November 28, 2017
Hall of Fame

Grant Tinker: Hall of Fame Tribute

Rip Rense

To hear Grant Tinker talk about his life, you might think nothing very extraordinary happened. The man speaks so self-effacingly, so matter-of-factly, that you'd think it was not unusual to have founded MTM Productions, or to have presided over the resurrection of NBC. To hear him tell it, Tinker never supervised anybody, never gave an order, never "ran" an organization. No, he "associated" with people who worked for him, he'll say. His part was strictly that of benign overseer. After all, he didn't create or write the Mary Tyler Moore Show, or Lou Grant, or The Cosby Show, etc., etc. He just, um, happened to be the head of the outfits that presented them.

If you really twist Grant Tinker's arm to say something prideful, this is about as direct as he's likely to get. “I'm not creative. I don't have any specific creative skills, as do a lot of those people I worked with at MTM. But I have been given credit for recognizing, or knowing the difference between a good creative person and a not-so-good one. Maybe there is something creative about that. I don't want to seem too humble here, but the people who do the creating, who actually are on the line, are far more important than those of us who select them, or presumably, supervise them.”

Hey, for Tinker, that's practically pompous.

To really understand the value of this man in the history of televised entertainment, don't talk to him. Talk to those who've worked with him. Like fellow Hall-of-Fame inductee James L. Brooks.

"Well, I think the whole Hall of Fame should start with Grant Tinker," said Brooks, who was half of the great MTM writing team with Allan Burns (paired up by Tinker). “I don't know anybody who, just in his moment-to-moment existence, does more to inspire and help people than Grant. There's nobody who will say otherwise. He was one of the first guys I ever worked for, so I thought they were all like that.” (The reader may pause here to laugh.) “He's an extraordinarily smart man, with a real sense of ethics and morality and high purpose. Anything he went into he would have distinguished and taken to another ground. And it happened to have been television. He's just the goods. He's a unique man.”

Or talk to Hall-of-Famer Steven Bochco, who developed a little police drama for MTM called Hill Street Blues: 

“When I was at Universal, getting an appointment with Frank Price was like get­ ting an appointment with the Pope … And here I walked into MTM, and there's Grant saying, ‘Come on in.’ This guy's in dungarees and a sweater. I thought, ‘Wow, look at this!’ He said, ‘It's great to have you here.’ I said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ He said, ‘It doesn't matter what I want you to do, what do you want to do?’ I thought I'd died and gone to heaven, and in fact, I had.”

The most compelling, if clinical, way to measure Tinker's contribution to television, is to look at his resume, which spans much of the history of the medium, and some of the shows that would not have existed without MTM Productions (which he did run): Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, Rhoda, WKRP In Cincinnati, Lou Grant, Remington Steele, The White Shadow, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere. Or some of the shows he presided over during his tenure at the helm of NBC: Family Ties, The Cosby Show, The Golden Girls, Night Court, Cheers, L.A. Law. Or the roster of writers/producers/directors who "graduated" from MTM: Brooks, Bochco, Glenn Gordon Caron, Gary David Goldberg …

To hear Tinker talk, though, all the talented people he hired, particularly at MTM, drifted his way by accident. "Really," he once said, "I have inordinate good luck in my associations with people I have recruited or inherited."

While the man's humility is admirable, standing out like a glittering jewel in the five-and-dime ego emporium of Hollywood, it conveys an inaccurate picture. As Goldberg, creator of Family Ties, once declared, "Grant makes everyone he comes into contact with better. Without him, I would be just another hack." Adds Allan Bums: "Grant is the most astute spotter and supporter of talent I've ever known, and when I say supporter, I mean in spades."

Grant Tinker is an artist, really, and the keeper of a talent that neither invites attention nor obvious definition. He is a facilitator. He makes good things happen, or rather, he creates circumstances that allow them to happen. Not a creative person? He created environments, literal and figurative, where writers, actors, directors were free to indulge their talents — the place Bochco described as heaven. It's always been a rarity in any medium, and in many businesses: the boss who has enough faith in the ability of his employees to let them do their best. In Hollywood, it's practically freakish; imagine a network president or production company not kow-towing to demographics, advertisers — not trembling over every new dimple in the ratings. Imagine that boss saying, "to hell with the ratings, this show is good — give it time." Imagine that, along with a good dose of graciousness and work ethic, and you've imagined Tinker.

It almost sounds easy, doesn't it? You're the boss; you create the policies. Just hire the right people, sit back, and — voila! Instant quality programming. Sadly, this task is more akin to parting the Red Sea. Accomplishing what Tinker has in the ever-so-slightly competitive, wee-bit-unforgiving, faintly money-conscious business of TV seems so unlikely — especially in the era of instant cancellation — as to be almost bizarre. Yet the stories of Tinker standing up for people and programs are legion.

Take, for instance, an early premise for the Mary Tyler Moore Show, as developed by Brooks and Burns. CBS, in part, didn't like the idea of Mary being divorced, and bluntly rejected the premise.  “[CBS] told Grant, ‘get rid of these guys,’ Burns remembered. Well, not only did he not get rid of us, but he didn't tell us what had happened. It would have been easy for him to say, ‘look at what a hero I've been,’ but it's not Grant's style. We knew we took a terrible beating, and we thought maybe we should quit before we were fired, but we thought ‘no, Grant has been so supportive and decent, we're going to hang in for a while.’ CBS eventually went for the show, sort of half-heartedly.”

Then there were individual Mary episodes that were eschewed by the network. "We had meetings with CBS where they said, 'We hate these scripts — where's the Lucy here? Where's the Doris Day?"' Burns continued. "We said, 'We're not Lucy or Doris Day,’ and Grant supported us." CBS execs actually forbade MTM from shooting the episode introducing Rhoda's mother. The objectionable premise was that Rhoda couldn't stand her mom, so Ma Morgenstern ended up staying with Mary, driving her nuts. "They thought that America would hate Rhoda, and forbade us to shoot," said Burns. "Grant and Mary had gone to the bank for the underwriting, at considerable financial risk [for the series] — and Grant said, 'I read that, what's the matter with it? Shoot it anyway.’"

They did, and the episode won an Emmy.

There is also the well-known saga of Lou Grant. CBS wanted the spinoff to be a half-hour comedy, like Mary. Brooks and Burns wanted an hour drama, and Tinker approved. But early ratings were poor. CBS balked, telling Tinker to make the show more like Kojak. Brooks and Burns noted that editors don't go out and solve murders, and Tinker promised the audience would grow. A CBS honcho declared, "What you're giving us is the New York Times and we want the Daily News!"

"Grant exploded," said Burns. “He said, ‘I cannot believe you do not want the New York Times on your (expletive) network.’ That was Grant. He backed us to the fullest, and the audience found the show. We went from last place to first place in the same year. Thank you. Grant.”

The same kinds of things happened during Tinker's tenure at the helm of NBC, with shows like Cheers, St. Elsewhere, Hill Street Blues, Family Ties. They had no appreciable audiences to start with, and no reason to keep them on the air except that — they were good. Tinker, and his friend and colleague in those years, the late Brandon Tartikoff, just felt shows needed time to find their audiences.

"It's sort of a no-brainer," the 71-year-old Tinker said, reached at his office in Los Angeles. “You look at a show — and this is what programmers are paid to do — and make a judgment about that show: is it delivering, and is it good, whatever. And if you decide yes, it is good, then you leave it in place long enough and promote it intensely. It will ultimately succeed … It's never seemed to me to have been smart on our part, just self-interested.”

The famous Tinker humility, again. It's a trait that probably took hold in his youth, says son Mark, executive producer of NYPD Blue (Tinker has two other sons: Michael, a veteran LAPD officer, and John, executive producer of Chicago Hope, and a daughter, Jodie):

“He won't give up too much. He keeps those cards close. He's really unable to acknowledge his contribution to things; he has a shyness and embarrassment at having the spotlight on him. His dad probably broke his balls when he bragged.”

In any case, what Mark called Tinker's "puritan work ethic" was certainly instilled by his father, Arthur, a World War I veteran wounded at Chateau Thierry. Pop Tinker worked all his adult life for a lumber firm in the family's hometown of Stamford, Connecticut, eventually rising to president. Young Grant's first ambition was to avoid a career in lumber. He discovered the charm of the written word early, inspired by his mother, Margaret, whose avid reading habit, he said, stemmed partly from the fact that she was deaf. (Young Grant and sisters Phyllis and Joan communicated with their mom through lip-reading and a kind of homemade sign language.) He recalls, with a trace of amusement, his first infatuation with literature — devouring every single volume of The Putnam Hall Cadets, a Hardy Boys-like series (and "very light reading, indeed").

When World War II broke out, his dad joined a local national guard-like regiment, his mom signed up for a civilian driving corps, and 18-year-old Grant interrupted the start of college education at Dartmouth to serve in the Army Air Corps. "I desperately," he said, "wanted to be a pilot. All the young guys wanted to fight the war … I thought this would be a wonderful way to do it — probably dangerous, too, but that didn't occur to us." He never made it. There were too many cadets in line, so he spent nearly three years "bopping around" seven or eight Army bases, before returning to Dartmouth on the G.I. Bill as an English major ("I wasn't any good at sciences").

Tinker was to spend countless hours in the school library, he writes in Tinker on Television: From General Sarnoff to General Electric (co-authored by Bud Rukeyser), just to maintain a 2.6 average. ("But," he adds, "I did learn to work.") He harbored a fantasy of entering publishing — "about which I knew nothing." Picturing himself sitting in an office reading and editing ("sounded like fun"), he was so stubborn in this ambition that when the placement director at Dartmouth tried to arrange interviews with various companies drafting graduates, he refused to participate. But when the director later mentioned a training program at the National Broadcasting Company, Tinker thought there was no harm in investigating. All he knew of NBC, the most powerful company in radio at the time, had come from lying on the living room floor as a kid listening to Fibber McGee & Molly or Jack Benny with his dad. No matter.

So how did Grant Tinker get his big start in a career that would one day land him at the top of that network? Well, one February day in 1949, he walked over to 30 Rockefeller Plaza and just applied for a job. He started at $3,000 a year in a training program that essentially meant being shunted from department to department, from sound effects to music rights, whatever. After a month at station KOA in Denver, Tinker returned to New York because “they ran out of places and divisions to send me." There he was placed in operations nights and weekends, and really learned. "It was," he remembered, "the best education I could have, just a skeleton staff keeping the network on the air until we went off at 1:00 a.m."

To look over the progression of Tinker's entire career is to think it was well-planned, carefully orchestrated. In truth, it was more shaped by devil-may-care whimsy. Throughout his life, the man merely walked away from rock-solid positions to try something new. No wonder longtime Mary director Jay Sandrich said, "It takes great courage to be a Grant Tinker." Or simple boredom?

"Not boredom," said Tinker, who was to leave NBC to join Radio Free Europe in 1952 on the prospect of going to Istanbul (just because the job had a "romantic, save-the-world sound"). "It was more looking at the place across the street and somehow finding it more challenging or interesting. I don't remember ever leaving a job because I hated it." Or, as he wrote in his book, "'Why not?' has always been my substitute for long-range planning."

“Why not?” led him to link up with personal manager/promoter John Moses in 1952, and to hatch College Quiz Bowl with Allen Ludden (Tinker, who produced, will tell you his contribution was keeping score on a blackboard), then New Talent, USA (like Bowl, sold to NBC). “Why not?” next led to McCann-Erickson, the ad agency (ad agencies were major players in TV programming in those days; at McCann, Tinker developed a forerunner to Good Morning, America, for ABC), then to Benton and Bowles, and, by 1961, back to NBC for a stint in programming. Along the way, he worked with shows like The Danny Thomas Show, The Real McCoys, The Ann Sothern Show … and The Dick Van Dyke Show, through which Tinker met his future wife of 17 years, Mary Tyler Moore. ("She knocked my socks off," he writes.) At NBC in Burbank, Tinker's style took hold: "My mission," he said, “was to get good producers and let them produce.” I Spy, Dr. Kildare, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. were among the fruits of this labor.

His 11 years as president of MTM, whose shows won more than two dozen Emmys, and his third tour of duty at NBC — at the behest of RCA President Thornton Bradshaw (RCA owned NBC) — however, will always be Tinker's favorite “why nots?”.

"Mary was offered a 13-week commitment on CBS to do a show of her own, and I used that to start the company, in effect," he remembered. “Had the show failed, it wouldn't have been a company at all … I thought of going to NBC as a return home. It just seemed evolutionary, appropriate … Actually, I've done only two things that I can look back on and think I did well. One was MTM … and the other was the resuscitation of NBC — and I quickly add, I don't mean I resuscitated it, but a whole group of people ...” 

Tinker took NBC from last place in 1981 to first in 1985: "the year of the peacock," as it has been dubbed, then he walked away again. General Electric was "gobbling up" RCA, as he put it, and besides, he was tired of weekly bi-coastal commuting. In the late '80s, there was a brief effort to build another MTM-like facility, GTG Entertainment, but the skyrocketing cost of writers and the breakneck rush to cancel shows that were not instant hits doomed the valiant effort. These days, Tinker says, he does "nothing." Well, nothing except serve on the Board of Directors for PBS's KCET and the international channel, KSCI, both in Los Angeles, and act as chairman of Phoenix House of California, the largest non-profit drug-abuse treatment program in the country ("probably the most worthwhile thing that I do"). Says son Michael: "I can't see him retiring. I think he would like nothing better than to go off and teach English at a private school."

Of post-Tinker TV, the man is hesitant to criticize — but allows for some disappointment.  “What I thought we had taught the industry … that quality will win out, if you stick with it, has been forgotten. We're seeing the same try-something-for-three-weeks, and get rid of it if it doesn't find an audience. It's not only a dumb way to go, but it's the more expensive way to go.”

Asked for a comment about entering the Hall of Fame, Tinker puffed up and carried on at great length about how deserving he is, fairly choking on self-importance. Well, hardly. In truth, he hemmed and hawed, pleading embarrassment, unworthiness, of being less deserving than others, etc. So perhaps a comment from his old director pal at MTM, Jay Sandrich, will serve as a proper last word on the subject:

"I think everybody who knows Grant Tinker wishes he were still in the business, making decisions. We'd all rush right back to work for him."

This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Grant Tinker's induction in 1997.

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