Grant Tinker died this week aged 90. I’ve been thinking that it’s curious being in the UK because he wasn’t well known here – except he probably wasn’t that generally known in his home USA either. But if you had heard of him, what you heard was brilliant. And if you hadn’t, you still saw him through his incredible work that brought us Hill Street Blues, St Elsewhere, my own favourite Lou Grant and just an impossibly long list of more.
He didn’t create any of those shows. He didn’t write any of them. He wasn’t a producer or a director or an actor.
He was what’s still sometimes called a suit. He was a network executive and if any other exec has ever had an obituary then it was on the back pages of Variety or Broadcast. Google Grant Tinker’s name and you’ll see a flood of tributes, every one of which says something along the lines that obituaries always say someone was great but in this case it’s true.
Listen, obituaries always say someone was great but in this case it’s true.
I never met him and he never once heard of me. But I hoped to engineer a way to get to interview him. Back in 2004 I went to Los Angeles specifically to work in UCLA reading the Lou Grant papers in the Gene Reynolds collection. I’ve still yet to get a publisher to commission a book about the show but my interview wishlist here has Grant Tinker on it. Had Grant Tinker.
Here’s an example of why. I can’t remember which show this happened in and in the flood of tributes to the man Google isn’t helping me find it, but it’s a writers’ story so of course I love it.
I think the show may even have been The Mary Tyler Moore Show: little known here and now very dated in the States but in its time important, groundbreaking and funny.
Two writers are in a meeting with some higher up network TV executives. The show hasn’t started yet, they’re still developing it and this was an important meeting. Important enough that Tinker was there too.
The writers have this meeting and leave, very pleased with how it went.
As soon as they are out of the door, though, the execs order Grant Tinker to fire them.
Not only did he not do it, he never told the writers and it was years before they found out. They’d gone off happily and created a smash-hit series.
That’s typical of the reasons I so very much admired this man. He would hire writers and other creative people, then let them get on with it and protect them. Compare this to today when a US drama can’t cast the very smallest of walk-on, one-line parts without the network approving their choice.
It’s a coarse summary to say that US network television is now run by companies more experienced in accounting and finance than drama. It’s even coarser to say that the less they know about television, the more they interfere. But it’s entirely accurate to say that US network TV is in a bad state, even as cable television companies like HBO are making this a golden age of American drama.
Grant Tinker’s approach turned around the fortunes of NBC in the 1970s and 80s. It went from third and last position to first because of the shows he choose and nurtured. His reputation meant that NBC became the network that the best creative people wanted to work for, wanted to pitch to.
It’s commonplace and easy to conclude an obit by saying that we won’t see the likes of this man again. But we haven’t yet and my favourite dramatic medium needs more Grant Tinkers.