Grant Tinker: He Turned Quality TV Into Hits

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large
Yahoo TV
Grant Tinker
Grant Tinker (Photo: AP)

One of the rare TV executives whose creative mind was as alert as his business mind, Grant Tinker has died at age 90. Tinker cut a dashing, urbane figure streaking across the network skies, a silver-haired smoothie with a backbone and a brain for corporate maneuvering and invention. Without him, there would have been no Mary Tyler Moore Show; without his support, it’s likely that Cheers, Family Ties, and Hill Street Blues would not have survived their initially low-rated starts to build into the hits they became.

After coming up through the TV ranks by working for other studios, Tinker formed MTM Enterprises in 1970, named after Mary Tyler Moore, whom he’d married in 1962. He enlisted James L. Brooks and Allan Burns to build a sitcom around Moore, who was looking for a new vehicle after her co-starring role on The Dick Van Dyke Show. The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which ran from 1970 to 1977, introduced a new sophistication, some new snap and big-city vigor, into the sitcom genre. A popular hit as well as a critical success and an Emmy winner (29 of ’em), The Mary Tyler Moore Show was succeeded in the MTM Enterprises empire by spinoffs such as Rhoda and Phyllis, as well as The Bob Newhart Show, Lou Grant, Hill Street Blues, and St. Elsewhere. (Even his flops were interesting, including The Tony Randall Show, Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers, and The Bob Crane Show.)

Tinker was known as a generous guy who, while hardheaded and driven, also acknowledged the good work and imagination of others. In the mid-1970s, Brooks wanted to break away from MTM Enterprises to cook up his own new show, Taxi. He’d developed the show as an MTM employee, which meant that Tinker had the right to retain the show within his own shop, but he graciously allowed Brooks to take Taxi and run with it. “One phone call — that’s Grant Tinker,” Brooks told David Bianculli in the recent book The Platinum Age of Television. “Certainly, the way he treated people was a model.”

Tinker headed up NBC from 1981 to 1986, taking the network from third to first place. Working with programming head Brandon Tartikoff, Tinker established huge hits as varied as The Cosby Show, The A-Team, The Golden Girls, Miami Vice, Highway to Heaven, and St. Elsewhere, the latter produced by his son, Mark Tinker.

One of Tinker’s favorite sayings was “First be best, then be first.” In insisting on combining quality with popular outreach, Tinker secured a legacy for himself that will always live on.