REYNOLDS, GENE

U.S. Actor/Producer/Director

From a child movie actor in Boy's Town, Gene Reynolds grew into a respected producer-director identified with thoughtful television dramas reflecting complex human situations. The programs Reynolds is associated with often possess an undercurrent of humor to entertain, but without softening socially significant story lines.

As producer-director of Room 222 (1969-74) Reynolds found a supportive, kindred spirit in the series' creator James L. Brooks. Exploring life among high school teachers, administrators, and students, their program featured African-American actor Lloyd Haynes as a revered, approachable teacher. A lighter touch in dialogue and situations helped keep the video stories attractive to casual viewers. Still, the central characters were involved each week in matters of personal and social import such as drugs, prejudice, self-worth, and dropping out of school.

Again aligning himself with a congenial, creative associate for a TV version of the novel and motion picture M*A*S*H, Reynolds sought out respected "comedy writer with a conscience" Larry Gelbart. Together they fleshed out a sensitive, probing, highly amusing, and wildly successful series about the foibles and aspirations of a military surgical team in the midst of warfare. Raucous, sometimes ribald comedy acted as counterpoint to poignant human dilemmas always present when facing bureaucratic tangles amid willful annihilation. Though intended as comedy-drama commentary on the devastating absurdities of war in general, the Vietnam conflict in particular, Reynolds and Gelbart pushed the time period of their show back to Korea in the 1950s in order to be acceptable to the network and stations, and to a deeply-divided American public. Gelbart left the series early on, and Reynolds eventually became executive producer, turning the producer's role over to Burt Metcalf. The ensemble cast only grew stronger as new actors replaced departing ones through the decade. The acclaimed series earned awards from all sectors during its 11-year run (1972-83), including the Peabody award in 1975, Emmy awards for outstanding comedy series in 1974; Emmys many other seasons for outstanding writing, acting, and direction; Emmys twice for best directing by Gene Reynolds (1975, 1976); and the Humanitas Prize.

The public voted, too; their sustained viewing kept the program among the top-ranked five or ten programs every year M*A*S*H aired. The concluding two-and-one-half-hour "farewell" episode (February 28, 1983) still stands as the single-most-watched program in American TV history, attracting almost two out of every three homes in America (60.3 rating). More than 50 million familes tuned in that evening to watch the program.

Reynolds left M*A*S*H in 1977. He teamed up again with James L. Brooks and Alan Burns, all as executive producers of Lou Grant. This series explored the combative turf of a major metropolitan newspaper. It dealt with the constitutional and ethical issues found in dramas pitting journalists against politicians, corporate executives, courts, and general public. Reynolds' creative team avoided cliché-driven plots, focusing instead on complex, unresolved issues and depicting their impact on a mix of vulnerable personalities. The series (1977-82) received critical acclaim, including Peabody, Emmy, and Humanitas awards, for exploring complicated challenges involving media and society.

Gene Reynolds' modus operandi for producing a television series is to thoroughly research the subject area by extended visits to sites--schools, battlefields (Vietnam to replicate Korean field hospitals), and newspaper offices. There he interviews at length those engaged in career positions. He and his creative partners regularly returned to those sites armed with audiotape recorders to dig for new story ideas, for points of view, for technical jargon and representative phrases, and even for scraps of dialogue that would add verisimilitude to the words of studio-stage actors recreating an incident. Reynolds and his associates always strive for accuracy, authenticity, and social significance. They present individual human beings caught up in the context of controversial events, but affected by personal interaction.

A thoughtful, serious-minded creator with a quiet sense of humor, Gene Reynolds' ability to work closely with colleagues earns the respect of both actors and production crews. He often directs episodes, regularly works with writers on revising scripts, and establishes a working climate on the set that invites suggestions from the actors for enhancing dialogue and action.

He directed pilots for potential TV series and movies for television, including People Like Us (1976), In Defense of Kids (1983), and Doing Life (1986). In 1995, having served actively in organizations and on committees in the creative community for many years, he was elected president of the Directors Guild of America.

-James Brown

 


Gene Reynolds
Photo courtesy of Gene Reynolds

GENE REYNOLDS. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.A., 4 April 1925. Married: Bonnie Jones. Began career as film actor, debut in Thank You, Jeeves, 1936; producer and director of numerous television series, from 1968. Recipient: five Emmy Awards, Director's Guild of America Award, Peabody Award.

TELEVISION

1968-70 The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (pilot)
1969-74 Room 222 (executive producer)
1972 Anna and the King
1972-76 M*A*S*H (also director)
1973-74 Roll Out!
1975 Karen
1977-82 Lou Grant

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIES (selection)

1976 People Like Us (producer, director)
1983 In Defense of Kids (director)
1986 Doing Life (director)

FILMS

Thank You, Jeeves (actor) 1936; In Old Chicago (actor), 1937; Boys Town (actor), 1938; They Shall Have Music (actor), 1939; Edison the Man (actor), 1940; Eagle Squadron (actor), 1942; The Country Girl (actor), 1954; The Bridges at Toko-Ri (actor), 1955; Diane (actor), 1955; In Defense of Kids (director) 1983; Doing Life (director), 1986.

 

See also Lou Grant; M*A*S*H; Room 222