Grant Tinker changed my life. That’s not hyperbole. I’d spent the entirety of my career at Universal, and MTM was its polar opposite — Grant had created a welcoming, writer-centric environment there. After my 12 years at Universal, it was a revelation.
The first thing I did when I arrived at MTM in 1978 was to visit with Grant in his office. He was wearing jeans, sneakers, an open-collared shirt, and a bright-red pullover sweater. He couldn’t have presented a more starkly different presence than my old boss, Frank Price, president of Universal Television, who was a distant suit-and-tie man. I was immediately put at ease by his warmth and friendliness. After we’d chatted for awhile — Grant always made you feel as if you were the only thing on his day’s agenda — I asked him what kind of shows he wanted me to think about developing. He said, “We didn’t bring you here to do what we want; we brought you here to do what you want.”
When I finally had a pitch I was comfortable presenting to the networks, Grant accompanied me to the meetings. He never said a word, but his presence strongly communicated his commitment to the pitch and to the writer making it. He was a remarkable presence in any room.
The first series I made at MTM was a police drama called “Paris,” starring James Earl Jones. Throughout the production of the first 10 episodes, I was constantly at odds with James Earl. I wanted to make a series about a middle-management cop trapped in a paramilitary bureaucracy that bestowed enormous responsibility on him with very limited authority. James Earl wanted to be more of a traditional run-and-jump cop, chasing down bad guys. Our battles escalated to the point where I finally requested a meeting in Grant’s office with James Earl and his agent, in order to fully air out all our grievances. I said I would be more than willing to leave the show and put it in the hands of someone else. To my astonishment, James Earl said, “If you go, I go.” Huh?
And then Grant taught me something that has informed my career ever since. Without a hint of rancor, he said, “You know what, guys? If you can’t figure this out, I’ll pick up the phone right now and call Bob Daly” — who was then head of CBS — “and we’ll pull the plug. It’s just a TV show. It’s OK: No one is going to take us out back and shoot us. Life’s too short to be miserable. So let’s just bag it and go do something else.”
Wow. Just that quickly, he put the entire issue into its proper perspective. It was just a TV show. And if we weren’t having fun, it wasn’t worth doing.
“Paris” was canceled after 13 episodes, but Grant never held the show’s failure against me. The next show we made was “Hill Street Blues.”
Grant had a wonderful, dry sense of humor. When we were casting “Hill Street,” I wanted to put my old college friend Bruce Weitz into the role of Belker — the grungy, dyspeptic street detective. Grant didn’t see Bruce in the role, so Bruce had to audition.
With Grant in attendance, Bruce burst into the room. He hadn’t shaved in days, he was wearing clothing that would’ve made a homeless man look like Cary Grant, and he had a cigar stub jutting out between clenched teeth. Growling, he leapt onto a desk, spit out the cigar, and launched into Belker’s first speech. When he was done, he jumped down from the desk, growled at Grant again, and left the room, slamming the door behind him. After a long pause, Grant said, “Well, I’m not going to be the one who tells him he can’t have the role.”
When Grant left MTM for NBC, it was a loss that can’t be overemphasized, for me and for every other writer whose creative freedom had been won by a boss who always put himself between us and the network, so that we felt free to bend the so-called rules of the medium. It was one among the many lessons I learned from Grant, and always tried to emulate: Protect your talent. Fight their battles for them. Don’t let the suits distract them from their artistic endeavors. He taught me by example how to run a company. He taught me to respect and nurture and support writers. He was the best executive and, creatively, the best friend I ever had in my 50 years in television.
His modesty belied his impact on a generation of writers who changed television forever. Every one of us whose lives were changed by him will never forget him, and will miss him always.
Rest in peace, Grant.