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Director James Burrows on How Grant Tinker – and His MTM Hit Factory – Changed Television

An Appreciation: Burrows, one of TV's most celebrated directors, credits his career to Tinker, who died Monday at 90.

Mary Tyler Moore and  Grant Tinker at the Emmy Awards in 1966

Mary Tyler Moore and Grant Tinker at the Emmy Awards in 1966

David Smith/AP/REX/Shutterstock

James Burrows, perhaps the most successful TV director in history, owes his lengthy small screen career to Grant Tinker.

Tinker, who died Monday at 90, was a towering television titan who turned MTM Enterprises into one of the most successful production companies in the 1970s, then took over NBC and led that network from worst to first in the 1980s.

But his legacy lives on, thanks to the writers, producers, directors and stars he championed during his long career. Burrows, who recently directed his 1,000th episode of television (which NBC celebrated with a primetime special), is one of them.

James Burrows

James Burrows

John Salangsang/BFA/REX/Shutterstock

“I owe my entire television career to him,” Burrows told IndieWire.

Burrows was a theater director and stage manager in New York when he worked on the musical “Holly Golightly” (later retitled “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”), starring Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain. The show closed after just four nights, but by the end, Burrows had befriended Moore and her husband, Tinker.

READ MORE: Watch: James Burrows: From ‘Taxi’ to ‘Cheers’ to ‘Friends’ to You

“It turned out to be an utter disaster but Mary and I hit it off because we were in this lifeboat together,” he said. “And I met Grant when he came in for the last performance. Then about ten years later I was watching television and there was ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ and they were doing it in front of a live audience like theater. And I said, ‘I can do that!’ So I wrote a letter to Mary and Grant called me and said, ‘We’d love you to come out and do one show.’ The rest is history. I’m not sure anyone else would have done that.”

Tinker had launched MTM Enterprises as a vehicle for Moore, but it soon expanded beyond just “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Burrows joined MTM as it had become a legendary TV powerhouse: Besides “Mary Tyler Moore,” its legacy includes “The Bob Newhart Show,” “Rhoda,” “The White Shadow,” “WKRP in Cincinnati,” “Hill Street Blues” and “St. Elsewhere,” among others.

“When I was observing [tapings], watching before I ever got my first show to direct, I sat in the audience for a runthrough of ‘The Bob Newhart Show’ and ‘Mary Tyler Moore’ and I’d see [Tinker] in the back row with his leg up on the chair, just watching and enjoying. He was a great inspiration to everyone who worked there because he was always so positive. Always so much on your side.”

Suzanne Pleshette, Tom Poston and Grant Tinker in 2003

Suzanne Pleshette, Tom Poston and Grant Tinker in 2003

BEI/BEI/Shutterstock

MTM flourished in an age of independent production companies, before the sunset of the industry’s financial and syndication rules. By the late 1990s, the networks could produce more of their own shows ­– squeezing out companies like MTM and Carsey-Werner. Other MTM alums who went on to form their own companies include Steven Bochco.

“It was the pre-eminent company,” Burrows said of MTM at its peak. “Probably that and Tandem, with Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin. MTM was the place you wanted to be if you wanted to be in comedy. And Grant was amazing because he would not subject any of the writers to what the network thought. The network would meet with Grant, Grant would take their notes and not talk to the writers about it. That doesn’t go on anymore.”

Burrows directed episodes of shows such as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Bob Newhart Show” and eventually left MTM and moved on to direct “Taxi” (produced by MTM alums including James L. Brooks and Ed. Weinberger).

Then, with brothers Glen and Les Charles (both of whom he also worked with at MTM and on “Taxi”), Burrows helped create “Cheers” for NBC. Soon he found himself once again working for Tinker, who took over the Peacock network as chairman and CEO in 1981. At that point, NBC was mired in third place – and Tinker, along with entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff, instilled a now legendary mantra: “First be best, then be first.”

“Cheers” was an early test of that strategy. The comedy opened to critical acclaim but low ratings. NBC famously stuck with the show, which eventually paid off.

"Cheers"

“Cheers”

Paramount TV/REX/Shutterstock

“We were so incredibly delighted to hear that Grant had taken over,” Burrows said. Burrows noted that Tinker’s gravitas even extended to his matinee idol looks: “He looked like the hood ornament of a Pontiac. That’s how good looking he was.”

Tinker and Moore divorced in 1981, around the time he moved from MTM to NBC. He’s survived by his wife, Brooke Knapp, his sons Mark and John (both of whom are also successful TV producers) and two other children, Michael and Jodie, from his first marriage, to Ruth Byerly.

Years after working together, Burrows said he would see Tinker at the Bel Air Golf Course, where they both were members. “For my 60th birthday, my wife did a little video for me,” Burrows said. “Grant was on the video, and he said to me, ‘Jimmy, I’m a little older than you but when you’re on that golf course, and hitting those big drives that you hit, don’t forget to smell the roses.’ And I will always remember that.”

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