TV executive Grant Tinker died this week, but I hate describing him with such a generic, dismissive label. He was an advertising man and a producer, the guy at the head of MTM Enterprises and later NBC. But none of these descriptions do him justice, either. So let’s try one more time: His rare combination of business acumen, creative instincts, respect for writing and vision, and his old-fashioned decency made him a goddamn legend who deserved to be a goddamn legend. There. That’s at least a little closer.
You could go your whole life enjoying many of the products of Grant Tinker’s genius without ever knowing who Grant Tinker was. He was a vice president at Twentieth Century Fox Television in 1969 when his then-wife, actress Mary Tyler Moore, was putting together a new show for CBS. He spotted the talent of writer-producers James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, who were running the innovative high school drama Room 222, produced by Twentieth Century. He asked the two to take a crack at whipping up something for Moore—the result was the beautifully crafted Mary Tyler Moore Show.
“I hired you because you did stuff that seemed to be in the real world,” he told Brooks and Burns. “And that’s what I want this to be.” Tinker would have to fight CBS executives to secure his producers the right to do (mostly) what they wanted with the show: They pitched Moore as a divorced woman starting over. CBS balked and even asked Tinker to fire Brooks and Burns. (Divorce was still a big deal in 1969.) He refused to do so, but the team-MTM worked out a relatively harmless compromise by making her character a single, professional woman getting over a breakup. The divorce didn’t have to be the point, per se. They made a show that was not only a classic, but also a watershed moment for women on television—she may not have been divorced, but she was a professional, single woman who took birth control, stayed out all night sometimes, and never bothered to get married in the seven-year run of the show.
Tinker wanted his wife to have the career she wanted, a sadly remarkable trait for the time. CBS’s then-vice president of development, Fred Silverman, told me in my book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted that Moore and Tinker were a formidable business team: “They knew exactly what they wanted to do and they were going to do it. After that the network threw its hands up.”
MTM Enterprises became a gold standard for TV studios over the next two decades. Their series included The Bob Newhart Show, Rhoda, Lou Grant, WKRP in Cincinnati, Hill Street Blues, Remington Steele, St. Elsewhere, and Newhart. The studio lot on Radford Avenue was known as “Camelot” because of Tinker’s insistence on creative autonomy for his producers.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about Tinker is that even though I talked to dozens of people about him for my book, not one said one even slightly negative thing about the guy. This is in Hollywood, mind you. All they had were tales of generosity, goodness, fairness, and principles. When I talked to the man himself, he was a forthcoming gentleman, the real deal. He will be missed, but his influence lives on in every great show you see today.