Grant Tinker, who used “quality television” as the cornerstone to create the prolific production house MTM Enterprises with his then-wife Mary Tyler Moore and then reverse the fortunes of NBC in the 1980s, has died. He was 90.
Tinker, who had his fingerprints on such shows as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Family Ties, St. Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues, died Monday at his home in Los Angeles, his son, TV producer-director-writer Mark Tinker, told the Associated Press.
NBC’s Today show remembered Tinker on Wednesday.
Starting as the first-ever trainee in the radio division of NBC in 1949 — his first of three stints with the company — Tinker had a ringside seat to the birth of television. He seemed to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time, as in 1961, when he went to watch the filming of the pilot episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Then, as an advertising agency executive with Benton & Bowles, Tinker had secured sponsorship from his client Procter & Gamble for the sitcom created by Carl Reiner, based on his adventures writing for Sid Caesar on Your Show of Shows.
When Tinker visited the set, he was introduced to the cast, including the up-and-coming Moore, who was playing the wife of TV comedy writer Rob Petrie (Van Dyke).
Moore certainly caught Tinker’s eye, though he claimed it wasn’t love at first sight. “I can’t say I was hit by a hammer when I was introduced to her,” Tinker recalled in a 1998 interview with the Archive of American Television. “But she made an immediate impression on me, which grew over time.”
A year to be exact — the two married in 1962.
In 1969, Tinker had moved from Universal TV to serve as a vice president at Twentieth Century Fox TV when he met James L. Brooks and Allan Burns. Burns was a writer on Room 222, an ABC series Brooks had created. When CBS approached Moore with an offer to do her own show in 1969, Tinker turned to Brooks and Burns to create The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Tinker and Moore formed MTM Enterprises to produce it.
The concept they came up with was much different from what the network had in mind. It was expecting a sitcom along the lines of The Lucy Show or The Doris Day Show, but Brooks and Burns delivered a high-concept comedy about Mary Richards (Moore), an independent, single woman going out on her own after being jilted by her longtime boyfriend. (CBS balked at having Mary depicted as a divorcee.) Mary moved to Minneapolis and built a quirky family among her friends and co-workers at a local TV station, where she worked in news as an associate producer.
Tinker continuously championed Brooks and Burns’ quest to break the sitcom mold with more sophisticated comedy, serious topics and a main character who didn’t need a man to complete her. His instincts were right on. The Mary Tyler Moore Show topped the ratings for seven seasons, won 29 Emmys — including outstanding television series three years straight — and made stars of Ed Asner, Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman and Ted Knight.
In a statement, Moore called Tinker her “mentor” and said he was “a brilliant, driven executive who uniquely understood that the secret to great TV content was freedom for its creators and performing artists. This was manifest in his ‘first be best and then be first’ approach.”
In 2007, Time magazine included the show on its list of “17 Shows That Changed TV,” writing that it was “a sophisticated show about grown-ups among other grown-ups, having grown-up conversations.”
It also gave Tinker the clout to turn MTM Enterprises into a producing empire. For the next decade, MTM (Moore’s initials) Enterprises ruled the airwaves with a string of iconic series, including The Bob Newhart Show, Rhoda, WKRP in Cincinnati, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, The White Shadow and Lou Grant.
Tinker’s formula was simple: Hire the best creatives and stand aside to let them do what they do best. Gary David Goldberg, Steven Bochco, Bruce Paltrow, Hugh Wilson, Joshua Brand, John Falsey and Tinker’s son Mark were among those who found success at MTM.
“Grant makes everyone he comes in contact with better,” Goldberg (Family Ties) said when Tinker was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1997. “Without him, I would be another hack.”
After Moore and Tinker divorced in 1981 (they didn’t have any children), he moved on from MTM Enterprises and NBC — lagging in the ratings, losing millions of dollars and mocked as “Nothing but Catastrophe” — wanted him back for a third time.
Tinker took over as chairman from Fred Silverman and, working with programming chief Brandon Tartikoff, attracted younger viewers to fuel a resurgence with a string of hits that included Family Ties, The Cosby Show, Cheers, The Golden Girls, Night Court, Miami Vice and Remington Steele.
NBC rose to become No. 1 in the ratings, and as The New York Times wrote in 1987, “Tinker led the network away from the graveyard into the gravy. During his chairmanship, NBC profits soared — from $48 million in 1981 to more than $400 million in 1986.”
“Our dream is to have quality programs that succeed,” he told New York magazine in 1982.
“Grant Tinker was a great man who made an indelible mark on NBC and the history of television that continues to this day,” current NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke said in a statement. “He loved creative people and protected them while still expertly managing the business. Very few people have been able to achieve such a balance. We try to live up to the standards he set each and every day.”
Also in a statement, NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt called Tinker a “towering figure in the history of the NBC network. … He restored success and dignity to NBC and helped define our brand that still endures to this day.”
The antsy Tinker left NBC in 1987 to form GTG (Grant Tinker-Gannett) to once again try his hands-on producing approach, partnering with Gannett Co., a huge, diversified media corporation. The venture produced Baywatch but gained little traction and closed in 1990.
Born in Stamford, Conn., to Margaret and Arthur Almerin Tinker, a lumber supplier, Tinker entered Dartmouth College in 1944. Because he was not yet 18 and it was the height of World War II, he was accepted to the Ivy League school despite less-than-stellar grades. Tinker left after his freshman year when he was old enough to enlist and served to the end of the war in the Army Air Corps Reserve. Afterward, he returned to Dartmouth, graduating in 1949.
Determined not to follow in his father’s footsteps, Tinker, then 23, rejected the staid jobs being offered and headed to New York without any prospects. As luck would have it, one of his professors learned NBC Radio was instituting a trainee program and suggested Tinker apply.
“I was accepted as their first trainee, which didn’t mean very much because they didn’t have a trainee program,” Tinker said during the TV Archive interview. “They just wanted to have one. They would shuffle me around from department to department to give me a feel for the whole place.”
After a year as a trainee at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, Tinker was given a permanent position — operations manager of the radio network. A year later, when offered more than twice the salary from Radio Free Europe, he left NBC.
This established a pattern that Tinker followed throughout his career. He never stayed in one job too long, always looking, as he put it, to see where the grass might be a little greener.
Nothing came of the Radio Free Europe position, so he joined up with personal manager/promoter John Moses at General Artists Corp. Moses’ claim to fame was ushering the comic team Bob & Ray into the New York radio market. While there, Tinker became friendly with an up-and-coming personality named Allen Ludden and became part of the team that created College Quiz Bowl, a game show hosted by Ludden that pitted students against each other in a test of knowledge.
In 1954, Tinker joined McCann Erickson as its TV department’s director of programming development. With advertisers having much more say in television in the 1950s through sponsorship, it was here and at his 1958-61 stint at Benton & Bowles that Tinker learned the new medium. He was involved with The Danny Thomas Show, The Real McCoys and The Ann Sothern Show, among others.
As NBC vice president of West Coast programming from 1961 to 1967, he helped usher in such shows as I Spy, Dr. Kildare and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. When he read the script for Get Smart, he said, he immediately knew the Don Adams series would be a winner.
Tinker did occasionally slip up. He admitted he passed on Bewitched after watching the pilot, feeling it was a one-joke comedy. ABC bought the sitcom and it was a hit from the start.
In 1967, Tinker left NBC again, despite four years left on his contract and no job prospects. But as he liked to tell it, he was out of work for four blocks. The afternoon he quit, he was walking along Fifth Avenue when he ran into producer Jennings Lang, who offered him a job at Universal.
Tinker relocated to Los Angeles and spent 1968 and 1969 as vice president of Universal TV, where he helped produce It Takes a Thief and Marcus Welby, M.D.
In 1994, Tinker wrote a book with Bud Rukeyser titled Tinker in Television: From General Sarnoff to General Electric. A decade later, he received a Peabody Award “for recognizing, protecting and fostering creativity of the highest order.”
From 1950 to 1962, Tinker was married to Ruth Prince Byerly. In addition to his son Mark, whose credits include St. Elsewhere, NYPD Blue and Chicago, P.D., survivors include another son, TV writer John Tinker, who also worked on St. Elsewhere, among other shows.
“My father set the bar high both as a television executive and a father,” Mark said in a statement. “I never heard anyone speak of him with anything other than respect and admiration. I’m proud to be his son and especially proud of the legacy he leaves behind in business and as a gentleman.”