Wednesday, November 30, 2016

RIP Grant Tinker

Television has not just lost a giant, it lost its Babe Ruth. Grant Tinker has died at the age of 90. The man who presided over MTM Enterprises in its heyday and then turned NBC into the number one network was 90. No one in the history of television has done more to lift the quality and advance the medium than Grant Tinker. And that’s not even what made him great.

As for those accomplishments: At MTM he was responsible for THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, RHODA, PHYLLIS, HILL STREET BLUES, ST. ELSEWHERE. Taking over NBC, which was mired in last place, he brought the world CHEERS, COSBY, TAXI, FAMILY TIES, GOLDEN GIRLS, MIAMI VICE, HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN, and dozens of other hit shows. Come Emmy time NBC would usually sweep. Compare that to today when broadcast networks are almost shut out at Emmy time.

His famous dictum was: “First be best, then be first.”

And he practiced it. He brought class, sophistication, and humanity to everything he touched.

In the early ‘70s he was married to Mary Tyler Moore. Coming off the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, she had a series commitment from CBS. Grant’s idea was to start an independent production company. MTM Enterprises was born. From there he produced other shows (such as THE BOB NEWHART SHOW) and built the company into a powerhouse.

But for me his greatest achievement was how much of a mensch he was. As a leader he was kind, thoughtful, smart, and treated everyone with respect. His philosophy was to hire the best people (like Allan Burns & James L. Brooks for THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW) and let them do their thing. Instead of injecting his own creative input (i.e. “notes”) he took on the role of protector – standing up for his writers against the networks, shielding them from unwanted interference. There’s no one like that today. Not even close.

MTM was Camelot for writers in the ‘70s. It’s where all TV writers wanted to work. When David Isaacs and I were starting out, MTM was our brass ring.

Happily, the first staff job we were offered was at MTM. It was for THE TONY RANDALL SHOW, produced by Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses (who had produced THE BOB NEWHART SHOW). We were hired at such a low level that we didn’t even have a title or on-screen credit. The only time we’d see our names on TV would be when we wrote episodes. But we didn’t care. We were at MTM.

Driving onto the lot that first day was one of the greatest days of my life. And it got better. Later that afternoon we went down to the stage for our first runthrough. Grant Tinker showed up, specifically to see us. He introduced himself, knew our names, welcomed us to MTM, and told us to call if there was anything we needed. Again, we were NOBODIES. Baby writers. We stood there in awe. That he would take the time and make the effort to do that astounds me to this day.

That same level of respect and protection was afforded all of us on CHEERS the first year of that show. Grant was running NBC by then. The ratings were dismal, but he didn’t care. He loved the show, believed in the show, and not only kept it on the air but left us all alone to do it our way. Ironic that his name was Tinker when tinkering was the last thing he ever did.

Whenever I would see him I felt I was in the presence of greatness. And I was always surprised he knew who I was.  Even after our tenth encounter.  This was like "the prettiest girl in school knew my name."   

There was a flap over a joke from an early CHEERS episode that David and I wrote. Some adoption agency took issue with an adoption joke we had written (a pretty funny one actually). The complaint somehow made its way all the way up to Grant. He called us personally to say don’t worry, he’d take care of it. Who does that? I mean, seriously, who does that???

Over the next few days you will read tribute after tribute. If it seems like the industry is praising a saint that’s because (in this one instance) it’s TRUE. Television and popular culture can never repay the debt owed to Grant Tinker. And for those of us lucky enough to work for him, it’s a loss of incalculable measure. He was a visionary, a father-figure, an inspiration, a leader in the true sense of the word, and like I said, a mensch.

He was the best. And he’ll always be first.

30 comments:

dandy_lio said...

I have some articles planned on Tinker's place in the Golden age of the sitcom in USA. He was pretty brilliant. Enjoyable read, cheers!

Ryan Patrick said...

A touching tribute. Thank you for giving us insight that other stories and obituaries won't.

thevidiot said...

I remember the day he called a meeting at NBC Burbank to inform us all that we would be owned by people who made light bulbs. And not coincidentally, he would not be making the trip with us.

I was considering other options & took one, partly as a result of that meeting. I always trusted him & he never let me down. RIP Mr T!

Cat said...

I always voice my respect for Brandon Tartikoff, but I somehow overlook Grant Tinker. For all of us who either work in TV or wanted to, this is a big loss. Thanks, Mr. Tinker, for all you gave us.

Michael Berk said...

My partner and cousin Douglas Schwartz and I were the first writing team Grant made an overall deal with to develop drama series at his new studio GTG (Grant Tinker Gannett). We developed Baywatch. At first Grant didn't like a show about lifeguards with all those bikinis on the beach. But nevertheless he supported us with Brandon Tartikoff at NBC to do a 2-hour movie back-door pilot. The movie did well and Baywatch got on the air on Friday Nights. It did well in the ratings, but by the end of the season Gannett pulled its funding and GTG went out of business. As a result Baywatch was cancelled. We were devastated. But our uncle Sherwood Schwartz (Gilligan's Island and the Brady Bunch creator) suggested we go to Grant and try to get the rights back. After all the studio was out of business. Once again Grant was more than gracious. He sold is the rights to Baywatch back for $10. As a result we were able too get the series back on the air in first-run syndication, and on May 19, 2017 the Baywatch Movie starring The Rock and Zac Efron will hit the big screen worldwide. If it were not for Grant Tinker's support and generosity Baywatch would have been another cancelled show that was a mere footnote in television history. Instead Baywatch as provided my and my family the most successful project in my career that today is stronger than ever 28 years later. Rest in peace, Grant. And thank you for everything.

gottacook said...

Among noteworthy MTM series, I'd add Lou Grant and The White Shadow, which were (I think) MTM's first forays into hour-long drama.

Mr. Hollywood said...

With the passing of a true giant in the world of entertainment like Grant Tinker, I can only ask: what giants are left? And, even more sadly, will there ever be any more like him again?

Frank Beans said...

I think TAXI was on ABC, so it doesn't belong in the 1980s NBC camp.

Also, what are the odds of losing Tinker and Fidel Castro both at age 90 within a week?

404 said...

Frank Beans, what are the odds that three great men like JFK, Aldous Huxley, and C.S. Lewis ALL die on the exact same day?

ODJennings said...

Come on, don't leave us hanging--what was the adoption joke?

jcs said...

Since I was a teenager during the 80s, I grew up with Tinker's fare. I am still amazed that he was able to put on unconventional shows like HILL STREET BLUES and ST. ELSEWHERE. Dire work environments, flawed heroes and a lack of happy endings were staples of these Tinker-approved dramas. Tinker allowed his writers and directors to inject a much higher dose of realism into their scripts than other network executives. Many shows during his era were more than a tad above the rest in quality and originality.

tavm said...

Actually, Frank, NBC picked up "Taxi" after ABC cancelled it. Maybe Danny DeVito's hosting "SNL" and having his cast do one "last" bow on the show had something to do with it as Tinker was on the network by then...

Andrew said...

I'm re-watching episodes of Cheers, along with my teenage daughter who is discovering it for the first time. I am so, so thankful that Cheers wasn't cancelled after one season. It's so superior to virtually everything on TV today. Such a great show, always laugh-out-loud funny, yet always poignant. Great writing, great acting, great directing. The end credits (with the clarinet) always bring me to nostalgia. For this and many other pleasures, thank you, Mr. Tinker. Job well done.

MikeK.Pa. said...

While I always enjoy reading your tributes, it's sad how often you've had to write them this year. The quality of his reign at MTM and NBC probably will likely never be repeated, also sad to say.

LouOCNY said...

It should also be remembered, that before MTM, Mr Tinker was a highly placed executive at NBC, where he was among those responsible for a lot of cool shows NBC had on in the late 60's such as THE MAN FROM UNCLE, GET SMART and of course, STAR TREK. A lot Trek lore seems to indicate he was one of those that gave Trek the chance for a second pilot and therefore a second chance.

Thanks for all of the great TV and RIP...

Michael Spadoni said...

I remember back in 1970, when our family tuned into CBS on a Saturday night and watched a new kind of sitcom. "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" was a revelation--no witches or genies, no bucolic humor, no formula families with formula children. It was bright, gentle and honest. From that point on, I became a fan of most MTM shows (especially "Lou Grant," which was required viewing for this budding journalist; and "Hill Street Blues," whose innovations live on in this so-called "dramatic golden age"). Everything I have read and learned about Grant Tinker matches your observations, Ken. No wonder the industry has responded to this brilliant, humane and driven television executive. I'm mourning his loss as well. Here's to Grant and the legacy he has left. May it never be forgotten.

Unknown said...

Yes, Taxi started on ABC, but it's last season wound up airing on NBC. Foggy on the why.

Jeannie said...

I wrote a press kit for "Cheers'" 100th episode, and needed to talk with Grant Tinker for one of the feature pieces. So I called his office, fully expecting to get his assistant, who would set up the real interview for a few days from then. Just my luck, Grant Tinker answered his own phone. I hadn't prepared any questions, but knew I had to take advantage of talking with him right away. Total mensch. His legend is earned and well-deserved. RIP.

Frank Beans said...

Re: TAXI--I stand corrected, I didn't realize that it migrated to NBC for its last season. I guess it got the reverse DIFF'RENT STROKES treatment.

peabody nobis said...

Sorry for your loss, Ken. I didn't know the man, and yet I feel a tremendous loss. He did a helluva job at a helluva hard job. And he was once married to Mary Tyler Moore, which was a pretty damned good accomplishment, in itself. Kudos, Mr. Tinker.

VP81955 said...

Thanks for the many great hours of TV you supplied us, Mr. Tinker -- and thanks for letting creative people create with minimal distraction. Many in the entertainment industry could learn from you.

Marco said...

Awesome. And whatever business you are in: Behaving the way Mr. Tinker obviously did will always pay out long-term.

Max Clarke said...

I watch an episode of Cheers! at least once a week. Still the best sitcom on the air.
Only today, I met somebody who owns the California license plate SYZYGY3. I told him about the episode Everyone Imitates Art, when Diane believes her poem has been accepted by the literary magazine Syzygy.

Good to see an appreciation of the man who saved the show when nobody else knew about it.

David Nichols said...

I never had a chance to work with Mr. Tinker directly. But the wonderful Allan Burns gave me my first staff writing job at MTM in the late '80's, so I always felt like I was benefitting from those bloodlines. (BTW, Brooks and Burns only got together to create "Mary Tyler Moore" because Grant Tinker put them together and said: "I think you two could come up with something good together."). But I was lucky enough to write a couple of pilots for NBC after Brandon Tartikof took the reins. I remember being in a meeting with Brandon in the Spring, when NBC was trying to decide which shows to renew for Fall. He didn't complain about GE at all. But he did say :

"I remember walking down the hall with Grant after a meeting and we were talking about what we should pick up. He said 'What about CHEERS?' I said 'It's dead last in the ratings. But I really like it.' Grant said 'So do I. Let's keep it.' And that was the end of the discussion."

I can only hope that there are leaders with that courage working in all of the new platforms that deliver our entertainment now. I'm happy to have worked under his influence.....

thesis writing service reviews said...

Glad to hear more about Grant Tinker. Post clarify us the greatness og Grant Tinker. His effort and work are so appreciable and motivational one. Thesis writing service reviews plan to write an essay about his life event on behalf of his memory.

Brian Phillips said...

From Warren Littlefield's appreciation of Grant Tinker:

"Early on after Grant arrived at NBC, he called me down to his office. I was a VP in comedy development and current comedy and this was a big deal being called into the chairman’s office. He stood at his desk — he was decades ahead of the trend to have standing workstations — and was reviewing the weekly ratings ranking report. He was chewing gum and asked me, “Do you have a warm winter coat?”

Huh, what? I thought, we’re living in SoCal, why would I need one?

He then explained: “It’s going to be a mighty cold winter for you. I’ve seen the shows on our lineup — there’s a reason we have none in the top 10 or even top 20. It’s going to be very cold for you.”

I wondered if this is how network execs got fired? Then he said, “Find better shows. Work with better people. You’ll enjoy working here much more, and you won’t need that coat.”

That was Grant Tinker. No screaming, no firing, a dose of reality, a waspish sense of humor and words to live by.

One evening as Brandon, Jeff Sagansky and I pondered what to do about the future of the lowest-rated comedy on all of network television, Cheers, Grant weighed in.

“Do you have anything better?”

“God, no.”

“You like it, right?”

“God, yes.”

“I think the discussion is over.”

Cheers of course went on to be the award-winning tentpole of our Thursday night schedule for the next decade."

willoughby productions said...

Mr. Hollywood asks, what giants are left? Not many is the answer. Les Moonves will likely go down as one for his contributions, but beyond that, the days of Tinker, Tartikoff are fast becoming just a memory

5w30 said...

Another NBC voice here, who in the early 80's worked at 30 Rock.
Through some project and Merryle S. (Bud) Rukeyser Jr, his press VP I was able to get 15 minutes with Grant Tinker. He knew all 21 years of me was shaking in my Weejuns when I walked into his 6th floor suite facing the nice bar Rockefeller Center puts in its plaza in the spring/summer. Tinker put me at ease right away. Told me about his first try at NBC as an executive trainee. Quite a different NBC back then, and quite a different NBC now in 2016.

Joyce said...

Thanks for your generous musings and memories, Ken.

Klee said...

That cat is in mourning...MTM Enterprises was truly legendary as his years as NBC's really true golden era!