seen a bottle in years.  This week's internet hoax proclaimed that Dr Pepper had been sold to its chief rival, Coca Cola, who was planning to end production of this unique soft drink. I'm glad this was not the truth. Dr Pepper is the oldest of the major softies, having been invented in 1885. It consistently lags behind its competitors, Coke and Pepsi, but has such an unusual flavor, the rivals have driven themselves nuts trying to compete with it. Anybody REALLY want to drink Mr Pibbs?
Running across one of these was
always a treat. It meant you could
get a DP in a cold bottle. You
put your money in, then opened
the glass door and yanked out
your choice.

I have to confess I don't drink this stuff anymore, mainly because it has become too sweet for my taste buds.  But for many years as a kid and younger adult, Dr Pepper was my Go-To soft drink.  Or, as Southerners would say, my favorite coke is Dr Pepper.  (Because Coca Cola is based in Atlanta, and is such a giant of the industry, Southerners use the brand name instead of the generic word "soda."  Nobody I grew up with ever wanted a "soda," or God forbid, "pop." They wanted a coke.  Though sometimes it was a Pepsi.  But we always went out for "a coke," not a "soda." Got it?)
Dr Pepper and its most famous spokesman.
A more recent shot of our hero and the actor
he made famous, for a time.
Anyway, this week's internet hoax got me thinking about my history, particularly my teen years growing up in Atlanta.  My old friend Donna reminded me that, along with our other friend Robert (we were the three musketeers for a while), I would dash home from school to catch Dark Shadows.  
This star of Dark Shadows was not responsible for my sleep
problems, though my parents thought so. Maybe it was the
daily caffeine-filled Dr Pepper I drank while WATCHING
this guy which was the problem.
Actually, we always went to Robert's house, never to mine.  While watching, Robert and I would enjoy a Dr Pepper. This was dangerous behavior on my part for two reasons.  I have always had trouble sleeping, and during this period, my parents were convinced my chronic problems at night were caused by this silly soap opera.  So, being good parents, they forbade me to watch the program.  And being the sneaky kid I was, I simply went to Robert's house every day to catch the antics of Barnabas Collins and Joan Bennett.  (I wrote about this seminal series when actor Jonathan Frid died, go here for that report.)
See? He's drinking it out of a bottle. The can's
flavor was slightly rank. There was even a rumor
that DP's recipe included prune juice. The rumor
harmed sales so badly that the company had to
publicly deny it.

While watching this forbidden show, I was also drinking forbidden contraband.  My parents always felt that soft drinks (or "cokes" of all types) were bad for kids, so for many, many years, I was allowed only one soft drink per week.  Can you imagine such a thing today, when sodas are sold in vending machines in high schools?  But back then, even though I doubt there was actual evidence to support my parents' beliefs (as there is now: the stuff is poison), they did not believe their kids should drink cokes.  (They gave us Kool Aid instead...I wonder how healthy THAT turned out to be...).
OK, I had no idea THIS existed: DP bubble gum. yuck.
Once a week, though, I was allowed to indulge.  I was always sure to announce to my mother and/or father that I was having my "Drink For The Week" (yep, I even named the event), usually Saturday afternoons after I finished mowing our expansive lawn.  As I recall, this rule of only one soda per week became more and more contentious as I moved through my middle teens;  everybody I went to school with drank soft drinks whenever they wanted, why couldn't I?  
My Friday night TV drink of choice.
While everybody else watched the
ABC lineup of Brady Bunch &
Partridge Family, I chose adult fare:
High Chaparral & Bracken's World
on NBC. There's a reason those
shows are not remembered today.
Dear Ol' Dad compromised and allowed me TWO cokes per week.  That second event became known as my Middle of the Week Drink, though as I recall, I usually saved it for Friday nights while watching High Chaparral, The Name of the Game, and Bracken's World.  (This drink was not usually a Dr Pepper, as it had caffeine, and I was still suffering sleep issues, so I was granted a Fresca instead.)

Anyway, my buddy Robert's parents did not ration soft drinks, so I had an illegal Dr Pepper almost every week day while watching the adventures of Barnabas Collins.  Sorry, Mom...

I have surely wandered off into Me-Land here...
Conventional Wisdom claims men won't drink "diet" soda, so DP has come up with this purposefully sexist version. It's not calorie free, so men can still maintain their masculinity while drinking it. Who dreams up this stuff?
This week's Dance Party comes from the most memorable (at least to my generation) ad campaign Dr Pepper ever presented.  And this is saying something, since my research has unearthed the fact that Diet Dr Pepper is even now in the midst of a hilarious ad campaign starring American Idol loser Justin Guarini.  
Justin Guarini, then and now.

Playing an elfin cross between Little Richard and Michael Jackson, "Lil Sweet" pops up various places to convince people (usually men) that they deserve the "sweet, sweet" taste of Diet Dr Pepper.  Take a look:

This campaign, though enjoyable, will never top the most famous Dr Pepper ad campaign ever.  
This old gal is 104. Somebody asked her this week to
explain the secret of her longevity. She answered that she
drinks 3 Dr Peppers every day.
In the early 70s, Coke hit the jackpot with their jingle "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke," which was so successful it spawned an actual hit song ("I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing").  It was almost a decade later that Dr Pepper came up with their own ubiquitous jingle.  
David had good looks and a non-
threatening sexuality which appealed
to everybody.
An unknown actor named David Naughton was plucked from Joe Papp's Free Shakespeare in the Park, where he was carrying spears, to headline a series of toe-tapping commercials to celebrate our product.  Our guy was an immediate hit.  Naughton became a star from these commercials, a star which flamed for about four years, and included headlining a sitcom and releasing a disco tune which hit the Billboard Top 5 in 1979. 
These days you can buy a Coke with your name on it, or a
Dr Pepper with an Avenger. Give me back the bottle.
Take a look at the opening credits for his sitcom, which flopped after about 9 episodes. Trying to capitalize on Saturday Night Fever, the show centered on a poor shlub who worked in an ice cream parlor by day, and partied at the disco by night. John Travolta's sister Ellen was in the cast, but that did not help. The theme song, however, rose to #5 on the charts, months after the show was cancelled:
I remember this disco hit but never made the connection that
it was the DP dude who was singing it.

David Naughton's career was on the rise.  In addition to starring in a string of snappy Dr Pepper commercials, he snagged the leading role in a motion picture.  He will be remembered fondly for this film, which was an unexpected smash but which caused his career to stumble.
This horror flick laced with humor was directed by John Landis, who had made his name with comedies such as The Blues Brothers and Animal House.  The budget was about 10 million;  everyone was surprised when the film garnered critical raves.  The box office exploded, earning the movie $30 million in its initial release.  David Naughton was now a movie star.
 The fact that their spokesman was now a movie star should have been good news for the Dr Pepper folks.  But it wasn't, because of this:
When somebody turns into a werewolf, aren't they wearing clothes?  Or does the animal tear them off during the transformation? John Landis addressed this question head on.  A good bit of the humor of the film comes from the fact that, when our hero reverts to human form after a night howling at the moon, he's naked.  Hilarious fun for everyone.  Dr Pepper was not amused. 
An American Werewolf in London actually won an Oscar:
the first ever award given for make-up and hairstyling.
The Pepper people were not pleased that their star had performed in the nude, and he was sacked from the advertising campaign.  Naughton's celebrity began to slide, and though he has maintained a career since, he never regained the momentum which the Dr Pepper ads gave him.

Time to take a quick look at one of these commercial spots.  Forgive the grainy quality and enjoy instead the wholesome, fun energy which Naughton projects.  And be thankful, as I am, that the rumors are false: Dr Pepper is here to stay.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Friday Dance Party: Her Name Was Anna

Many well-deserved tributes poured in this week when this popular star unexpectedly passed away. I have to add mine.
Patty Duke
With painful honesty, Duke revealed
her mental illness, one of the first to
do so publicly.
Much has been written about our gal's difficult childhood, which she revealed in her startling memoir, "My Name Is Anna". Abandoned by an alcoholic father and a mentally ill mother, Patty was raised by her managers, John and Ethel Ross, who abused her both psychologically and physically.  Our heroine also suffered from bi-polar disorder, though it went undiagnosed for decades;  her youth was a torment, with her work being her only escape.
The New York Post headline screamed "They Even Fixed The Kid!" In the late 50s, Patty participated in the $64,000 Challenge, one of the quiz shows which, it was later learned, defrauded the public by giving their most popular contestants the answers in advance. She was 12 when she appeared on the show; 3 years later, she was hauled before the Senate subcommittee investigating the matter.
The Miracle Worker ran so long, star Anne
Bancroft moved on. Recognize her replacement
(above)? That's Suzanne Pleshette with Patty.

At the same time she was appearing on the quiz show, Patty won the role which put her on the map, Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker.  Her raw performance of the deaf blind mute child was a sensation, and when she recreated the performance on screen, she became the youngest performer ever to win a competitive Oscar (years later, that stat was broken by both Tatum O'Neal and Anna Pasquin).
As everyone knows, The Miracle Worker was the story of Helen Keller's childhood, and of her teacher, Annie Sullivan, who was able to reach into the girl's silent world. Nightly, this 10 minute scene of physical and emotional domination formed the centerpiece of the play.  Bancroft won a Tony, Duke was not nominated. Both women won Oscars for the screen adaptation.
Patty's interpretation of the modern teen seemed
real, but she actually had no idea how normal
teens behaved. Her handlers kept her secluded
from everyone and refused to allow her friends.
She earned the first of her 10 Emmy nods for
the show.
The Patty Duke Show was created around our star to capitalize on her Oscar fame.  She was the youngest actress ever to have a self-titled TV series.  The show was a major hit with the teen aged set during its 3 year run. The first two seasons were filmed in New York, which did not, at the time, have strict child labor laws (CA did).  Though she was a minor, she usually worked 12 hour days.  When she turned 18, the series moved to Los Angeles, where, as an adult, she once again worked 12 hour days.  Playing twins was hard work, and Duke appeared in almost every scene as one character or the other or both. (Technically, they were not twins but "identical cousins," and in one episode, Patty played yet a third identical cousin, Betsy.)
Duke remembers her castmates as the family she never had.  "Poppo" William Schallert remained a lifelong father figure to her, and "Mommo" Jean Byron explained the facts of life to Patty.
Patty the youngster and Ed Begley the oldster
on Oscar night. Duke beat such heavy hitters
as Shirley Knight and Angela Lansbury. Ed
won for Sweet Bird of Youth.
When the series ended, our gal finally extricated herself from the toxic influence of the Rosses, though they kept much of the money she had earned while in their care.  On her own for the first time in her life, she made a move to escape the squeaky clean image of the teenie bopper she had portrayed in her sitcom.  She chose a role diametrically opposed to the Patty Duke image.
Jacqueline Susann's sensational bestseller Valley of the Dolls was one of the most eagerly anticipated films of the period. It was purported to be a sizzling expose of Hollywood, though in reality, it's exploitative soap opera.  Patty Duke took the role of Neely O'Hara, a rising starlet who ultimately becomes a washed out lush.  She has said the part was based on Judy Garland, and there are some similarities (Garland herself was cast in the film but was fired after two days of shooting; her role was taken by Susan Hayward). 
In the tradition of Joan Crawford's "No wire
hangers," Bette Davis's "But ya' are, Blanch, ya
are in that chair" and Norma Desmond's 
"I'm ready for my close-up," Patty's Neely O'Hara
 spawned a gay catchphrase: 
"Sparkle, Neely, Sparkle!"
Valley of the Dolls was a critical flop but a financial success. Two years after its initial release, Duke's co-star Sharon Tate was brutally murdered by the Charles Manson family, and the studio returned the film to the theaters, where it made even more money.  The film is so over the top it has achieved camp status, especially among gay men, and in her later years, Patty was often invited to attend screenings of the film for that audience.
Neely O'Hara hits the skids.

Patty's new, adult career was launched.  She won a Golden Globe for the feature film, Me, Natalie, and picked up the second of her 10 Emmy nominations for her performance in the TV film, My Sweet Charlie.  When she won the award in 1970, her acceptance speech turned into one of the most notorious ever delivered at the Emmy Awards.  Her stilted speech and disjointed thoughts were immediately pegged as the result of drug abuse, when in fact they were the result of a manic episode.
Duke's rambling,incoherent
acceptance speech at the 1970
Emmys gave her the reputation
of a druggie, but in fact she was
in the midst of an undiagnosed
manic attack.
( I remember watching this moment on TV, and I assumed, like everyone else, that Patty Duke was completely drugged out).  Backstage, she stunned and amused the press when she announced she was retiring from show business and enrolling at UCLA to become a psychiatrist. 

My Sweet Charlie concerned an unwed pregnant runaway and her uneasy, racially charged friendship with a black attorney falsely accused of murder. Duke was later told the project was the first actual TV movie (I'm not sure that can be verified) but it was surely a landmark. The film even received a theatrical release after its broadcast on TV.  Patty sealed her credentials as an authentic actress in this piece, winning her Emmy against competition which included Shirley Jones and Dame Edith Evans. Her co-star Al Freeman, Jr lost his Emmy to Peter Ustinov.

The critical success of My Sweet Charlie ushered in a golden age of Made-for-TV films.  They peppered the broadcast landscape for the next several decades. Some were prestigious successes, others were schlocky claptrap.  Patty starred in more than her share of both.
Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby. Yep, that was an actual TV movie in the 70s, with Patty Duke taking the role of Rosemary. This sequel preceded author Ira Levin's own sequel novel and included only one actor from the original film, Ruth Gordon. Other cast members included Tina Louise and Donna Mills, so you can see what kind of film it was.  Ironically, Patty Duke had been in contention to play Rosemary in the original film, losing the role to Mia Farrow.
Soon after The Miracle Worker, our pint sized star
worked with Laurence Olivier in a TV adaptation
of Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory.
Duke's personal life was chaotic during most of her life, largely due to her undiagnosed mental disease, as well as alcohol issues. In 1965, she married a crew member on the set of her sitcom, in part to escape from the influence of her managers. The marriage lasted a difficult four years, marred by Patty's extreme mood swings and outlandish behavior.  At age 23, she embarked on a very public affair with 17-year old Desi Arnaz, Jr.; when Lucy stepped in, the scandal provided the tabloids a field day.
Sean, who's your daddy? In her memoir, Patty
revealed that her first son was the result of her
scandalous affair with teen ager Desi Arnaz Jr.
She married 2nd husband Michael Tell to give the
child a father. 3rd husband John Astin adopted
Sean and gave him his last name.
At the same time, she became involved with rock promoter Michael Tell, whom she married when she became pregnant.  The union was dissolved less than 2 weeks later;  throughout her life, Patty believed her first child, Sean Astin, was the son of Arnaz.  (When he hit adulthood, Sean took a paternity test which proved Patty's husband, Michael Tell, was his father.  Isn't this fun?)  
Patty's marriage to comic actor John Astin (16 years her senior) produced another actor son, Mackenzie Astin, and lasted about a dozen years.  During this period, she was known as Patty Duke Astin.  The collapse of this marriage is more proof of my theory that Hollywood marriages never work out if the wife takes the husband's name. I wrote about this here, years before Kaley Cuoco and Courtney Cox reinforced my point. 
Our heroine took advantage of the heyday of the mini-series (late 70s into the 80s) by appearing in one of the most lavishly produced, Captains and the Kings.  
Captains and the Kings was adapted from Taylor Caldwell's best selling potboiler and provided our gal with a juicy role.  The story was a highly fictionalized account of the Kennedy family, and Patty played the role based on matriarch Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Patty was lucky in 1977, the year she won her
second Emmy, for Captains and the Kings. It
was the year of Roots, which steamrolled its
competition (Roots supplied a whopping 10
acting nominations that year). But Duke's
category, Lead Actress in a Limited Series,
had no nominations from Roots.
Duke's third Emmy brought her full circle, as it were, with her Broadway triumph. In 1979, Melissa Gilbert had gained stardom with Little House on the Prairie, and her production company seized on the idea of a TV remake of The Miracle Worker.  They offered Patty Duke the title role for which Anne Bancroft had won her Oscar.
Patty's third Emmy came in the same property which earned her Oscar: The Miracle Worker, which received a TV remake in 1979.  That's Melissa Gilbert as Helen.
The Patty Duke Show notwithstanding, our gal did not have much luck starring in TV series.  She headlined three different projects during the 1980s, during the unfortunate period when she was Patty Duke Astin. 
I remember It Takes Two, the first of 3 back-to-back TV series failures. This one concerned a career couple (she was a lawyer, he was a doctor) raising teenagers.  Recognize anyone? That's Richard Crenna upper right.  The kids were played by Anthony Edwards, pre-ER, and Helen Hunt, pre-Mad About You.  Billie Bird played a mouthy mother-in-law.  The show lasted one season, but its kitchen set was recycled by the show's creators when they went on to create a little thing called The Golden Girls.
In Hail to the Chief, Patty portrayed the 1st
female president (it was the first TV series to
feature a female POTUS). That's Audra Lindley
in the upper left, pre-Mrs. Roper. That Girl vet
Ted Bessell played the First Husband.
Hail to the Chief lasted only 7 episodes, while Karen's Song, in which Duke played a divorcee dating a much younger man (Terri Hatcher played her daughter in that one) squeaked out 13 episodes before cancellation.  During this period, Patty was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild; she served into a second term before retiring from the position due to exhaustion.
The decline of her screen career brought Patty back to the stage.  In the 2002 Broadway revival of Oklahoma!, she assumed the role of Aunt Eller when Andrea Martin moved on.
When Patty moved, with her fourth and final husband, to his home in Idaho, her career slowed down.  She busied herself with stage appearances, both locally and in regional theaters.  She occasionally popped up in guest shots on TV (most recently on Glee and on something from the Disney Channel called Liv and Maddie, in which she played twins again).  
As Madame Morrible in Wicked, a role Duke played for six
months in San Francisco.
When I heard of her death, I watched her in-depth interview given to the Archive of American Television, where she spoke (for three hours!) about her career, her illness, and her family. She clearly had found some peace in her life, and was very proud of her activism on behalf of the mentally ill, one of whom she counted herself. She died unexpectedly this week, from a ruptured intestine, at the age of 69.

This week's Dance Party comes from a forgotten film from 1965 called Billie, in which Patty, at the height of her teen stardom, plays a tomboy who also wants a boyfriend.
Patty was uncomfortable singing, but that did not
stop her sitcom's producers from forcing her to do
it. Here she is with Jeremy (of Chad & Jeremy).
The movie was just another shrewd way to capitalize on Duke's popularity;  there was a tie-in with one of her record singles as well. Yes, just like all young stars of her generation, Patty spent some time in the recording studio, an experience she does not remember fondly.  She actually hit the Top 40 twice during this period; only a few years later, her ability was deemed too limited to sing her numbers in Valley of the Dolls, so she was dubbed.  She doesn't sing in this clip, but she dances a bit, though she and her partner (Warren Berlinger, playing her love interest...he looks more like her Uncle Murray than her boyfriend), slip off screen while the real dancers take over.  And speaking of the real dancers, keep your eyes peeled for the brunette in the red-and-white striped shirt.  It's Donna McKechnie, in her first film appearance.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Friday Dance Party: He Played The Violin

I have mentioned my great affection for the musical 1776 in these pages, so when one of the show's original players passed away this week, to quote the show itself, "Attention must be paid."

Ken Howard

Ken Howard and Blythe Danner played husband
and wife more than once. In 1776, they played the
Thomas Jeffersons and on TV, they played spouses
who battled each other in the courtroom in Adam's
Ken's career was long and varied, but he is probably primarily remembered as a screen actor.  In particular, his television work spanned decades and included not only starring roles on several series, but also hundreds of guest appearances on various episodics.  
I did not watch any of those 80s soaps about
the rich and wicked, but Ken spent several
years on Dynasty and its spinoff The Colbys.
Ken Howard could be found all over the TV screen. He played Jill Hennessey's father in Crossing Jordan (above) and spent some time on The Young and the Restless too. He played Mark Twain on Bonanza and on PBS, and had some fun as Blanche's beau on The Golden Girls. 

One of my particular favorite Ken Howard Sightings occurred during the first season of The West Wing; Howard portrayed a potential supreme court nominee, and had a powerful, racially charged scene with series regular Dule Hill.  (Martin Sheen ultimately didn't go with our boy Ken at all, and nominated Edward James Olmos for the position instead.)  Early in his TV career, Ken was teamed with his 1776 costar Blythe Danner in Adam's Rib, a seriocomic series based on the Tracy/Hepburn film. 

All the obits this week mentioned Ken's groundbreaking series from the 70s, the idea for which began with Howard's own childhood.  Though born in CA, he spent his school years in the east; he soon reached his full 6'6" height, making him a natural for the high school basketball team.  He was the only white player and was dubbed "The White Shadow".  
Ken's frequent costar Blythe Danner was married to
writer Bruce Paltrow, who produced their series Adam's
Rib as well as The White Shadow. With so many years
working with the Paltrows, one wonders if Ken is
 Gwyneth's godfather.
Ken turned this history into an idea for a TV series, which he brought to his colleague and friend Bruce Paltrow. Together they created The White Shadow, which featured a predominantly black cast, a first for a weekly drama.  Controversial but topical themes were explored during the show's 3 season run, and while it was never a ratings winner, the series is credited with paving the way for later shows to tackle such subjects. (The series was also a strong launchpad for producer Paltrow, who went on to create St. Elsewhere, widely considered one of the best and most influential TV series in history.)
The White Shadow
I remember The White Shadow, but I confess that I never watched it (what did I care about basketball?), but by then, I certainly knew who Ken Howard was.  I first encountered him in his film debut, opposite a young Liza Minnelli (pre-Cabaret), in Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon.  
Liza played a young gal disfigured (with acid!)
 by a vengeful boyfriend, Ken played an epileptic.
Both their careers recovered quite nicely from this
financial and critical flop.
The film, about a trio of misfits who share a house together, was a favorite of mine, but apparently nobody else's.  Minnelli's first film, The Sterile Cuckoo, had been warmly received (earning her an Oscar nomination), but this follow-up disappointed everybody. 

A group of outcasts form a family in Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon.  I'm not sure why I loved the film so much (I haven't seen it in decades, it vanished from view shortly after its release in 1970). Part of the appeal may have been the hilariously fey performance of Robert Moore (left) as a gay paraplegic (it was that kind of film). The movie also featured two more favorites, James Coco and Nancy Marchand, in supporting roles. Director Otto Preminger had such high hopes for this film that he took it to Cannes, where he was nominated for the Golden Palm. But stateside, everybody hated this thing, and it has been largely forgotten.
It was only a few years later that Ken Howard co-starred in the film which furnishes this week's Dance Party.  He created the role of Thomas Jefferson in the original production of 1776, and (along with almost everyone else) recreated the performance for the film version.  
1776 was not Ken's only foray into musical theatre.  Seesaw was a particularly troubled musical during out of town tryouts. Michael Bennett was brought in to fix things; he dumped just about everything, including leading lady Lanie Kazan. Michelle Lee, left, replaced her. Bennett doctored the script, with help from Neil Simon, and created a supporting role for one of his chorus members. That's Tommy Tune, center, who choreographed his own show-stopping number in the show and won the first of his ten Tony awards for his efforts (I wrote about Tune here). Ken remained one of the few constants in the show.
Howard made more than a few appearances on Broadway;  by the time he was cast in 1776, he had already won the Tony for Child's Play, a non-musical which concerned the faculty at a Catholic school.  Howard played an easy-going coach; his winning the Tony did not insure his participation in the film version, however.  (When Sidney Lumet made the movie, Beau Bridges played the part).
Ken's performance as Thomas Jefferson in 1776 is smooth as silk. Described as the most silent man in congress, much of Howard's performance is non-verbal.  The clip below illustrates the strength of this interpretation.  I've included a snippet of dialogue with co-stars William Daniels and Howard da Silva (both excellent).  They are on high octane in this scene, while Ken chooses understatement.  It works like gangbusters.
In addition to his Tony, Ken also won two Emmy awards.  Those of us "of a certain age" remember the preachy Afternoon Specials which were occasionally produced in the 70s and 80s; Howard won a Daytime Emmy for his appearance in one of them, playing a father in The Body Human: Facts for Boys (aren't we sorry we missed THAT one).  More recently, Ken won a Primetime Emmy for his performance in the 2009 TV film Grey Gardens.
Our hero wasn't much of one in Grey Gardens, a TV film which told the story of Jackie Onassis's aunt and cousin first told in the acclaimed documentary of the same name. This HBO version included a character missing from the original: Phelan Beale, the wealthy attorney who deserted his wife and daughter ("Big Edie" and "Little Edie"), leaving them to rot in the mansion of the title.
As president of the Screen Actors Guild, Ken was a prime proponent of the union's merger with the other film actors' union, AFTRA.  He spent many years working to achieve the merger, which was bitterly contested by many members of both unions.  When the two organizations finally joined, he became its first president, a position which he held until his death a few days ago.
Both Jessica Lange and Ken Howard won Emmy Awards for their work in HBO's Grey Gardens.
Ken Howard died just a few days shy of his 72nd birthday;  his family has not released his cause of death, but he has battled kidney disease in the past, even receiving a transplant (he thanked the donor in his Emmy acceptance speech). In his honor, please enjoy this moment from 1776, in which several founding fathers debate the emblem of the new nation.