Gene Reynolds, an adventuresome Hollywood director and writer who brought the absurdities of warfare into America’s living rooms with “MASH” and used the tough inner-city schools of Los Angeles as a blueprint for “Room 222,” has died at age 96.
A child star who became more intrigued with the other side of the camera as he grew older, Reynolds died Monday of heart failure at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, the Directors Guild of America confirmed.
During a long career, the director also turned to the Los Angeles Times, and particularly the city desk, when he was fleshing out early episodes of “Lou Grant,” the popular prime-time drama in which Ed Asner — as the gruff yet kindhearted city editor — prowls the newsroom at the fictional Los Angeles Tribune.
Reynolds told The Times that television had long depicted newspapers in a simplistic fashion — editors and executives cowering from their readers while reporters sleuthed their way through the city, more private eyes than actual journalists. Reynolds said he sought to show that the heart and soul of the newspaper was its newsroom, the final waiting room for a thousand different stories.
“Lou Grant,” like “MASH” and “Room 222,” had to overcome critics, poor ratings and nervous network executives to survive. Each, though, became a runaway hit, with the final episode of “MASH” drawing the single largest audience for an episode in a prime-time series. And Reynolds won Emmy awards for all three.
Eugene Reynolds Blumenthal was born April 4, 1923, in Cleveland. His father was a struggling businessman, his mother a model. The family moved to Detroit and finally Los Angeles as his father sought work. Reynolds broke into acting as an extra on “Our Gang” comedy short films and studied drama at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Reynolds was contracted when he was only 14 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to play the younger version of lead actors in a long list of films, often in flashback scenes — Don Ameche as a boy in “Sins of Man,” a young Jimmy Stewart in “Of Human Hearts” and a pint-sized Robert Taylor in “The Crowd Roars.” Convinced his career would never fully blossom, he joined the U.S. Navy during the height of World War II.
When he was discharged, he turned to directing, working on “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “My Three Sons” and “Hogan’s Heroes,” which he told The Times underscored his mounting concern that there was nothing — even life in wartime — that network television couldn’t trivialize.
Reynolds had already met success with “Room 222,” which tackled pressing issues such as the civil rights movement, feminism and the Vietnam War from the perspective of adolescents in urban Los Angeles, when he was asked to take on “MASH.”
CBS was hoping to capitalize on the enormous success of the Oscar-winning 1970 Robert Altman movie of the same name but hoped to deliver its audience something more family-friendly and benign.
My friend and mentor Gene Reynolds has died but his brain and heart lives on in MASH, the classic he helped create, and produced and directed. He changed my life and touched the lives of tens of millions of us. Goodbye, farewell and amen, Gene. Love you.— Alan Alda (@alanalda) February 5, 2020
Reynolds, though, opted to stick closer to the comedic darkness Altman had found in the story of a group of medics stationed at a mobile Army surgical hospital near the front lines during the Korean War. Though the television series was set during the Korean conflict, the show was very much about the Vietnam War and its characters very much the tortured, hollowed-out pawns in a war that to them seemed pointless.
Reynolds said he sought to be sensitive to the horrors of combat and the valor of the medics and soldiers on the battlefield, but he felt it necessary to focus on the absurdity of it all.
“They’re in the middle of a war where everything is designed to kill, but they’re in the business of putting these bodies back together again, only to have them sent back … which becomes like shoving a rock up a hill only to have it roll down again,” Reynolds told author David S. Reiss for his book “MASH: The Exclusive, Inside Story of TV’s Most Popular Show.”
Reynolds found the perfect vehicle for his antiwar narrative in Alan Alda, an emerging actor who brought a world-weary cynicism to the character he portrayed, Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce.
Still, put up against ABC’s “Wonderful World of Disney” — 60 minutes of family-friendly wholesomeness — “MASH” nearly skidded off the runway. Ratings were poor, reviews tepid and network executives skittish.
Reluctantly, CBS gave the show a second season, and it took off on an 11-year run, ending with a final two-hour episode that drew 105.9 million viewers.
Alda, Loretta Swit, Harry Morgan, Mike Farrell and others in the show’s entourage said Reynolds was remarkable for inviting actors into the script-writing process, urging them to participate in developing and expanding their characters.
“Gene would take us through the script, page by page, to see if anyone had any questions or suggestions,” Farrell said in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter. “I thought, ‘These people want to hear from the actors about the script? Oh, my God, I’m in heaven.’”
During his career, Reynolds was nominated for 22 Emmy awards, winning six times. He served twice as the president of the Directors Guild of America.
He is survived by his wife, Ann, and a son, Andrew.