Gene Reynolds, a former child actor who went on to co-create M*A*S*H and Lou Grant and direct and/or produced multiple other series and was a two-term DGA president, died Monday at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank. He was 96.
Reynolds won six Emmys — from more than two dozen nominations — three DGA Awards and a WGA Award during a six-decade showbiz career that began as a preteen actor. He would continue with onscreen roles through the 1950s before segueing to producing and directing.
He got his start behind the camera writing the 1958-61 NBC Western Tales of Wells Fargo and soon began directing episodes of such enduring TV series as Leave It to Beaver, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Andy Griffith Show — co-starring a young Ron Howard — Father of the Bride, The Munsters and more than 70- half-hours of the long-running Fred MacMurray sitcom My Three Sons.
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“In directing, I’m always looking for the little humane touch — something that is real,” Reynolds said in a 2000 interview with the TV Academy Foundation. “It could be very, very small. It could be a hand on the shoulder. It could be just an extra lingering look on somebody you care about and so forth, for just a fraction. It could be a reaction from somebody. … I’m looking for humanity, really. And that goes with comedy or drama.”
DGA president Thomas Schlamme said today: “Gene’s influence on the modern Directors Guild of America was significant and lasting, … He was passionate about this Guild, spirited in his beliefs and dedicated until the end.”
Reynolds would continue to direct for TV throughout the 1960s, helming and/or producing such shows as Hogan’s Heroes, F Troop, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Room 222 before he and Larry Gelbart co-created one of the most honored, popular and enduring series in television history.
Reynolds hired Gelbart to write the pilot for M*A*S*H, which was based on the 1970 Robert Altman movie — sans asterisks — and debuted on CBS in September 1972. Starring Alan Alda, Wayne Rogers, Loretta Swit and McLean Stevenson, the Korean War-set dramedy was not an immediate hit, failing to make the top 25 among primetime programs that season. But its fortunes soon changed, and M*A*S*H would go on to be a top 10 program for each of its final 10 seasons.
Watch him talk about casting Alan Alda in M*A*S*H as Capt. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce and more in a clip from his 2000 sit-down with TV Academy Foundation below.
“[Reynolds] was a staff producer at 20th Century Fox Television when M*A*S*H started, so Gene’s contributions didn’t always get the credit he deserves,” Dan Harrison, EVP Program Planning & Content Strategy at Fox, told Deadline. “He believed that if an episode of TV worked well, it left an ‘after-taste’ that stayed with the viewer long after. He was a talented broadcaster, a great director and producer, and a wonderful storyteller.”
The 2.5-hour M*A*S*H series finale in February 1983 remains the most-watched episode of series television in history, with more than 105 million viewers and a still-stunning 60.2 rating/77 share. “We just passed a Super Bowl,” Harrison said, “but nothing will touch the M*A*S*H finale rating.”
Reynolds also wrote about two dozen M*A*S*H episodes during its first five years but left the show in 1977.
That was the year he co-created the Mary Tyler Moore spinoff Lou Grant, starring Ed Asner as the crusty, irascible but for-the-people newspaper editor in Los Angeles, reprising his character from the earlier Minneapolis set series. The show won back-to-back Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series in 1979-80 and was nominated the following two seasons.
The show was not a ratings hit on Tuesdays its first season, and CBS moved Lou Grant to 10 p.m. Mondays in fall 1978 as East Coast Monday Night Football counterprogramming. Airing a half-hour of M*A*S*H, the L.A.-set series did better on the West Coast never finish a season in the 25 during its five-year run.
After Lou Grant wrapped in 1982, Reynolds focused mainly on directing for television. He continued to rack up helming credits on such series as In the Heat of the Night, Promised Land and Touched by an Angel into the late 1990s.
Born Eugene Reynolds Blumenthal on April 4, 1923, in Cleveland, Reynolds began acting in movies by age 11. He worked fairly steadily in front of the camera before quitting acting at the dawn of the 1960s, having racked up scores of credits.
Among Reynolds’ most notable other TV producing credits was Room 222, another socially conscious dramedy that aired from 1969-74 on ABC. It starred Lloyd Haynes as Pete Dixon, a beloved — and, notably, black — high school teacher who cared deeply about his students. Filmed in part at Los Angeles High School, it tackled such then-current-and-still-topical subjects as race and drugs and won the 1970 Emmy for Outstanding New Series for Reynolds. It also was nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series that year.
He later was an executive producer on the 1990-91 first season of NBC’s Blossom, starring future Big Bang Theory regular Mayim Bialik.
Reynolds joined the DGA in 1959. He held several positions on the National Board, including two terms as DGA president from 1993-97. During his presidency, he conceived the idea of the DGA Student Film Awards – an annual competition recognizing outstanding women and minority students at film schools across the nation – and was chair of the Student Film Awards Committee since its inception.
He also served on the DGA’s Western Directors Council for more than two decades, and held several offices on the Directors Guild Foundation Board of Trustees, chaired of the 1993 Negotiating Committee and served on several other negotiating committees as well.
He received the DGA’s Robert B. Aldrich Achievement Award in 1993 for his extraordinary service to the guild and its members.
Reynolds is survived by his wife, Ann Reynolds, and son Andrew Reynolds.
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