Grant Tinker, who produced “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and other television hits in the 1970s and transformed NBC from a perennial ratings loser to a powerhouse of literate, sophisticated network programming that helped change America’s viewing habits in the ‘80s, died Monday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 90.
NBC confirmed the death Wednesday.
To a generation whose tastes were shaped by the tube, Tinker was the unseen hand behind many of the most stylish, critically acclaimed sitcoms and dramas on television. He did it by giving his writers space to thrive, shielding them from those foolish studio and network executives who said they liked the story, all right, but wanted to change the boy to a dog – and usually got their way.
As president of MTM Enterprises, a company he founded with his second wife, Mary Tyler Moore, in 1970, Tinker produced the show named for her, one of the first series to feature an independent career woman as the central character, as well as spinoffs like “Rhoda” and the one-hour newsroom drama “Lou Grant,” which examined real societal issues.
And as chairman and chief executive of NBC from 1981 to 1986, Tinker crammed prime time with many of television’s most imaginative, successful and long-running series, including “The Cosby Show,” “Cheers,” “Hill Street Blues,” “Family Ties,” “St. Elsewhere” and “Miami Vice.”
Besides runaway ratings and an avalanche of awards, during Tinker’s tenure, NBC secured annual profits that soared to $500 million, from $48 million.
After decades of formula network programming that, with notable exceptions, had made a wasteland of television, Tinker changed the landscape, using ensemble casts and intertwined story lines, casting blacks and women in leading roles and examining serious topical issues: life and death in a hospital for the poor; conflicts in a family or an impoverished police precinct; a reporter’s look at civil rights, insanity or checkbook journalism.
Nurturing many writers and producers whose work dominated network television for years to come, Tinker resigned from NBC after General Electric took over its parent company, RCA, in 1986. With Gannett, the media conglomerate, he later formed GTG Entertainment and produced a newsmagazine for television and other shows, but failed to repeat his earlier successes, and the company was dissolved in 1990.
Though relatively unknown to audiences, Tinker was a legend in television, especially to his writers. “Grant Tinker’s real unique gift is in creating an environment where people feel safe, nurtured, protected to do what they do best,” Steven Bochco, a creator of “Hill Street Blues,” told The New York Times in 1986.
Gary Goldberg, who created “Family Ties,” a sitcom about hippie parents from the ‘60s and their children in the ‘80s, including a conservative son, had no television experience when he arrived at MTM.
“Grant let me know a writer was special,” he recalled in 1987. “He said I was not there to find out what the networks wanted. He said what had to come through in my shows was my personality, my view of the world. Grant makes everyone he comes into contact with better.”
Grant Almerin Tinker was born on Jan. 11, 1926, in Stamford, Connecticut, the son of a lumber supplier. He graduated from Dartmouth in 1949 and joined NBC as an executive trainee, but left in 1954. He went into advertising and for seven years developed programs for television – as ad agencies did then – first for McCann-Erickson and later for Benton & Bowles.
In 1961, Tinker rejoined NBC in Los Angeles, in charge of West Coast programming, and developed “I Spy,” “Dr. Kildare” and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”
He returned to New York as the head of programming in 1966, but quit in 1967 to return to California, where he developed television series for Universal – including “It Takes a Thief” and “Marcus Welby, M.D.” – and for 20th Century Fox.
Setting out as an independent in 1970, Tinker and Moore formed MTM to produce “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” for CBS. Created by James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, the show had phenomenal success over the next seven years, which led to a host of spinoff hits and a growing stable of writers and producers eager to work in a creative atmosphere.
By 1981, when Tinker was hired to resurrect NBC, the network was in the doldrums, with dismal ratings, sagging profits and defections by viewers, affiliates and advertisers, which threatened NBC’s very survival.
A harsh critic of network programming, including NBC’s, Tinker seemed an unlikely savior. But by 1986, NBC had recaptured prime time and profits, while holding its own with the “Today” show, the “NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw” and Johnny Carson and David Letterman in the late-night slots.
Tinker and the former Ruth Byerly were married in 1950 and divorced in 1962. They had four children, Mark, Michael, Jodie and John. Tinker and Moore, who were married in 1963 and divorced in 1981, had no children.
Tinker’s survivors include his sons Mark and John. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
With Bud Rukeyser, NBC’s longtime head of corporate communications, Tinker wrote “Tinker in Television: From General Sarnoff to General Electric” (Simon & Schuster, 1994), an account of his four decades in the business.
In 2004, Tinker received a personal Peabody Award, the most prestigious in the industry. “We’re honoring him not just because of the MTM and NBC years,” said Horace Newcomb, the awards director, “but also because when you look at the people who are revered for their TV work, you find many of them worked under Mr. Tinker. His was a world in which TV’s best was accomplished.”