Friday, December 2, 2016

I Remember Grant Tinker

I haven't thought of TV icon Grant Tinker in some time.
But the news that he had died at his Beverly Hills home aged 90 hit me hard and I'm still trying to digest it.
I was lucky to get two long interviews with Tinker, the unassuming TV genius who changed the face of American television.
I remember a huge party hosted by Tinker and his then wife Mary Tyler Moore  at Chasens eatery in Beverly Hills--it was on the second floor and there were 100 U.S. TV critics present.
At each table sat an MTM star.
MTM studios was then (in 1977) the premiere TV studio churning out such hits as Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, Rhoda, Phyllis.
"I get more requests for the tapes of Texas Wheelers," Tinker told me with a laugh. "It's one that failed because it was in the wrong time slot.
Originally an advertising executive, Tinker later became head of Universal TV and was responsible for such hits as Marcus Welby before going out on his own.
His first creation was The Mary Tyler Moore Show  (1970) starring wife Moore and stocked with a gaggle of scene stealers including Asner, Harper and Leachman --later Betty White would join the cast.
The show had a run of seven years and as Tinker told me "We should have tried for a few more years."
Spinoffs included Rhoda, Phyllis and Lou Grant and the easy going Tinker said he merely rounded together the best available writing talent including Jim Brooks and  Allan Burns.
It was a formula replicated in such later quality series as The White Shadow and Hill Street Blues.
"Rhoda was a big hit at first," Tinker said. "Phyllis bombed because she was too outrageous a character to be front billed. Lou Grant was a completely different challenge --a sitcom co-star who was changed into a dramatic figure."
When I first visited Tinker he had the corner office in MTM Studios which had started out as Republic studios. It wasn't a huge, imposing place but comfy with a lot of sofas because Tinker spent his days working with his writers and producers.
Later I met him again when he was president of ailing NBC which he turned around with such quality series as Cheers and Hill Street Blues.
When cable came in and the big networks started leaking viewers Tinker told me "I guess I  miss the days of the Big Three networks but I admit there were too many cookie cutter shows. We should have tackled more cultural shows instead of madly dashing for ratings with sometimes inferior series."
Betty White once told me "When Grant and Mary separated in 1980 I was floored. My husband and I went out to dinner with them that very night and they were completely civil and I wanted to cry. An era was ending that night."
When I later asked Tinker at a press conference what he thought of Moore's decision to return to sitcoms in 1985 he quipped : "She'd better hurry at her age is all I can say."
Then he immediately said "Don't print that. I was being very catty."
Later I interviewed his son John Tinker on the set of his series St. Elsewhere and thought how much he resembled his father in his insistence on quality.
MTM Studios no longer exists. The studio was sold off, but MTM Productions can still be seen in reruns.
But the Tinker touch of magic is still being practised in a handful of shows that focus on quality and highlight fine writing anmd casting.

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