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Gene Reynolds, television hitmaker who co-created ‘M.A.S.H.,’ dies at 96

“M.A.S.H.” actor Alan Alda, right, and producer Gene Reynolds in 1983, looking at a set from the show that was donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. (Barry Thumma/AP)

Gene Reynolds, a child actor turned television hitmaker who helped create “M.A.S.H.” and “Lou Grant,” distinguishing himself as an Emmy-winning director and producer with shows that tackled social issues such as war, nuclear proliferation and civil rights, died Feb. 3 at a hospital in Burbank, Calif. He was 96.

His death was confirmed by the Directors Guild of America, which did not give a cause. Mr. Reynolds served two terms as the guild’s president in the 1990s and was credited with reaching out to younger filmmakers, pushing the industry to diversify its ranks and creating annual awards for female and minority film students.

With years of experience in front of and behind the camera, Mr. Reynolds was widely celebrated for his close collaboration with actors, whom he turned to for script suggestions and encouraged to draw on their own experiences for roles. He had performed in Hollywood films beginning at 11, appearing as an extra in “Our Gang” comedies and specializing in playing the child version of leading men.

For a few years in the late 1930s, he portrayed a young Ricardo Cortez in “The Californian,” Tyrone Power in “In Old Chicago,” Robert Taylor in “The Crowd Roars,” James Stewart in “Of Human Hearts” and aviator Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan in “The Flying Irishman.”

Those parts gave way to an interest in directing, leading Mr. Reynolds to develop a career as one of television’s premier multi-hyphenates, a combination writer-director-producer who helped pioneer the TV dramedy with his irreverent sense of humor and willingness to tackle weighty themes.

Beginning in the late 1950s he directed hundreds of episodes of television, including for “Leave It to Beaver,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “My Three Sons” and “Hogan’s Heroes.” He was also an executive producer of “Room 222,” which premiered on ABC in 1969 and starred Lloyd Haynes as a black history teacher at a time when few people of color had starring roles on prime-time television.

The half-hour sitcom featured a racially diverse cast and addressed issues of race, gender, religion and war, which Mr. Reynolds returned to in the darkly comic war series “M.A.S.H.” and the drama “Lou Grant,” a spinoff of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” that starred Ed Asner as a crusty newspaper editor. Created by Mr. Reynolds, James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, it ran on CBS from 1977 to 1982.

“I’d like to think what we tried to accomplish with such shows as ‘M.A.S.H.’ and ‘Lou Grant’ and ‘Room 222’ was to copy real life and not theater,” Mr. Reynolds once told Variety. “We always were looking into these different vocations with a lot of depth, so that we were presenting real drama.”

Mr. Reynolds was nominated for 24 Emmy Awards, winning four as a producer for “Room 222,” “M.A.S.H.” and “Lou Grant” and two as a director for “M.A.S.H.,” the series that remains his greatest legacy. Following a mobile Army surgical unit during the Korean War — with Vietnam as subtext — it was far darker than military sitcoms like “McHale’s Navy,” shocking viewers with its mix of ribald humor and wartime brutality.

Airing on CBS from 1972 to 1983, it became one of the highest-rated television shows in U.S. history while examining what Mr. Reynolds called “the wastefulness of war,” taking audiences inside the operating room and occasionally killing off beloved characters.

The series emerged out of a 1968 novel, “MASH,” written by a former military surgeon under the pen name Richard Hooker. A hit Robert Altman film followed two years later, leading TV producer William Self to approach Mr. Reynolds about adapting the story for television.

As executive producer, he assembled a team that included screenwriter Larry Gelbart; writer and producer Burt Metcalfe; and actor Alan Alda, a New York theater performer whom he cast as chief surgeon Hawkeye Pierce, the show’s resident wiseguy and emotional anchor.

[Larry Gelbart’s career spanned nearly every entertainment medium for six decades]

Mr. Reynolds and Gelbart interviewed about 150 doctors and surgeons from the front lines, visited Korea to give the series authenticity and departed from TV conventions for episodes such as “The Interview,” in which broadcast journalist Clete Roberts appeared as himself, interviewing the show’s characters about the conflict.

“Do you see anything good at all coming out of this war?” Roberts asks Pierce. “Yeah,” he replies. “Me. Alive. That would be nice, if I could get out of this alive. That would be great.”

“Larry and Gene refused to be slaves to making audiences laugh at regular intervals,” “M.A.S.H.” writer and producer Dan Wilcox told the Hollywood Reporter in 2018. “They believed you could come to moments that were the meat of what war was about. It’s the only comedy I ever worked on that made me cry.”

The show’s darker aspects sometimes drew the ire of studio executives, who insisted on using a laugh track over Mr. Reynolds’s objections. (He got them to compromise in certain episodes and had it removed from scenes in the operating room.) He also successfully pushed for the use of blood on-screen and recalled having to battle even to show medical scenes in the series.

“Before we ever shot anything, someone told me, ‘You can’t go into the operating room. When I saw the movie, four women in front of me walked out,’ ” he told the Hollywood Reporter. “And I said, ‘Yes, but millions of them stayed.’ ”

Eugene Reynolds Blumenthal was born in Cleveland on April 4, 1923, and spent his early years in the Detroit suburb of Highland Park. His father was a businessman, and his mother was a former model who encouraged him to act.

He performed in plays at school and church before graduating to commercials, then radio and finally film, appearing in the Laurel and Hardy musical “Babes in Toyland” (1934) after his family moved to Los Angeles.

Mr. Reynolds took on speaking parts after an agent spotted him in a Pasadena Playhouse production of Shakespeare’s “King John,” and he soon signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. During World War II he served in the Pacific aboard the destroyer-minesweeper Zane, where he watched a senior officer, Herman Wouk, awaken early each morning to write.

After his discharge, he received a bachelor’s degree from UCLA in 1947, performed in live television productions in New York and broke into directing with help from his friend Jackie Cooper, a fellow child actor who produced and starred in the Navy medical dramedy “Hennesey.” Mr. Reynolds appeared in its 1959 pilot, playing a sailor who gets his arm caught in machinery, and directed several episodes.

Late in his career, he directed TV movies and episodes of series such as “Life Goes On” and “Touched by an Angel.”

His marriage to Bonnie Jones ended in divorce, and in 1979 he married Ann Sweeny. Both women were actresses who appeared as nurses on “M.A.S.H.” In addition to his wife, survivors include a son from his second marriage, Andrew Reynolds.

Mr. Reynolds directed dramas and comedies, but he told the Television Academy Foundation that his approach was the same. “I’m always looking for the little humane touch,” he said. “Something that is real. 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. . . . I’m looking for humanity, really.”

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