Gene Reynolds, the prolific director, producer and writer who was a driving force behind such socially conscious television series as M*A*S*H, Lou Grant and Room 222, has died. He was 96.
Reynolds died Monday at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, the DGA announced.
Reynolds started out in Hollywood as a child actor at MGM in such movies as Boys Town (1938). He was nominated for 24 Emmy Awards, winning six times, and his series were known for looking at serious problems — without sacrificing warmth or humor.
Reynolds and Larry Gelbart created CBS’ M*A*S*H, which was based on a novel by Richard Hooker and followed the Robert Altman film adaptation, and with James L. Brooks and Allan Burns he later created CBS’ Lou Grant, which saw Ed Asner’s sitcom character from The Mary Tyler Moore Show become a crusading newspaper editor in a TV drama. Both series won Peabody Awards.
Room 222, which was created by Brooks and aired on ABC from 1969-74, was only the second TV show to have a black actor (Lloyd Haynes) as its lead.
Reynolds was at his best when he was in the TV director’s chair. He helmed hundreds of episodes, including 74 of My Three Sons, 34 of Hogan’s Heroes, eight of Room 222, 24 of M*A*S*H and 11 of Lou Grant, and he also guided installments of Leave It to Beaver, The Andy Griffith Show, The Munsters, F Troop, Mannix, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and Touched by an Angel.
The modest Reynolds was nominated for seven directing Emmys, winning in 1975 and ’76 for M*A*S*H. He raked in another dozen noms for producing, winning once for Room 222 (1970) and M*A*S*H (1974) and twice for Lou Grant (1979, 1980).
“In directing, I’m always looking for the little humane touch. Something that is real. It could be very, very small,” Reynolds said in a 2000 chat for the Archive of American Television website. “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.”
In a 2009 interview, M*A*S*H star Alan Alda noted that Reynolds was the one who “got Larry Gelbart involved and got the cast together … he was not only wonderful with the camera, he was wonderful with actors. You don’t always get that combination. He got the actors to bring out what it was about themselves that was human and genuine and not just give them slick, external, comic performances. He knew what was funny but also what was human.”
On Room 222, Reynolds was “the one who taught me the value of research,” Brooks said. “He sent me to a Los Angeles high school, and I’d spend a week there and talk to everybody and come back and then he’d send me back and send me back and send me back. Finally, I found my pilot story there, I found a lot of my characters there.”
Reynolds served as DGA president from 1993-97 and was the recipient of the guild’s prestigious Robert B. Aldrich Award in 1993.
“Gene’s influence on the modern Directors Guild of America was significant and lasting,” DGA president Thomas Schlamme said Tuesday in a statement. “During his two terms as president, he dedicated himself to making the guild more inclusive — broadening the leadership base, encouraging younger members to take leadership positions, strengthening ties between feature directors, pushing the industry to do better on diversity and working to modify DGA agreements so that filmmakers with low budgets could benefit from DGA membership. … He was passionate about this guild, spirited in his beliefs and dedicated until the end.”
Eugene Reynolds Blumenthal was born on April 4, 1923, in Cleveland, and spent his first 10 years in Detroit. His father owned a fleet of gas stations, and his mother, a former department store model, nudged her son into acting. He worked in local radio and commercial spots that aired around town.
When the Depression hit, the family moved to Los Angeles. Within days of their arrival, Reynolds landed at Hal Roach Studios and was an extra in Laurel & Hardy’s Babes in Toyland (1934), then appeared in Our Gang shorts.
Reynolds worked opposite John Carradine in a notable 1935 production of King John at the Pasadena Playhouse, and that led to a three-year contract at MGM. He grew up on the studio lot, appearing in Heidi (1937), In Old Chicago (1937), Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), The Crowd Roars (1938) and Santa Fe Trail (1940) while working alongside greats like Spencer Tracy, Robert Taylor, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and Errol Flynn. On loan to producer Sam Goldwyn, he starred opposite violinist Jascha Heifetz in They Shall Have Music (1939).
Reynolds was on the set of The Tuttles of Tahiti (1942) with Charles Laughton when news of the Pearl Harbor attack reached Hollywood. Soon after, Reynolds enlisted in the U.S. Navy. After the war, he returned to acting in Jungle Patrol (1948), The Big Cat (1948), The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954) and The Country Girl (1954).
Reynolds also found himself quite busy in an emerging medium. “I was very, very impressed with television,” he said during his TV Archive interview. “Of course, I was looking at it from the point of view as an actor. They had a great roster of dramatic and variety shows.”
Reynolds settled in New York in the late 1940s to take advantage of live-television opportunities and performed on Armstrong Circle Theatre, Danger, Dragnet, General Electric Theater and Ford Theatre, among other programs.
“Live television was extremely exciting — and extremely traumatic,” Reynolds said. “And as I was doing it, I realized it was just too traumatic. Everybody came onscreen and looked as if they had been kicked in the shins. There was just so much tension. There were no retakes — a business of sink or swim. The whole process was destined for revision because of the dangers involved.”
As television evolved, so did Reynolds. He continued to take on live-TV assignments but also appeared in filmed segments on The Lone Ranger, Annie Oakley, Highway Patrol, The People’s Choice and I Love Lucy (he played the husband of a couple who buy the Ricardos’ furniture and plan to move into their apartment in a 1957 episode).
Reynolds decided it might be time to segue into a position behind the camera, but the transition proved difficult; to augment his income, he sold suits in Beverly Hills. But he caught a big break when he was hired as one of the three casting directors on NBC Matinee Theater, a one-hour live anthology series that aired weekdays.
Having worked with so many actors during his career, Reynolds knew their abilities and was a natural at casting.
“What was marvelous about it was the variety of product,” he said. “I found it very exciting. Very exciting and dreadful at the same time because you knew so many of the actors and they knew you were in a spot to give them a job. And unfortunately, you couldn’t deliver for everybody.”
After NBC Matinee Theater went off the air in 1958, Reynolds cast the NBC shows Peter Gunn, Steve Canyon and Bonanza.
His old friend Jackie Cooper invited him to appear on the pilot for his new sitcom Hennesey, and not long after, Reynolds was asked by a producer on the show if he had any interest in directing. He quit his NBC casting job and ended up helming three episodes of Cooper’s show in 1959 and ’60.
Early in his directing career, Reynolds also did episodes of such shows as Pete and Gladys, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Peter Gunn and 77 Sunset Strip.
Reynolds also nabbed three Emmy noms for his writing on M*A*S*H and Lou Grant. And he produced such series as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Blossom.
Reynolds was married to Bonnie Jones, who played Lt. Barbara Bannerman in several episodes of M*A*S*H, from 1967 until their divorce in 1976. He wed Ann Sweeny, who played Nurse Carrie Donovan on two M*A*S*H installments, in 1979.