The actor talks about playing Coach Reeves, his favorite episode and his new film Michael Clayton with George Clooney

Having spent almost forty years in the film and television business, Ken Howard seems to have taken part in every important TV show to have been on the air. From westerns like Bonanza, to mysteries like Murder, She Wrote, to comedies Curb Your Enthusiasm and thrillers like Crossing Jordan, Ken Howard has made a career out of playing diversified no nonsense characters.

Despite that impressive listing of television credits, Howard is probably best known for his role as Coach Ken Reeves in the highly popular TV show The White Shadow. As Coach Reeves, Howard played a mentor, father figure and disciplinarian to a group of basketball players that desperately needed someone to provide them some form of direction. The actor recently sat down with us to discuss the show and his career as The White Shadow: Season 2 bounces it's way on to DVD.

When you took the role of Coach Ken Reeves did you know you were getting involved with a show that was pretty special?

Ken Howard: Well, I created it. I brought the idea to Bruce Paltrow and we actually co-owned it and had part ownership to it and made money on the syndication. I literally brought him the idea. I knew Bruce because I had worked with his wife, Blythe Danner, a lot, and we talked about maybe doing something together, and I said, "I have an idea." And I gave him the idea which is exactly what we pitched to the network. A New York guy who is a ballplayer from the NBA, who with a little knee injury maybe thinks he's running out of time and a guy that he plays with says, "Well, I'm a Principal why don't you take on this job? There's no money but it's a big challenge." He's in a state of mind where he takes it on and the next thing he's coaching with his street smarts and his basketball wit, coaching at a racially mixed ghetto school and from then on you've got a series.

So, I was attached from the beginning. It wasn't like it was a show they cast me in. It was like a show they created for me and then cast everybody else.

Do you think a show like The White Shadow, which dealt so frankly with race and social issues, could get made today?

Ken Howard: I doubt it. We were lucky we got it then because the marketing choices... you know, everything goes through marketing. And one of the problems, I don't want to get too philosophical here, but the problem with marketing is it's hard to identify a trend. Once you can identify a trend it's too late. Once Friends was a hit, then we see twelve clones of Friends that all flop. CSI is like that but they have their own franchise. They ran with it.

It's a funny business where there's a lot of money involved and they want to chase whatever's the trend. And the only way is to come up with something new. Not that we set a trend but The White Shadow, for what was going on then was just off the wall, but it was different. It was CBS... and they said, "This is an interesting idea, we don't know if you'll get on the air but we'll give you shot." It didn't get in the way of all those other reports that come in, that are the reason I think an awful lot of network television at least, is not particularly inspired. There are great exceptions but so much stuff... that's just a clone of the thing, before the thing, before the thing.

I doubt it. I don't know but I doubt it. I think we were lucky to get on when we did and to last as long as we did, although I'm sure, the way it's syndicated, the powers that be at CBS are kicking themselves. We really did believe, we thought, "This is gonna syndicate like crazy. You might want to keep us on." We had already done what we wanted to do. We were thrilled with it but it's not like Welcome Back, Kotter. You couldn't just keep doing the same jokes because it means then that the Coach is a failure, and it's not that kind of show... (laughs) at some point things gotta be a little better, right? We thought me might have been able to squeeze out another year or two.

Coach Reeves is very hands on. He isn't afraid to do whatever he needs to do to get a players respect. Was there ever any fear that the Coach would be seen as too hands on?

Ken Howard: Oh maybe, but not really because it was within the show. Remember, whenever he even made a move he had to answer to the Vice Principal and, "Oh please, I'm just trying to shake them up. Don't make it a whole...." So I think that was always pretty safe. We always thought, Bruce and I, that when we opened up there was a few areas of the press we had to get. We had to get the Black press. The term African American really wasn't in the lexicon, yet. So the Black press, the Sports press and the TV Guide press... and we got all three. We were very well received critically on all three levels so we thought, "That in itself will keep us on the air for awhile." And I think it did.

It's funny, we were getting basically about 30 million people a week. (Laughs) I mean now, that's the biggest hit on television! Because it was a very different audience it wasn't all split up with cable and all the rest of this stuff pulling away from it.

The relationship between you and the characters on screen seems very genuine. Was it like that off screen as well?

Ken Howard: We got along fine, it was a good group. It was a very unique show that way. We had a basketball court there! I'm doing a film right now with George Clooney and he was laughing he said, "I would've been in heaven!" because he loves playing three on three basketball. I said, "That's what we did, George. When we weren't shooting, when they were lighting, we'd just go play a little ball and hang out." And it was a very interesting... fun set to work on. Not all the time but most of the time and everybody got along wonderfully. Bruce and I had been friends for so long, the group that played together... very often life was imitating art and vice versa because I really did have to keep them in line when we were kidding around, they were young guys; although pretty professional. They were good guys.

Of all the episodes you did do you have a personal favorite? One that stands out the most in your mind?

Ken Howard: Well, there was one time we did a two parter ("Reunion Pt. 1 & 2") that I love because we came back to New York and James Whitmore played my father. We were shooting in Queens. We were shooting in Bayside. We were shooting where I was supposed to be from. And you know, New York's a hole in the wall and Bruce's joke used to always be, "That the hardest thing about shooting in California was hiding the palm trees." Whenever we shot an outdoor shot because that show just didn't go with palm trees.

We were back in that environment and the crew was very New York, and there was something about it that was really the heart of the show, just visiting for awhile and that was fun. There were many other episodes that I thought took on some interesting issues that I loved doing, but there was something about that trip that was really delightful because I got to work with James Whitmore who's such a wonderful actor. It was a good time.

As someone who has done as much TV as you've done, what is the biggest change you have noticed now than from when you started?

Ken Howard: Corporate is so much in charge, it's all the bean counters. I mean, they really make all the calls to the point of, I think, creatively, really effecting the shows in a very negative way. They just call it, they don't care. It's a phrase they use all the time, "they don't care." They don't care if it creatively hurts... of if they're gonna lose some major crew members because they're only going to bring them back if they take salary cuts. Same with actors. They'll write out a part that's really significant because they just don't want to have to pay for it. They don't think they have to. It's just, it's awful. Where the accountant makes the creative call... when that happens you're dead.

I don't try and tell people how to finance shows and how you do all that stuff, but I hate when those guys, even if they're smart and they went to Wharton or whatever, then they come and they start talking about what's funny and what's good. The bottom line can really kill you, you know? They run really scared. I think a lot of shows they never let them get a life. You know, you can rattle them off from Cheers, to Hill Street Blues... it goes on and on and on, need a little time for word of mouth; for people to catch on that there's this really cool show on.

You go by those early numbers, it may look right on paper but it just has nothing to do with real life. It's crazy. I think they're killing it. I think they're running scared too because of all the cable shows. HBO and Showtime and everything else. I think they're handling it very badly, I really do. I think the creative voices are silenced. Like, "Oh, they're just a bunch of crazy, creative people lets just see if we can get another show that's like American Idol." I don't know but you're aware of it even when you're doing a... we couldn't have done The White Shadow, they would have killed us immediately.

They have some sort of formula. There are a few shows that I love watching on network television, don't get me wrong. It pays the bills and I'm happy to do it, but there's so much stuff on television I think, "Who's in charge here? Nobody's gonna watch this."

What do you have coming up next?

Ken Howard: I'm doing this film right now called Michael Clayton with George Clooney... in New York. I've got a couple of little TV things. The big project I'm working on, which I think will be next fall, is a one man show on stage called According to Tip or Really, it's Tip O'Neill. It's a one man show and it's really fun to do. We'll probably do it in Boston, New York and Washington. It's Tip O'Neill. He's covering fifty years of politics and telling the stories and singing the songs and that's a big deal. I really look forward to doing that.

The White Shadow: Season 2 is currently available on DVD through Fox Home Video.

Evan Jacobs at Movieweb
Evan Jacobs