Gregory Allen Howard, Screenwriter of ‘Remember the Titans,’ Dies at 70
Gregory Allen Howard, who wrote the scripts of several Hollywood movies about inspiring episodes in Black history, most famously “Remember the Titans,” died on Friday in Miami. He was a day shy of his 71st birthday.
His death, at a hospital, was caused by heart failure, his spokesman, Jeff Sanderson, said.
“Remember the Titans” (2000) has joined the list of American films that find social significance in sports triumphs.
Denzel Washington stars as Herman Boone, a Black coach leading a high school football team during its first season after racial integration. With the help of a white assistant, played by Will Patton, along with Black and white high school players who become devoted to each other, Mr. Boone launches the team on a glorious season, culminating in the state championship.
The movie was an immediate sensation, premiering at the Rose Bowl and the White House. President Bill Clinton led people involved with the production in a school chant. Just a year later, The New York Times was calling it “one of the most successful sports films of all time” and a leading exemplar of “a genre that could be called the macho weepie.”
On Nov. 4, 2008, after Barack Obama ended his presidential victory speech in Chicago with the words “May God bless America,” he was answered by the swelling, uplifting horns of the “Remember the Titans” instrumental theme.
Mr. Howard was the prime force behind the movie. After moving to Alexandria, Va., he found himself struck by a prevailing atmosphere of racial harmony there. When he asked around about its source, he was continually told about the football team of T.C. Williams High School, which became integrated in 1971 and went on that year to win the state championship. He began buying life rights, including those of the real Herman Boone, and working on a screenplay.
In a review, the Times film critic A.O. Scott described “Remember the Titans” as “corny,” adding that it was “unabashedly, even generously so.” The movie is widely reported to have earnedmore than $100 million worldwide over its roughly $30 million budget.
Mr. Howard continued working in the vein of inspirational Black history. He wrote the story for “Ali,” which had four other screenwriters. It premiered in 2001 and starred Will Smith as Muhammad Ali. In a review in The Times, Elvis Mitchell called “Ali” a “near great movie.” But despite hype, it lost money at the box office.
Beginning in 1994, Mr. Howard tried to get a movie made out of a screenplay he wrote on the life of Harriet Tubman. In 2019, A.O. Scott described the final product, “Harriet,” as “accessible, emotionally direct and artfully simplified.”
In an essay for The Los Angeles Times that year, Mr. Howard described the release of the film as the culmination of an “epic 25-year journey.” He said that he could not list “the number of doors slammed in my face, the number of passes, the number of unreturned phone calls, canceled meetings, abandonments, racist rejections, the number of producing partners who bailed.”
But over time the movie industry became more interested in a Tubman biopic, he continued: “#OscarsSoWhite, DiversityHollywood and the other pushes and protests for inclusion and diverse storytelling had moved the needle: The climate had changed,” he wrote.
Gregory Allen Howard was born on Jan. 28, 1952, in Norfolk, Va. He was raised by his mother, Narcissus (Cole) Henley, and his stepfather, Lenard Henley, a chief petty officer in the Navy. (His father was Lowry Howard.)
From the time he was 5 to 15, his family moved 10 times, finally settlingin Vallejo, Calif. In 1974, he graduated from Princeton with a bachelor’s degree in American history. In later years, he frequently referred to his studies in college as inspiring the historical subject matter of his screenplays.
After briefly working on Wall Street, Mr. Howard moved to Los Angeles and tried to become a screenwriter. He did not have much success and moved to Alexandria, wondering if a change in scenery might help while also contemplating giving up and studying to become a teacher.
“When you hear no that much, you just begin to think, ‘I guess they’re right,’” he told The Times in 2000.
After being inspired by the story of T.C. Williams High School, he pitched “every financing entity in the movie business,” he told The Times, until the producer Jerry Bruckheimer finally took on the project.
In the mid-2010s, Mr. Howard’s website reflected a sense that his careerhad stalled. “The sad truth is it’s almost impossible to get movies made,” he wrote. “It’s a miracle that I’ve been involved in two, ‘Ali’ and ‘Titans.’”
But by 2020, things had changed, with “Harriet” released the previous year and Mr. Howard working on several new projects also related to African American history and culture, he told The Washington Post.
Mr. Howard is survived by a half sister, Lynette Henley, and a half brother, Michael Henley. Herman Boone died in 2019.
Mr. Howard, who was an offensive lineman on his own high school varsity football team, attributed the success of “Remember the Titans” to the popularity of the sport and the place it holds in the memories of American men.
“You’re talking about millions of guys,” he told The Times in 2001. “It’s a bonding experience like you can’t believe, and for a lot of men it was the last time they were important or heroic. It touches a nerve of a time when I was last innocent.”