Ken Howard ’66 knows show business. A professional actor for more than four decades and the current president of the Screen Actors’ Guild (SAG-AFTRA), Howard returned to the College this semester as the Croxton Lecturer in Film and Media Studies, teaching “The Role and the Self.”
Before coming to the College in 1962, Howard, who hails from Manhasset, Long Island, sang in his church choir and played basketball for Manhasset High School, where as the only Caucasian player on the team he earned the nickname “the White Shadow,” providing inspiration for his later role in the pioneering CBS drama The White Shadow. Howard, who majored in English, chose the College for its small size, strong liberal arts curriculum and cool New England atmosphere.
Howard, a member of the Zumbyes a capella group, did not start acting until his first year at the College, when he was encouraged by upper-classmen to audition for musical productions on campus. Although he never took theater classes at the College, Howard quickly became immersed in numerous extra-curricular musicals and plays, culminating in a starring role as Macbeth in the eponymous Shakespeare play his senior year. Howard first considered professional acting seriously when the head of the Theater department, Walter Boughton, encouraged him to apply to a music and arts fellowship at Yale University.
After graduating in 1966, Howard studied for two years at the Yale School of Drama, but left in 1968 to take a role in the Broadway musical Promises, Promises. Howard quickly rose up the ranks on Broadway playbills from ensemble positions to a Tony-winning supporting role in Child’s Play, to a starring role as Thomas Jefferson in 1776. Howard also entered the world of television and film, reprising his role in a film version of 1776 and appearing in The White Shadow, Oscar, and Crossing Jordan and more recently playing Kabletown CEO Hank Hooper in the popular NBC comedy 30 Rock.
In 1986, Howard took a break from show business to help his mentor and advisor from his time at Yale Robert Brustein as a lecturer at Brustein’s newly-founded American Repertory School at Harvard University. While teaching Acting I, Howard gained the inspiration for his theory on acting when he noticed that many of his students tried too hard to separate their personality from the characters they were playing.
“I noticed there were an awful lot of actors, people who were very talented, who had this notion of ‘I just want to deal with acting, I don’t want to deal with my personal life.’ They were reacting in part to Brustein and others saying that The Actors Studio and so-called Method acting got a little too personal and it did become a problem in American drama and acting with roles becoming too personal and self-indulgent. But — that’s all you’ve got — you up there. You still have to be yourself when you’re on the stage,” said Howard.
Howard’s course this semester, “The Role and the Self,” seeks to explore this problem, basing his discussions on sociologist Erving Goffman’s Self and Everyday Life. Howard developed this course at the American Repertory School in his efforts to help his students improve their public speaking skills.
“You use a lot of acting technique and skills when you approach the role of a public speaker, more than most people realize. Let’s face it, most casting is done pretty close to who you are, and one of the main points in Goffman’s book is that everybody is acting all the time. So this course focuses on getting actors and speakers to put themselves and their feelings in their roles and ‘act naturally,’” Howard said.
Howard was elected president of the Screen Actors’ Guild (SAG) in 2009, a position once held by Ronald Reagan, to preside over negotiations for a merger with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). Howard’s push to merge triumphed over those who saw AFRA as a rival, and he was re-elected in 2011 after the successful completion of the merger.
“Although AFTRA was a good union, SAG was the dominant union, and Labor Law 101 is that you don’t have two unions representing the same workers because employers will exploit the divide — and they did. There were some who wanted a war of sorts between the unions, but I always thought unions were stronger when they joined forces — look at the AFL-CIO. When unions work out their differences they become more united, more monolithic and do a better job of representing their interests,” said Howard.
Howard returned to the College for many of the same reasons he applied to the institution in the first place. Over the course of his career Howard had thought of returning to the College multiple times, but ruled it out because he lacked a terminal degree in his field. However, after he received a Master of Fine Arts degree from Pennsylvania State University in 1999, Howard began to seriously consider returning to his alma mater.
“I always had in the back of my mind the possibility of Amherst, and so I made up a course based on my experiences studying and performing. And I knew Amherst students could handle challenging readings, so I included Turgenev and the Russians and Erving Goffman and all that. I think there’s something very special at Amherst that has endured the fifty years since I first arrived here, and there’s a real intellectual distaste for pretension and an emphasis on responsibility. So I knew that my students were going to do the work and that we were going to have great discussions and I was going to have a great time. And I have.”