Russell Morash, creator of This Old House and a pioneer of how-to television, has died. His death was confirmed by former This Old House producer Nina Fialkow.

“He was an innovator at the core,” Fialkow wrote in an email to GBH News. “[He] created an entire genre of television.”

Morash was born in 1936, growing up in Lexington, Mass., and graduating from Boston University. His storied career with GBH including launching not just This Old House but also the long-running gardening show The Victory Garden, as well as numerous collaborations with Julia Child.

In a 2006 interview, Morash told GBH’s Michael Ambrosino that more than 65 years ago, he was hired at GBH as a camera operator. Several months later, in 1958, he effectively became a producer-director.

In that interview for a GBH oral history project, Ambrosino suggested that Morash’s in-the-field TV production was “one of [his] pioneering areas.”

“Well, it helps when you burn down your studio — which is what we did,” Morash replied.

The fire in 1961 spurred him to produce many of GBH’s shows with a mobile unit.

“The mobile unit itself was a shabby piece of equipment that had already had seven million miles on it as a perfectly reasonable bus, and then we ripped it all apart and put in a TV control room. And that was my job: to run that TV mobile unit,” Morash said. “And that was, again, a great experience.”

It brought the audience into their experts’ kitchens and laboratories, instead of having those experts teach from a TV studio — a novelty at the time.

One of Morash’s major successes began just a couple of years later, when GBH was still without a studio. Morash was sharing a desk with a colleague who worked on a public access reading show.

“The phone rang one afternoon, and this woman I would describe as having the voice somewhere between Eleanor Roosevelt and Tallulah Bankhead plus a couple of packs of Marlboros a day, said — demanded, really — that she have a hot plate on the reading program,” Morash recalled.

That was the first time Morash and Julia Child spoke. The two soon jumped into working together when GBH created pilots and, eventually, full seasons of The French Chef.

“Russ realized that she was not just an author — she was really great on the camera, and that we should try making a program with her telling us how to cook,” said Henry Becton, former president of GBH. “I think Russ was certainly the one who found Julia in that sense.”

A man with graying hair points offscreen.
Russell Morash on the set of “This Old House” in season 10.
Richard Howard for GBH

Becton was working as GBH’s program manager when Morash launched the iconic, long-running series This Old House, which debuted in 1979. Just a few years before, in 1974, he started the gardening show The Victory Garden.

The shows were “the absolute precursors and inspiration of all iterations of reality TV,” said Fialkow.

“He was certainly one of the commanding fathers of the how-to genre — and the channels that came with it on cable,” Becton said.

The idea for This Old House came from Morash’s own life, as he fixed up his house in the Boston suburbs with his wife Marian Morash — who also worked extensively on This Old House and The Victory Garden. The couple was surprised by the response they got from their friends, that TV producers would do work on their own homes.

“My dad had done it and was a carpenter and builder and a great man, and he taught us — my brother and I — how to do it. And it was not a big deal. But everyone else thought it was a big deal,” Morash recalled.

As Morash himself told it, his success behind the camera came from taking the production crew where they had “no business being”: into the field.

“There was no television in the field. Oh, there was a baseball game, and a concert … but you had to roll some very heavy equipment. There were no lightweight, portable equipment. There were no lightweight lights! The radio microphones were a joke, just a cruel joke,” he said.

But This Old House was shot on location.

The show’s production was built around “eavesdropping” rather than tightly scripting an episode — not asking builders to stay silent or pause their work when the TV crew arrived. Instead, cameramen effectively walked through the house-in-progress to discover, as an unknowing audience member would, what each builder was doing and why.

“Right from the get-go, that show was unbelievably successful. And I have no idea why, except people love to see things getting fixed up and repaired,” Morash said. “The rest is history.”

“Whether it was Jim Crockett who teaches us how to garden, or Norm [Abram] who teaches us how to build, these people are great teachers,” he said in 2006. “They can make things work for you, if you just follow their directions.”

GBH called Morash a “trailblazer” in a statement released Monday and pointed to his 14 Emmy awards, as well as a Lifetime Achievement award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

“As we celebrate the life of Russ Morash, we reflect on the legacy he leaves at GBH, public media and beyond,” Susan Goldberg, president and CEO of GBH, wrote in a statement Monday. “His commitment to innovation and to the audience defines our work to this day.”

Morash stepped down from This Old House in 2004. In 2018, he was inducted into Massachusetts Broadcasters’ Hall of Fame.

“He always wanted to inform, educate and inspire viewers - with fun and humor,” Fialkow said. “He was a grand human being, one of one – truly. I will miss him endlessly.”

Updated: June 24, 2024
This story was updated with a statement from GBH.
Updated: June 21, 2024
This story was updated with material from a 2006 interview with Russell Morash.