Gene Reynolds nearly died in a helicopter crash while working as a young actor
The M*A*S*H co-creator joked his insurance agent told him to give up acting.
Read to Me
When the helicopters fly over the mountains in the opening sequence of M*A*S*H, the audience understands that for the 4077th, it's go-time.
The whole medical staff leaps to action at the sound of the choppers, preparing to care for incoming wounded.
On M*A*S*H, these helicopters became a symbol of the show's chaotic shifts in tone, alerting the audience that the time for jokes has passed and things have now gotten serious, fast.
It may surprise you to learn then that M*A*S*H co-creator Gene Reynolds didn't have the best track record with flying helicopters on a TV show set. In fact, he said he nearly died pretending to pilot one in the earliest days of his career.
In 1960, Reynolds told The Jefferson City Post-Tribune that one of the reasons he quit acting after finding success as a child star was because, in the course of one month, he nearly died three times.
"I had several close calls," Reynolds said.
The first was explosive: "A stove inadvertently blew up and sent me sailing across a room in one show."
Then the second one also really threw him: "I was given a quarter-horse to ride and I never had such a wild ride as he gave me."
But the third was the worst: "Another time, a helicopter almost crashed with me."
"After a series of these things," Reynolds said, "I had a heart-to-heart talk with my insurance agent!"
By 1960, Reynolds had been working as an actor for 25 years. As a boy, he'd moved to Los Angeles with his family at the age of 11 and immediately registered for motion picture work with a casting agency.
Right away, he got plugged into any movie that needed a young boy, and in particular, The Jefferson City Post-Tribune said he was a "popular choice whenever a film had a prologue showing the man star as a child." A good-looking kid, he even played the young version of Jimmy Stewart!
By the time he was 14 years old, MGM had Reynolds under contract.
However, Reynolds abruptly jumped ship on his burgeoning acting career, when he joined the U.S. Navy to serve in World War II.
After Reynolds returned home, he knew he wanted to be back in Hollywood, but he wasn't so sure about acting. He continued taking roles, but he also went to college at UCLA and earned a degree in economics.
You might think he was trying to get out of the film industry altogether, but the whole time he was working on his economics degree, he continued to act into the Fifties, appearing on popular TV shows like The Lone Ranger and I Love Lucy.
He did end up regretting his degree choice.
"I should have majored in English because I enjoy writing so much," Reynolds admitted in 1960. "In fact, I am filling all my spare time writing TV story outlines. I have a couple under consideration right now. I could return to acting, but I prefer now to strike out as a director and writer."
At this point, he was already budding into the M*A*S*H co-creator he would become, and thankfully, his near-death experience with the helicopter didn't cause the producer to shy away when he was eventually tapped to do the TV show that famously springs into action whenever choppers land.
A decade before he was asked to do M*A*S*H, Reynolds had no idea how sensational the TV show he would create would become, but one thing he did know: He was interested in traveling to the Far East.
At the end of his 1960 interview, Reynolds said he was happy to stay in Hollywood to focus on work because the industry had always been good to him since he was a pre-teen. However, he said he wouldn't mind taking a vacation. As if gazing much further into his future, he said he was most interested in seeing Asia.