Wednesday, February 05, 2020

RIP Gene Reynolds

96 is a good long run, but when it’s the man responsible for your career and the best mentor a writer could ever have, you still have to say “too soon.”

Gene Reynolds passed away, two months shy of his 97th birthday. I would get lunch with him and MASH producer, Burt Metcalfe, at Musso & Frank’s a couple of times a year. He was still very sharp, very funny, and I always learned something.

Gene led an amazing life. He was a child actor at MGM along with Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and Jackie Cooper. He starred or co-starred in numerous films. A trivia note: In I LOVE LUCY, when the Ricardo’s finally vacated their famous apartment, Gene was the new tenant.

In the 1960’s he turned to directing, helming hundreds of TV shows from HOGAN’S HEROES to THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW to THE MUNSTERS.

In the early ‘70s as a producer at 20th Century Fox he was handed a project. Adapt the movie MASH as a TV series. It was Gene who not only thought of Larry Gelbart to write it, but lured Larry back to the US after years of living in London. Larry Gelbart may have been responsible for much of the brilliance of MASH, but Gene Reynolds was its soul. Gene put it together, Gene established the tone, and for the first five years was the guiding force. After that he ran LOU GRANT and collected several of his six Emmys.

My writing partner, David Isaacs and I met Gene in early 1976. We were less than a year in the business – having written one JEFFERSONS, two JOE AND SONS, and a couple of stories for BARNEY MILLER. Luck is such a key factor in any Hollywood career. This was to be the start of season 5 of MASH and Larry Gelbart had just left. For the first time they were looking for new writers. We happened to be at the same agency as Gene and our agent submitted a writing sample, our draft of the JEFFERSONS (which bore little resemblance to what ultimately aired).

Right place, right year. And it also helped that David and I were in the Army Reserves. We had a firm grasp of that world.

We met with Gene in his office and he took the time to explain the show, what their objectives were, the type of stories they were looking for. Then he loaded us down with research – transcripts of doctors and nurses, books on Korea, recent MASH scripts, and the novel of MASH. Who spends a whole afternoon talking to young writers who may never get an assignment? But that was Gene.

We came in a week later with 50 story ideas, overwhelming him. He paired two of the notions – a gas heater blows up rendering Hawkeye temporarily blind and the guys pull a sting on Frank by recreating a baseball game on the radio. This became “Out of Sight/Out of Mind.” Gene was a little hesitant because it was a pretty dramatic story. We lied and said we wrote lots of drama in college. We had never written drama in our lives.

So he gave us the assignment. That script became our golden ticket and launched our career. Talk about blind faith – two inexperienced writers given a challenging episode based on a first draft of a JEFFERSONS.

Long story short, he loved our draft, kept giving us more, and the next year we joined the staff. It was the break of our lives and we owe it all to Gene.

Ironically, that episode -- directed by Gene -- aired on MeTV the night he died.

The year we joined the staff Gene left for LOU GRANT. But once a week we’d meet up at his house in the Hollywood Hills and go over scripts and outlines. This was an absolute masterclass. Always the gentleman, Gene was the greatest story person I’ve ever met. I learned more about story construction from Gene Reynolds than all my other mentors combined. In a lovely, supportive way he would point out flaws or suggest alternatives. And the amazing thing was this: Not only could he see story problems with laser-like focus, he also instantly had the solution.  Usually ingenious. To this day I don’t know how he did it.

So many things did Gene Reynolds teach me. Besides story construction, the value of research, the constant striving for excellence, and most importantly – the need to include humanity in everything you write. More important than killer jokes or clever plot twists was HUMANITY. The audience had to care. I’d like to think that’s in the DNA of everything I write, so again, thank you Gene.

He also taught me how to be a good showrunner. Establish an organized professional environment high on support and low on drama. Treat everyone with respect, work to get the best out of people. And it’s as simple as this: I remember the first time we got script notes from Gene. There was a joke he didn’t like. Other showrunners might say “That sucks, get rid of it, no!” Gene pointed to it and said, “You might want to take another look at that joke.” It’s a little thing – tiny even – but it meant a lot. And that was Gene.

And as if that wasn’t enough, Gene was my role model as a director. He was always cool, confident, prepared, unflappable, unhurried (although he always finished his shows on time). Trust me, there are times it’s hard to be unflappable. Things go wrong, actors misbehave, a cat gets caught in a heating vent. Yet Gene handled anything that came his way with grace, earning the full respect of the cast and crew. It seemed to come effortlessly to Gene. I have to work like hell at it.

I’m glad I was able to thank him on numerous occasions for all he did for me, both privately and publicly. But I never felt it was enough. How could it be? When a man launches your career and makes you a better human being, how large does the skywriting have to be?

Again, 96 is a good full life. Who wouldn’t take that deal right now? But aside from losing my parents, the only two passings that brought me to tears were Larry Gelbart and now Gene Reynolds.

And just writing this has brought me to tears again. Thank you Gene.  For EVERYTHING.

I hope to continue making you proud.  

48 comments :

slgc said...

My condolences Ken.

Anonymous said...

a beautiful tribute.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Ken, I'm so sorry for your loss, but glad that you were lucky enough to know him, work with him, and appreciate him.

Steve Bailey said...

I happened to catch the "Hawkeye blinded" episode on MeTV the other night and instantly thought of you. As I've mentioned before, it's one of my favorite "M*A*S*H" episodes, owing no doubt to that core of humanity that Gene Reynolds taught you to instill in every script. Some of my all-time fave "M*A*S*H" eps come from that season where he was exec-producer after Larry Gelbart left. R.I.P., Mr. Reynolds.

VincentS said...

I didn't know Gene Reynolds passed. A fine tribute, Ken. A great loss. As I've said before on this blog, MASH was one of the integral parts of my adolescence. Whenever a period joke or reference appeared it gave me an excuse to talk to my parents!

Dan H said...

Ken - you were lucky to have a front row seat to learn from Gene for years. Your whole career has no doubt made him proud. Condolences on the loss. May his memory be for a blessing.

Unknown said...

Being a proud member of the writing community of the 80's, I have to say that I'm sorry for OUR loss. I watched and learned from just about every show he was a part of....Nice tribute Ken.

Carrerow said...

As a proud member of the writing community in the 1980's, I watched and learned from any show he was connected with. Thanks Gene for the help and thanks Ken for the loving tribute. Now, I've got something in my eye....

Unknown said...

Lovely tribute, thank you for sharing it with us.

Kirk said...

Great tribute.

Edward said...

Timing is everything.

Gene Reynolds was interviewed by the Archive of American Television and was talking about producing "Room 222." When asked why he left the show, he replied "I was fired." ABC informed Fox it would pick up the show for another season, but without Gene Reynolds running it. His boss at Fox, Bill Self, then assigned him to work on creating a TV show out of the film M*A*S*H.

It worked out well.

RIP

Mike Barer said...

One of the great TV shows in history. I applaud him and everyone involved in that wonderful run.

Curt Alliaume said...

So sorry for your loss - and ours.

Pizzagod said...

I've been waiting to read your column on Gene-I knew it would be bittersweet.

Life goes on, and you realize that times have changed, and so many of these people were giants and we won't see this kind of influence again. Too many outlets, narrowcasting, etc.

He made our lives a little more enjoyable.

Laurie said...

Never worked with Gene, but spent an evening dining with he and his wife several years ago and found him to be a kind and utterly charming gentleman. Sorry to hear of his passing.

Bill said...

You think they will include him at Oscars Memoriam?

You also should have David over for a podcast and talk about Gene.

Arlen Peters said...

I know how close you were to both Gene and Larry Gelbart ... and I know how they were "family" to you.
What a blessing it is to have loving supportive parents passing the baton to loving supportive mentors like Gelbart and Reynolds.
The key thing is to take that baton and cross the finish line ... and you have done that so many times in a winning way.
With each word you commit to paper, with each project completed, you honor them. And carry their wisdom with you.
Once again, a touching lovely tribute to a wonderful man, who has left us but whose work and influences lives on.
Thank you Gene.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

When it comes to his contributions to M*A*S*H, the one I appreciated the most was allowing the characters to grow and develop, such as Margaret and Father Mulcahy. When Larry Gelbart ran the show, it was very much humor-driven (specifically anti-war satire), but when Gene took over, then later passed the torch along to Burt Metcalfe, it became a character-driven show, and I think that's been one the reasons for its brillance and longevity; the characters feel like real people you can relate to and identify with.

But yes, he lived a long, productive, fulfilling life; his passing is sad, to be sure, but he's left behind will last forever.

I also understand he was briefly married to actress Bonnie Jones, who appeared in a few Season 1 episodes of M*A*S*H as nurse Barbara Bannerman, one of Hawkeye's flings.

Jim S said...

So sorry for your loss Ken.

Your comment about Gene keeping calm and making deadlines reminded of a saying of the great college basketball coach John Wooden - be quick, but never hurry.

So profound. I think the greats understand that simple fact and it's a lesson well worth learning.

As someone who worked as a reporter, I can say that Gene Reynolds did his homework for "Lou Grant." The newsroom seemed like a real newsroom. And he did do stories that showed how even good reporters can get caught up in their biases and it's not always reporters good, big business bad.

But I also enjoyed the story where reporters were good and big business was bad. If nothing else it made me feel like reporting the truth would actually change things for the better.

I am so glad you were able to write such kind things about your mentor.

David Simpson said...

A beautiful tribute; thanks for sharing it with all of us.

One thing that caught my eye was one of the things that can go wrong you mentioned was "... a cat gets caught in a heating vent..." That sounds like something that really happened. If it was, I'd like to read about it.

Doug Thompson said...

Wonderful tribute to Gene Reynolds Ken. Thank you.

John Hammes said...

>> By Ken Levine
>> Thank you Gene. For EVERYTHING.
>> I hope to continue making you proud.



This is all anyone can do, be it parents, family, friends, mentors, etc. They provide the template. We do what we can. We pass the knowledge forward.

Never mind what the world considers "success". By doing the best we can, with what we know, with what we have, with a full heart and a forgiving spirit, we will have succeeded. We will have made our loved ones proud.

And yes, future generations will understand.

Rashad Khan said...

Gene Reynolds produced shows that were not only entertaining, but had very important things to say. It's a shame that so many shows being produced today don't follow the same model. May he RIP.

Anne said...

Have you mentored anyone like Gene?

Wayne Carter said...

Thanks for giving us that tribute; and also a good read.

Jay said...

I'm sorry for your loss, Ken. I wish I had found someone as meaningful to me in my career as Gene was to yours. I think we'd all be lucky for a Gene Reynolds in our life.

TodBrowning said...

Sorry for your loss, Ken.
Reading on IMDB about Gene, it mentions that he turned to directing and got one of his first assignments on friend Jackie Cooper's TV show "Hennesey" in the late 50s. (Jackie Cooper was a friend when both were child contract actors at MGM in the 30s/40s.) Jackie Cooper years later was the director of many episodes of M*A*S*H

Lemuel said...

Condolences Ken.

Sean said...

He sounds very decent and patient. Very sorry to lose someone like that.


Sean

Andy K said...

Thanks for your kind words for him. He left quite a legacy, especially you.

Tom Asher said...

Sorry for your loss, Ken... excellent piece.

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

Beautiful tribute to Mr. Reynolds.

"M*A*S*H" and "Lou Grant" were two of my favorite shows.

Jeff Maxwell said...

Amen, Ken.

Without Gene Reynolds, I doubt there would be a MASH as we know it.

So grateful to have experienced his incredible skill and elegance.

Andrew said...

Beautiful tribute. You've lived a charmed life, Ken.

On the subject of MASH, a Friday question:
I just saw the episode of Frasier last night in which David Ogden Stiers guest starred. It was a wonderful performance, and a very funny episode. (I still find it strange to hear him without a Boston accent.) Were you involved in casting Stiers for that episode? And did you have a chance to catch up with him when he was on the set?

Mike Bloodworth said...

I too, am sorry for your loss. I know what it's like to lose a mentor and a parent. It sucks! How often have I wanted to ask a question or seek some advice, but they're not there. It's like going to the faucet and there's no water.
Your blog is now kind of a surrogate mentor.
You were incredibly fortunate to have known someone like Gene Reynolds.
They say that sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. You were both.
R.I.P. Gene.
M.B.

D McEwan said...

Gene Reynolds was the gold standard. I saw yesterday that he'd passed, and was saddened though I'd never met him, because I'd seen his name on my TV screens a thousand times, always preceding something wonderful.

Jerry Davis said...

You will, Ken

Ralph C. said...

Another legend passes. Time conquers the best of us all. I have shared this blog post on my Facebook. I hope that was okay. It’s a wonderful and heartfelt tribute to an amazing person. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and memories with us.

sueK2001 said...

Fantastic tribute Ken. The moment I heard of his passing, I thought of you. His gift hall live on in the laughs that he gave us through MASH. I am not in the biz but I am a credits freak of sorts. I read liner notes on music and end credits on movies and TV shows. This feels like a loss of a friend. My deepest sympathies to you Ken.

Pamela Atherton said...

❤️❤️❤️

UnWoke said...

Very moving tribute.

And now Kirk Douglas has gone too. His legacy is a little difficult though. A great actor and producer, no doubt. But there are the troubling rumors about him and Natalie Wood that never went away.

UnWoke said...

Natalie Wood is now trending on Twitter and people are posting tons and tons of photos of her and urging people to remember her and not her alleged rapist.

Andy said...

So sorry Ken. A giant.

Tudor Queen said...

As soon as I heard that Gene Reynolds had died, I thought of you. I'm honestly sorry for your loss and agree that for a man of that caliber in every way, it was still 'too soon'. Just as Kirk Douglas's death at 103, must seem too soon to those who loved and admired him.

Mike McCann said...

Having heroes is something we all need. Getting to work with -- and remain close -- with them for decades is the rarest of good fortune.

My sympathies on Gene's passing. It's clear to see the impact he had on you.

Anonymous said...

RIP Gene and Ken, very sorry for your loss, both Gene and Larry. What a legacy they've left us.
Sincerely
David
Longtime Levinien reader.

Unknown said...

Watching Out of Sight/Out of Mind as we speak.

George C. said...

Sorry just catching up on your blog and read this.

May my son write such a glowing eulogy of me. You loved him you really loved him. To steal a phrase