Remembering Grant Tinker: TV Giant’s Legacy Is All Around Us

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Grant Tinker has died, but he is still with us.

You can catch glimpses of the legendary TV executive’s legacy in so many places. Shows that were developed or championed by Tinker set the stage for much of what’s great about TV now. Of course, the programs that he helped birth during his time at MTM and NBC were all over the map, and they can’t be limited by an easily defined set of qualities. 

But if it’s not presumptuous to say so, I think I saw pieces of Tinker’s soul in the best of the shows that were made on his watch.

Few things rile me more than the idea that TV would be better if it weren’t for the interfering, heartless suits who ruin everything. That’s just lazy thinking. Yes, such creatures exist; TV has always had executives who get in the way of enduring quality and creative integrity, and who fail to understand how caring about those things can lead to commercial success. But ask any TV writer if he or she has ever gotten a helpful or even brilliant note from an executive, and all of them will quickly provide examples.

A good executive can be a deciding element, the key influence that makes a decent show good, or a good show great. So many of Tinker’s shows achieved greatness. If that’s not evidence of a big, vibrant soul, I don’t know what is.

Tinker’s colleagues will do a better job than I can of talking about how he got such great work out of so many disparate creative types. All I know is that he was respectful and respected, and there are almost no stories of him being cruel or vindictive. He managed to be extraordinarily successful for decades without being feared or hated, which is something very much worth remembering.

But what I really know of the man is what I saw in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Rhoda,” “WKRP in Cincinnati,” “Cheers,” “Hill Street Blues” and “The Bob Newhart Show.”  These shows were humane, smart and silly. They showcased inspired pratfalls and people in pain. They were enormously influential parts of my growing-up years, and they taught me that wry compassion was the key to surviving life.

All these shows displayed a deep and abiding curiosity in the human condition, and that’s really all we can ask of people who tell stories for a living. Tinker was interested in why people are such screwups, and why they can nevertheless, when the worst happens, be so good to each other. Characters on his shows were consistent but surprising, and that is a combination that is almost always delightful.

Thinking about Tinker’s shows led me to a realization: I’m not talking about shows as much as I am recalling people. Like Norman Lear — who is, thank goodness, still inspiring the men and women making TV today — Tinker left us with so many unforgettable individuals.

Mary Richards, Lou Grant, Rhoda Morgenstern, Frank Furillo (a.k.a. Pizza Man), Sgt. Esterhaus, Venus Flytrap, Dr. Johnny Fever, Les Nessman, Sam Malone, Norm Peterson, Carla Tortelli — Tinker didn’t create these characters, but he allowed the writers for the shows they were on to make these men and women as individual and as strange and as flawed as they needed to be. These characters were not interchangeable. Each one was unique.

Anyone who uses a comic pause well or wrings the most awkwardness from a silent moment in a character-driven comedy owes a debt to “The Bob Newhart Show.” That great program, like “Cheers” and “WKRP” and “Hill Street,” was chock full of eccentric and memorably idiosyncratic individuals, but we don’t remember “The Bob Newhart Show” as being loud or broad or brassy. The humor and the drama in so many of the shows overseen by Tinker didn’t come from overwrought moments, cheap spectacle, cruel punchlines or unearned twists. They came from people, who are the most mysterious and hilarious and surprising creatures on earth. 

His entire career, Tinker stood by in an idea: Human beings are interesting. His legacy is faith in writers who wanted to create distinctive and complicated characters, and a belief that the audience would want to meet those fictional individuals.

He believed in writers, and he had patience that audiences would find good shows. Without that confidence, we would have been denied most of the great run of “Cheers.” Writer-producer Ken Levine, who worked with Tinker for years and was a key part of that comedy’s creative team, recalled how bad things were that first season.

“The ratings were dismal, but he didn’t care,” Levine wrote Wednesday in his appreciation of Tinker. “He loved the show, believed in the show, and not only kept it on the air but left us all alone to do it our way. Ironic that his name was Tinker when tinkering was the last thing he ever did.”

When characters in a warm, perceptive and intelligent show are memorable and full of clashing emotions, and when they try to understand each other despite their differences, there are molecules of Tinker’s legacy in those moments. To quote the wisdom of the “Mary Tyler Moore” theme song: “Love is all around, no need to waste it.” 

When executives believe in a show and keep it on the air in the face of doubt and low ratings, they’re following in Tinker’s footsteps. Tinker knew that, in the hands of the right writers, the comedy and drama that flow from the interactions of people who seem real, and who struggle and laugh just like we do, would be unforced and worthwhile.

We never saw the face of Carlton the Doorman on “Rhoda,” and I never met Grant Tinker. And yet I feel as though I knew them both. Rest in peace, Mr. Tinker.