From time to time, my occasional work as a performing arts critic in Texas causes me to miss some important event here in New York. That was never truer than on last March 9, 2015 when Marc Baron, the leader of America’ oldest theatrical club, The Lambs, hosted a memorable Shepherd’s Luncheon at the Club to honor the esteemed President of SAG-AFTRA, actor Ken Howard. But all was not lost when I learned that Mr. Howard’s important union would make available a full internet video of his fascinating remarks on that gala occasion. Thus, as a proud Lamb myself, I had the pleasure of enjoying the event from afar in The Lone Star State, and like any delighted critic, I feel I must weigh in.
The vast and impressive acting credentials of Mr. Howard are well known to span stage, screen and of course, television. What I, and the delighted crowd lucky enough to be present that Manhattan day at 3 West 51st Street, were about to learn, was that Mr. Howard is one of the most delightful and articulate raconteurs imaginable. And it was all extemporaneous and sprinkled with delightful song bits associated with his long career in entertainment. Not since years ago when writer & producer, Norman Lear, addressed an American Theater Critics Association meeting that I attended on the West Coast, have I ever heard a speaker who could so completely engage, amuse and fascinate an audience. Humor was central to Howard’s presentation, and he could probably have a great career as a stand-up comic, but as President of SAG-AFTRA, this tall, handsome and impressive man certainly “has more important fish to fry.”
He began his talk with a perfect re-telling of the popular old theatrical adage about how, “The Lambs Club is where actors try to be gentlemen, The Players Club is where gentlemen try to be actors, and the Friars Club is where neither try to be both.” Howard confessed he is at the half-century mark as “an actor trying to be a gentleman,” and the crowd roared with laughter. It wouldn’t be the last time.
There was more merriment when Howard used his considerable singing voice to playfully mimic his father’s impressions of assorted singers. If you were not there that day, don’t miss his hilarious versions of Bing Crosby’s, “When the Blue of the Night,” Jimmy Durante’s “Inky Dinky Doo,” and the Ink Spots’ “We Three (My Echo, My Shadow, and Me)” complete with a falsetto that brought the house down.
Howard shared many fascinating tales of his career, even tracing high school performances in such shows as Annie Get Your Gun, Carousel, and Oklahoma! He shared how, in college, he overcame his fear of doing dramatic plays when a friend explained that such productions were “just like musicals without the songs.” Armed with that knowledge, Ken would soon perform in, The Andersonville Trial, Long Day’s Journey into Night, and The Scottish Play, playing the lead in the latter.
There were more great stories about working as a page at NBC, winning a fellowship to Yale, studying with such noted teachers as Stella Adler, and even amusing employment as a singing waiter. There would be more laughter for his tale of singing, “I Enjoy Being a Girl” when auditioning for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. But Howard could just as quickly move past the silliness, as the audience could see when he suddenly launched into the flawless delivery of a perfectly memorized and very long passage from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
Howard spoke affectionately of working on Broadway with Jill O’Hara when she was starring in Promises, Promises. Happily, Miss O’Hara was one of those present at the luncheon. Of course there were stories of Howard’s classic portrayal of Thomas Jefferson in the legendary Broadway musical (and film), 1776. Another Broadway adventure was his Tony Award-winning performance in Child’s Play, during a period that featured interesting encounters with the likes of Otto Preminger, Liza Minnelli, and of course, the notorious Broadway impresario, David Merrick.
Before the delightful afternoon ended, Shepherd Baron would present Mr. Howard with a special framed citation on behalf of The Lambs. It announced the designation of Ken Howard as an Honorary Lamb, and the guest of honor was clearly touched as he thanked The Lambs for this distinction.
In closing his wonderful remarks, Howard offered tongue-in-cheek thanks for his career to the law schools that had rejected him. Reflecting on his years as an actor, and now President of SAG-AFTRA, he proudly stated, “I’m right for this job. I’m a real actor. This may be the most important thing I’ve done in my life.”