Gene Reynolds, co-creator of ‘M*A*S*H,’ dies at 96

The series is one of the highest-rated shows in the history of American television; its final episode was at the time the most-watched program ever, with more than 50 million families tuning in.

Directors Guild of America president Gene Reynolds announces the Directors Guild of America nominess for outstanding directorial achievement in motion pictures for 1996 films, January 21. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Directors Guild of America president Gene Reynolds announces the Directors Guild of America nominess for outstanding directorial achievement in motion pictures for 1996 films, January 21.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Six-time Emmy winner Gene Reynolds (born Eugene Reynolds Blumenthal), known for his writing, directing and producing for the lauded socially conscious 1970s TV shows “M*A*S*H” and “Lou Grant,” died Monday in Burbank, Calif. He was 96.
Starting in 1993, Reynolds served four years as president of the Directors Guild of America, which confirmed his death.
Asked to produce a TV version of the 1970 antiwar black comedy film “MASH,” about a team of surgeons in the Korean War, Reynolds sought out the creative like-mind of writer Larry Gelbart.
Together, they created a funny yet socially astute series that was massively successful, running for 11 years and garnering many awards, including a Peabody in 1975 and Emmys for outstanding series (1974) and for an assortment of individual writing, acting and directing accomplishments.
In addition to producing, Reynolds himself directed and wrote numerous episodes for the series.
Directors Guild of America President Thomas Schlamme and former National Executive Director Jay D. Roth said in a statement, “Gene’s influence on the modern Directors Guild of America was significant and lasting.”
“Gene was President when I became National Executive Director,” said Roth. “He was absolutely committed to revitalizing and modernizing the Guild and laying the groundwork for its growth into the future. He cared deeply about diversity and growing the leadership base of the Guild, and his passion for the DGA never wavered.”
Over the course of his career, Reynolds drew 24 Primetime Emmy nominations, winning six times, including for outstanding series for “M*A*S*H” and, twice, for “Lou Grant.” He won his first Primetime Emmy in 1970 as a producer for “Room 222.”
He also won a Humanitas Prize for “Lou Grant” and DGA awards for direction of a comedy series for “M*A*S*H” twice and for direction of a drama series for “Lou Grant” once.
Reynolds was always drawn to the human aspects of storytelling. Quoting Faulkner, he declared a preference for stories that featured “the human heart in conflict with itself.”
“One great judge of work: Does it have an aftertaste? Does it leave you with something?” he once said.
Nowhere was this approach more apparent than in his work on the acclaimed, innovative series “M*A*S*H” and “Lou Grant.”
On “M*A*S*H,” the line between acting and writing was fluid — a dynamic created and encouraged by Reynolds. Alan Alda, who played “Hawkeye” Pierce, the show’s conscience and editorial voice, noted that on “M*A*S*H,” “We constantly scrambled over (the barrier between a show’s writers and actors) from both sides.”
The result, Alda said, was the actors’ “owning it, in some way,” creating “much more believable behavior.”
“M*A*S*H” used this flow of collaboration and improvisation to create innovative episodes, including “The Interview,” which aired in 1976. Shot in black and white, styled as an Edward R. Murrow documentary about Korea and written by Gelbart, the episode incorporated scripted questions for the characters’ “interviews,” as well as unscripted ones that forced the actors to improvise in character.
The series remained in the top 10 for its entire run, and its final episode was at the time the most-watched program in history, with more than 50 million families tuning in.
Gelbart left after two seasons. Reynolds eventually became exec producer, leaving himself in 1977. He continued to consult with the show.
After “M*A*S*H,” Reynolds teamed with James L. Brooks, along with Alan Burns, to create “Lou Grant.” A spinoff of the “Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Lou Grant” reimagined the crusty character as a Los Angeles newspaper editor and explored the behind-the-scenes drama of news coverage.
The show avoided formulas and easy endings, exploring social issues of the day in ways that didn’t always tie up neatly at the end of an episode. Reynolds wrote a significant number of episodes, in addition to directing and exec producing.
The critically acclaimed “Lou Grant” won numerous awards, including a Peabody in 1978 and the Emmy for drama series in 1979 and 1980. It ran from 1977-82.
Born in Cleveland as Eugene Reynolds Blumenthal, Reynolds began as a child actor, making his big-screen debut in a 1934 “Our Gang” short.
As a kid, however, Reynolds aspired to be a director, and he followed early roles in films such as “Love Finds Andy Hardy” (1938) and “Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary” (1941) and TV series including “The Lone Ranger,” “Dragnet” and “I Love Lucy” with work behind the scenes.
Reynolds’ first significant non-acting work came in 1957 for the TV series “Tales of Wells Fargo,” which he created with Brooks and Frank Gruber. Over the series’ multiseason run, Reynolds wrote and directed several episodes.
He had a solid run as a director on “My Three Sons” and stints on “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Leave It to Beaver,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Donna Reed Show,” “Gidget,” “The Munsters” and “F Troop.”
His creative approach met its first match when he worked with show creator Brooks as a producer and director for the TV series “Room 222,” which debuted in 1969. The show explored contemporary social issues from the perspective of high school students, teachers and administrators, addressing weighty issues such as racial tolerance and drugs, but in what would become Reynolds’ hallmark, the approach to these themes was tempered by humor.
Reynolds described his later career as “freelance directing.” He directed TV movies, including “In Defense of Kids” (1983), starring Blythe Danner, as well episodes of TV series, including “Life Goes On,” “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” and “Touched by an Angel.” His last directing effort was the 1999 telepic “How to Get There.”
In the 2000s, he appeared as himself in several documentaries and video shorts, including “Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust” (2004).
In 1993 Reynolds received the DGA’s Robert B. Aldrich Achievement Award for extraordinary service to the guild.