LOS ANGELES — Ken Howard, an Emmy Award-winning actor who earned acclaim starring in “The White Shadow” in the 1970s and was the sitting president of Hollywood’s largest union, which he helped form in 2012, died on Wednesday. He was 71.
His death was announced by Pamela Greenwalt, a spokeswoman for the union he led, SAG-Aftra. Ms. Greenwalt, who recently denied reports that Mr. Howard was gravely ill, declined to disclose the cause of death or the city where he died.
Mr. Howard helped form the union by merging the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. It has 160,000 members.
He was narrowly re-elected in August to a second two-year term as president. Ms. Greenwalt said that Gabrielle Carteris, SAG-Aftra’s executive vice president, would also serve as acting president until the board meets to elect a person to serve out the remainder of Mr. Howard’s term.
Over a 47-year career, Mr. Howard appeared in more than 100 movies and television series. He was mostly known for his television work, particularly as the star of the critically acclaimed but ratings-challenged “The White Shadow,” a drama seen on CBS from 1978 to 1981 about a retired professional basketball player who becomes a coach at an urban high school.
In many ways, the series made his Hollywood career. “We wanted to make it have some social value,” Mr. Howard recalled in a 2013 Huffington Post interview. “I say rather pridefully that we did.”
Mr. Howard won a Primetime Emmy Award in 2009 for a supporting role in the HBO movie “Grey Gardens” and a Daytime Emmy in 1980 for a children’s special called “The Body Human: Facts for Boys.” (On that special, he played a role identified only as Ideal Father, which summed up many of his characters, at least on the outside.)
With his 6-foot-6 frame and twinkling blue eyes, Mr. Howard helped anchor popular television series in each of the last five decades. He played a corporate boss on the sitcom “30 Rock” from 2011 to 2013. He was on the hit drama “Crossing Jordan” in the early 2000s, “Melrose Place” in the 1990s and “Murder, She Wrote” in the 1980s.
Mr. Howard become involved with the Screen Actors Guild shortly after learning he had prostate cancer in 2007 and recovering. At the time, there was rancor in the ranks, the effects of a strike by the Writers Guild of America and the anxiety of actors over shrinking pay as studios and television networks tightened their belts.
The actors’ guild elected him president for two terms starting in 2009.
As a unionist, Mr. Howard was known as a moderate, which helped him pull off a long-sought merger with the competing radio and television union in 2012. The merger significantly bolstered actors’ bargaining power.
“You have sent a message to our employers,” he told a cheering crowd of supporters at the time.
Kenneth Joseph Howard was born in El Centro, Calif., on March 28, 1944. His family eventually moved to Manhasset, on Long Island, where Mr. Howard was a local basketball star. At Amherst College, he became involved with a choral group, which led him to stage musicals. He studied at the Yale School of Drama but left before graduating.
Mr. Howard had a successful stage career in New York. He played Thomas Jefferson in the Broadway musical “1776” in 1969 and won a Tony Award the next year for the drama “Child’s Play.”
After he decamped for Hollywood, his TV career quickly blossomed. He also occasionally appeared in movies. Among the recent films in which he appeared were the George Clooney legal thriller “Michael Clayton” (2007) and the Sylvester Stallone action sequel “Rambo” (2008).
Mr. Howard is survived by his wife, Linda Fetters Howard.
In the last year, even as he became ill again, Mr. Howard stayed true to his working-actor ethos by continuing to accept roles, although small ones. In “Joy,” a comedic drama starring Jennifer Lawrence as the inventor of the Miracle Mop, he played Mop Executive.