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Actor Ken Howard, Amherst College class of 1966, returns to campus to teach the ins and outs of acting

  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Ken Howard laughs during his acting course at Amherst college Thursday morning.

    JOSH KUCKENS
    Ken Howard laughs during his acting course at Amherst college Thursday morning. Purchase photo reprints »

  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Ken Howard, who graduated from Amherst College in 1966, has been teaching a class this semester at his alma mater. He won a Tony Award for his portrayal of Thomas Jefferson in the Broadway musical “1776.”

    JOSH KUCKENS
    Ken Howard, who graduated from Amherst College in 1966, has been teaching a class this semester at his alma mater. He won a Tony Award for his portrayal of Thomas Jefferson in the Broadway musical “1776.” Purchase photo reprints »

  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Ken Howard smiles while talking to his students during a class break in his acting course at Amherst college Thursday morning.

    JOSH KUCKENS
    Ken Howard smiles while talking to his students during a class break in his acting course at Amherst college Thursday morning. Purchase photo reprints »

  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Ken Howard laughs during his acting course at Amherst college Thursday morning.
  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Ken Howard, who graduated from Amherst College in 1966, has been teaching a class this semester at his alma mater. He won a Tony Award for his portrayal of Thomas Jefferson in the Broadway musical “1776.”
  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Ken Howard smiles while talking to his students during a class break in his acting course at Amherst college Thursday morning.

The professor was wearing a director’s hat in the mid-morning class, coaching two Amherst College students on ways they might approach a vignette they were performing from the Chekhov play “Three Sisters.”

“You’re mesmerized by her,” Ken Howard said to Wes Thomas, playing the role of a lovesick Russian army officer who attempts to tell a young woman about his feelings. “You’re overwhelmed, you’re struggling to express yourself ... it comes out awkwardly, almost like you’re reciting poetry because you feel [love] so deeply. It should just spill out of you.”

Thomas went through his lines, standing over Jasia Kaulbach, who was playing the object of his love, Irina Sergeyevna Prozorova. She recoiled from the unwanted advances. When it was over, Howard led other students in the class in a round of applause. “Good, really good,” he said. “That had a real urgency to it.”

Howard knows something about acting. He’s played multiple stage, film and TV since the late 1960s, when he appeared on Broadway at age 24 as Thomas Jefferson in the smash musical “1776.” And as a member of the Amherst College class of 1966, he’s come back to campus this semester to lead a course on using personal experiences to help inform acting.

Howard, who discovered acting while he was at Amherst, may be best known for his lead role in the late-1970s TV show “The White Shadow,” in which he played a former NBA player who becomes the white coach of an all-black high school basketball team. But his resume includes many more recent roles, including parts in films such as “Michael Clayton” and “J. Edgar” and TV shows like “Crossing Jordan” and “30 Rock.”

He’s also been president of the American Screen Actors Guild since 2009.

Howard, 68, who lives in Los Angeles, has spent time in several classrooms over the years. He taught acting and public speaking at Harvard University in Cambridge the 1980s and later taught at Kent State University in Ohio. He said he’d been looking for an opportunity to do something at Amherst for some time before coming back to the school this fall.

He notes that after the college created the Film and Media Studies program a few years ago, department chair Amelie Hastie asked him if he could run a weekend workshop or take part in other events.

“I told her I’d love to come for a semester, and this year we were able to work that out,” Howard said. “It’s been a great experience.”

Howard’s course, “The Role and the Self,” is built around his belief that actors should not separate their characters entirely from their own personalities and life experiences — that in fact people “act” every day depending on the setting. To explore this idea, he’s had students read a range of texts, from plays to the work of sociologist Erving Goffman, whose 1959 book “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” examined people’s face-to-face interactions in theatrical terms.

“A lot of what we’ve looked at is the history of modern acting, how a lot of these ideas evolved,” said Howard, adding that the course has also featured a few acting workshops to improve students’ public-speaking skills and poise in front of a crowd.

The course is not aimed at aspiring actors, he noted, but rather is part of a larger program designed to build students’ general media literacy, including their writing skills.

“I’m sure there are some students here who would like to get involved in writing and directing,” he said. But, he added, “They’ve showed some good stage presence, too.”

The Clint Eastwood approach

For this particular early-December class, Howard had enlisted the help of Rob Mattson, the college’s new media content developer, to film the students as they recited passages from Shakespearean sonnets and acted in short bits from Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.”

As Anna Nilles, a Hampshire College student taking the class, sat on the small stage in Stirn Auditorium, framed by two standing klieg lights, Howard coaxed her to be “a little more pronounced” in her reading of a Shakespeare sonnet.

“You know it well — now just bring that out,” he said. “And do it whenever you’re ready. I’m using the Clint Eastwood approach here. He never says, ‘Action!’ He just says, ‘Whenever you’re ready,’ and he says it very calmly.”

He lists Eastwood, with whom he worked on last year’s “J. Edgar,” the biopic of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, as one of his favorite film directors. But Howard’s been in the game so long he says it’s hard for him to come up with a short list of his top actors, directors and other theatrical people. “I could give you dozens of names,” he said.

In high school in Manhasset, N.Y., on Long Island, Howard was an athlete rather than an actor, the only white player on the basketball team, a distinction that earned him the nickname “The White Shadow.” He would later use that experience to pitch his TV show of the same name. He jokes that in high school he was also dubbed “The Stork” because he stood 6 feet 6 inches tall. Outside of school, he sang in his church choir.

At Amherst, where he continued playing basketball, he also joined the Zumbyes, an a cappella group. That led some older students and faculty to encourage him to get involved in campus musicals and other theater productions. The theater department chair, Walter Boughton, later suggested he apply for a music and arts fellowship at Yale University.

Howard did just that, though he left the Yale School of Drama before finishing his studies to perform in the 1968 Broadway musical “Promises, Promises” (he completed his degree some years later). The following spring he was back on Broadway playing Thomas Jefferson in “1776” — a role he reprised in the 1972 film of the musical — and he won a Tony Award for his role in the 1970 play “Child’s Play.”

Howard says theater has always been his first love as a performer.

“There’s nothing like live performance,” Howard said. Making a film, by contrast, can be a very slow process, “although if a film is detailed, that can be really engaging.” And if TV production work sometimes “has a bit of a factory feel,” Howard noted, different types of acting all have their challenges.

In the end, Howard says, successful acting has much to do with being comfortable on stage or screen, drawing on personal experience and one’s own personality to inhabit a role. As two other Amherst students worked through a scene from “Three Sisters,” he watched them closely.

And when it was done, Howard smiled and joined the other students in applauding. “That’s the way you’re supposed to do that!” he said. “That’s good Chekhov!”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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