October 02, 2000 12:00 PM

As one of Hollywood’s top stuntwomen, Jeannie Epper has jumped off buildings and set herself ablaze for TV’s Wonder Woman and films including Con Air and Armageddon. But to her longtime friend, actor Ken Howard, it’s her offscreen heroics that are truly impressive.

In July, Howard’s kidneys were failing as the result of a misdiagnosed urinary blockage, and he was in urgent need of a transplant. His wife, Linda, had already been rejected as a possible donor, and Howard, 56, was facing biweekly dialysis treatments while waiting for a donor kidney. “I felt like I was running out of time,” he says.

That’s when Jeannie Epper happened to call the Howards’ L.A. home. “Linda had just found out she couldn’t be a donor and she was quite hysterical,” recalls Epper, 59. “I didn’t think twice about it. I said, ‘Well, I’ll do it.’ It just came out.”

Seven weeks later, both she and Howard checked into UCLA Medical Center, and on July 26 her right kidney was transplanted into his abdomen. “I’m just stunned by it all,” says Howard, who first met Epper 25 years ago when her brother Tony served as his stunt double on the 1974 TV series Manhunter. “It’s so humbling and so remarkable. We kidded mostly about the idea. It was humorous, because I’ve known her so long. But when we came together, my God, what do you say?”

Howard’s journey from strapping TV star—the 6’6″ actor played a former pro basketball player in the 1978-81 series The White Shadow—to transplant recipient began in 1995. While performing in the Off-Broadway play Camping with Henry and Tom, the usually fit Howard felt fatigued all the time. “I was having severe headaches,” he recalls. “And also I was putting on weight a little bit more than I should. I just felt tired. I kept thinking, I’ve got to get more rest.”

Once the play closed, Howard went home to Los Angeles to see his doctor, who prescribed antibiotics for what he believed was a simple urinary tract infection. But in fact Howard’s problem was far more serious: There was a blockage in his urethra that was causing toxins to build up in his blood system, effectively poisoning him. Three months later, feeling even worse, Howard consulted urologist David Leff, who discovered the blockage. By then the level of infection was so high that both his kidneys had been damaged. “He had uremic poisoning, he was so backed up,” says wife Linda, 44, who is also a stuntwoman. “He could have died.” (Howard’s first two marriages, to actress Louise Sorel and writer Margo Howard, daughter of advice columnist Ann Landers, both ended in divorce.)

After doctors removed the blockage a month later, Howard was told his kidneys were functioning at only 30 percent. “They said, ‘We have to keep an eye on it,’ ” says Howard, who threw himself back into acting, appearing in roles on Melrose Place and The Practice. But when he found blood in his urine in January 1999, he began to realize that the situation had slowly deteriorated. “I started thinking about how my life had been up to then and how fortunate [Linda and I] were to find one another,” he says. “And I thought, I don’t want this to be it. I was 55.”

Last March, doctors delivered the bad news: Howard’s kidneys were failing, and he needed a transplant as soon as possible. “They said, ‘Do you have anyone that can be a donor?’ ” recalls Linda. “And I said, ‘Me. I’ll do it. Absolutely.’ ” Linda, whose blood type was the same as her husband’s, seemed a good match. Thanks to improvements in immuno-suppressants, “it’s no longer necessary for a donor to be closely related,” says Dr. Howard Wilkinson, director of UCLA’s kidney and transplant program. “All you need now is someone who has a compatible blood group and who is healthy.”

But after two months of detailed screening, doctors learned that Linda carried antibodies for the hepatitis C virus. The antibodies indicated the presence of the virus, which could have proven fatal to Ken since he would have had to take drugs that would keep his body from rejecting the kidney but which would suppress his immune system. Ironically, Howard admits, the news left him somewhat relieved. “I was already very concerned,” he says, “because I thought, When all this happens, who takes care of Linda?” But Linda was devastated. “I went into the fetal position,” she says, “and pulled the covers over my head for 24 hours.”

Epper’s offer brought both elation and concern. “I did say to her, ‘Listen, if for any reason you don’t feel right about this, don’t do it. It’s okay, I love you,’ ” says Howard. “I wanted her to know that. I said, ‘Please don’t think that because you said you’d do it, you really have to.’ ”

But Epper, who turned out to be a suitable donor, didn’t change her mind—despite the anxiety of some friends and family. “They said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ ” she says. “I did a lot of praying about it. I knew God wanted me to do this.”

On July 22, just days before the surgery was to take place, Ken lost consciousness in his bathroom and fell, hitting his head on the tile floor and biting deeply into his tongue. He was rushed to the hospital at UCLA, where the transplant team was based. After doctors stitched up his wounds and made sure he hadn’t suffered any serious injuries, they began prepping him for the transplant. Three days of dialysis later, Howard received Epper’s kidney. “The fact that he got a kidney from a healthy donor,” says Dr. Albin Gritsch, the surgeon who performed the three-hour procedure, “gives him about a 50 percent chance of having that kidney last for at least 12 years.”

That night, after he regained consciousness, Howard amused himself by playing over scenes from plays, films and his own life. “My mind feels so much better,” he marvels. “When I did The Practice, I knew I had such trouble memorizing, which I’ve never had before. I remember thinking at the time, I bet you this is all part of the sickness.”

Soon after, Epper, who spent four days in the hospital, visited Howard in his room at UCLA. “When I looked at Ken walking down the hall and knowing he has a piece of me in him, we just started laughing,” she says. “And I said, ‘If you start drinking tequila and jumping off buildings, I’m going to be really angry.’ ”

Since leaving the hospital, the two have talked regularly by phone. And Howard is determined to take full advantage of his new lease on life. Anxious to get back in shape, he walks on a treadmill for 45 minutes every day (“He has so much more energy,” says Linda), and this fall he’ll begin shooting a movie in which he plays Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. “Every day is a new adventure,” says Ken. “I really feel like I can do some ass-kicking when I get back to work. That’s good for an actor—when you walk into a room, you want to have a sparkle and energy that makes people want to come along with you. It’s all coming back.”

Epper, meanwhile, won’t be jumping back in quite so quickly. Though she’s already back at work, doubling for Shirley MacLaine in the TV movie These Old Broads, she won’t tackle the riskier stunts. “I won’t do any car hits or any backward stair falls,” says Epper. “Of course, these are the kinds of things I would choose not to do anyway at this stage in my career.” Not that she has any regrets. “Maybe giving this kidney is the greatest stunt I’ve ever done,” she says. “And if I have to exit my career, this is the greatest way to do it.”

Julie K.L Dam

John Hannah in Los Angeles

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