Grant Tinker, one of the most influential producers in TV history and for a time one of network TV’s most admired executives, has died. He was 90. His son, Mark Tinker, told The Associated Press his father died at his Los Angeles home Monday.
An advertising executive with Benton & Bowles in New York in the 1950s, Tinker became NBC chairman in 1981 — possibly the most chaotic juncture in the network’s long, proud history. Ratings had crashed, new shows were a laughing stock, and the very future of NBC came into question. The so-called Tinker Era reversed the slide, arguably saved NBC and set the stage for a “golden age” that endures to this day. “Hill Street Blues,” “St. Elsewhere,” “Family Ties,” “Cheers,” “Highway to Heaven,” “Night Court” “Miami Vice” and “Golden Girls” all established beachheads on Tinker schedules. One show above all — “The Cosby Show” — effectively revolutionized both the business and image of network television. NBC’s prime time became omnipotent.
As such, Tinker is still held in near-mythic regard at NBC — at least among those who still remember his remarkable run there. In a statement, NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke — whose own father, Daniel Burke, was a Tinker contemporary and part of a major ABC rebuild — said: “Grant Tinker was a great man who made an indelible mark on NBC and the history of television that continues to this day. 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. Our hearts go out to his family and friends.”
Indeed, Tinker’s true love was production — not the business of running a network. With Mary Tyler Moore, whom he married in 1962, he launched MTM Enterprises in 1969. While not designed to figure out Moore’s next career move, it would do exactly that. One of the rare executives who esteemed writers, Tinker reached out to James L. Brooks and Allan Burns to create the company’s first show. Moore was the big in-house star, also company co-chair, so naturally, their attention turned to her. The result was, of course, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” which launched in 1970.
When the run ended seven years later, “Mary Tyler Moore” had become the most celebrated, and honored, comedy in U.S. TV history, with a total of 29 Emmys — three best comedy wins, and three lead actress wins for Moore in 1973, ’74 and ’76.
The show also became an MTM template, eventually an industry one, too. A so-called “independent producer,” MTM challenged the hegemony of Hollywood’s true production powerhouses, notably Warner Bros. Television. MTM eventually launched other hits, including “The Bob Newhart Show,” the “MTM” spinoff “Rhoda,” “Hill Street Blues” and “St. Elsewhere.”
Tinker’s formula was to hire talented producers, then leave them alone. The laissez-faire approach was applied at NBC — or at least superficially applied. Tinker’s chief lieutenant, Freeport-raised Brandon Tartikoff, massaged the talent and developed the shows, or those not owned by MTM. But he also embraced the Tinker edict: Talented producers like Steven Bochco don’t need their hand held, and they certainly don’t need to be second-guessed either.
Word spread: NBC isn’t run by ogres any longer, the pay is good, and interference minimal. Some of TV’s biggest production stars — or at least future stars — heeded the call: Glen Larson (“Knight Rider”), Stephen Cannell (“The A-Team”), Robert Butler and Michael Gleason (“Remington Steele”), even Steven Spielberg (“Amazing Stories”). One of NBC’s biggest hits — a global one — featured a who’s who gallery of writers: Dick Wolf, Joel Surnow, Daniel Sackheim, Ed Zuckerman and Ted Mann. Wolf and Zuckerman would go on to create one of the most enduring franchises in all of TV history — “Law & Order.”
Meanwhile, “The Cosby Show” — which launched in ’84 — was largely directed by one of Tinker’s closest and oldest associates, Jay Sandrich. Their association dated back to the early ’60s when Tinker — in his role as programming exec at B&B — helped develop “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” Ed. Weinberger, another longtime Tinker friend and associate, had writing credits over nearly 200 “Cosby” episodes.
When Tinker left NBC in 1986, he found a different world — largely one of his own making. TV writers who had been formerly contract players became independent producers themselves — thanks to the largesse of NBC and Tinker. Cosby became one of the most powerful industry players, essentially controlling much of NBC’s Thursday lineup. Carsey-Werner — producer of “Cosby” — became an industry titan.
Tinker tried to launch a new independent production company on a tight budget, but stumbled — effectively because he had become priced out of the market. His new company, GTG, forged a pact with newspaper company Gannett to launch a daily TV show based on USA Today. That was a flop. He later sold a handful of series to CBS — those also went nowhere.
During an interview with Newsday in 1994, while promoting a memoir, Tinker — whose marriage to Moore ended in 1981 — seemed chastened. Of the marriage, he said: “It was a marriage like any other which ultimately failed. I don’t know what else you can say.” (Both Moore and Tinker had met on the set of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” pilot, and he said in a later interview, “I just fell in love with her. I can’t say I was hit by a hammer, but she made an immediate impression on me which grew over time.”)
He confirmed that CBS had approached him a couple of years earlier via a major investor to run the network, but “they’d be foolish to ask me to do it over a long term, because of my age, and I think it needs younger thinking.”
What would he do if he were to run a network again? He replied that he’d hire “the same guys who did the work. I hoped I made it clear in the book that it was a collective effort.”
Born in 1926, the son of a lumber supplier, Tinker had grown up in Stamford, Connecticut, served in the Army Air Forces Reserve at the end of World War II, then later graduated from Dartmouth College before his first short stint at NBC.
Then he moved into advertising — at a time when ad agencies, notably B&B with its long association with Procter & Gamble — were heavily responsible for crafting programs its clients would sponsor. He later was vice president of West Coast programming for NBC, then quit, landing programming jobs at Universal and 20th Century Fox.
Tinker is survived by his wife, Brooke Knapp, sons Michael, Mark (an executive producer of NBC’s “Chicago P.D.”) and writer-producer John, and daughter Jodie DiLella.