There is an old Chinese proverb that says “When an old man dies, a library burns down.” With no man was this truer than it was with Grant Tinker, my father-in-law, who died recently.
Not only was he a history book, he was a history-maker who had been a key player in many of television’s most iconic shows of the 1970s and 1980s. I had barely dipped into the deep well of knowledge and stories he had before his time on this Earth ended.
He knew the two men who were the main innovators for radio/television: General Sarnoff of RCA (which bought NBC) and William Paley of CBS. Bob Hope and Johnny Carson worked for him (and were friends) and Mary Tyler Moore was once married to him.
“Of all the shows you did, which were you proudest of?” I asked once. I expected it to be a serious drama.
“Without question, Mary’s show. Mary, the writing, the actors. They were all terrific. I had nothing to do with it, by the way. I just hired great people and got out of their way so they could do their jobs.”
Actually, he did have something crucial to do with it. He didn’t blink or back down when CBS saw the pilot and hated it because it tested poorly. Since CBS had guaranteed a 13-episode order, they called Grant and said, “We want to make a deal to buy out this contract.”
Grant and Mary could have taken an easy, lucrative pay-off and walked away but the president of MTM Productions said, “No. We have a deal. We’re going to make 13 episodes.”
They forged forward, producing hilarious episodes that not only won the viewers’ hearts, propelling it to No. 1, but also won a total of 29 Emmys including four in the first season.
One day Tink called him while I was making biscuits and handed me the phone. “Hello, Grant Tinker!”
He chuckled, “You always call me that. I don’t know why you do that.”
I called Tink’s mother, Miss Ruth, owing to the Southern courtesies I grew up with but calling him Mr. Grant sounded odd since one of television’s iconic characters, Lou Grant aka Mr. Grant, had been named after him.
“No, he wasn’t,” Grant Tinker protested one day when I bought it up.
“Yes, he was,” I replied firmly.
He pulled his head back a bit, eyeing me warily. “And you know this how?”
“Because I figured it out. Tink asked Allan Burns (the show’s co-creator) and he said it was.”
“Really?” He was genuinely surprised. “That never occurred to me.”
“Seriously?” I asked, laughing.
“No, not at all. My first name is Grant and his last name was Grant so, no. I never considered it.”
Which demonstrates his humility and modesty. The MTM show was full of inside jokes, many of which he enjoyed — such as the Tinker Trophy — but he never thought to question that one of the key characters had the same name as he.
There are lots of stories I could share such as the time that Lew Wasserman, Hollywood’s most powerful man, made MTM cry or the dinner party where Grant Tinker was seated next to Ted Turner, meeting the television tycoon for the first time.
But this is the one I must share because it’s the only time I ever heard Grant Tinker take any credit.
“Now, I changed the NBC peacock,” he said firmly. I’m not sure how this subject came up during lunch one day. “I thought it was too busy.” It went from 11 tail feathers to six. This is the simplicity you would expect from a man whose dessert was usually one scoop of vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup.
It hurts my heart to lose him. I’ll grant you that. But it hurts my mind just as much to know how many stories have died, untold.
Our library is gone.
Ronda Rich, author of the ‘What Southern Women Know’ trilogy, writes the Dixie Diva column that appears in several newspapers.