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.