Friday, December 2, 2016

"The Letter"

I wrote a nice letter once.

The significant elements of that sentence are “I”, “nice letter” and “once.”  Wait, not the personal pronoun, since this particular exercise is – definitionally which I have just learned is not a word – “I-mail.”  

Did I make that up?  I hope so.

The “nice letter” returns to mind after learning of the passing of legendary television executive Grant Tinker who died recently at the age of 90, which once seemed ancient but now, less so.

Grant Tinker formed the “boutique” TV production company MTM, flagshipped by his then wife, Mary Tyler Moore.  I wrote for many of the MTM comedies.  (Mary, Phyllis, The Bob Newhart Show, etc.)  Grant Tinker went on to become a network president, nurturing slow-starting series that evolved into classics, such as Cheers, St. Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues.

Grant Tinker looked terrific – GQ attractive, tennis-player trim, deeply tanned in a “Come To California” poster kind of a way, and impeccably groomed, his silver hair tended by a follicular Bonsai master, and sportily attired – pastel sweaters so soft and perennially shape-holding you imagined him wearing each of them once and then tossing them in the trash, or, more characteristically, donating them to charity, or more likely still, a charity auction.

UNGRATEFUL CHARITY RECIPIENT:  “Another Grant Tinker sweater.  Just what we needed.”

Every obituary will reveal that Grant Tinker was a decent, caring and magnanimous individual.  Not because he died but because it’s accurate.  You would never hear, “Donald Trump may be bad for the country but he’s great for CBS” as the president of CBS famously crowed.  And not because Tinker was president of NBC. 

“Truly decent” and “enormous show business success” are rarely included in the same biography.  That’s why – and it may be a surprise to decent people not in show business – Grant Tinker’s signature uniqueness made eulogistical headlines.

(One Discordant Recollection:  Grant Tinker had two odious “Business Affairs” Hatchet Men whose behavior I would like to attribute to personal disreputableness rather than Machiavellian “orders from above.” – “You cut them off at the knees, I’ll ask, ‘When’s the baby due?’”  But who knows?) 

Okay, the letter.

In 1994, Grant Tinker delivered a memoir entitled, Tinker in Television: From General Sarnoff to General Electric.  I immediately bought a copy, read it, and shortly thereafter, composed the following letter.

(Explanatory Note:  This is not a verbatim reproduction of the letter.  I don’t have it any more.  What am I saying, “I don’t have it anymore”?  I wrote it, and I sent it.  Why would it still be in my possession?  I mean, it’s not like I made copies, or anything.  Or contacted the guy afterwards and said, “Can I have that letter back?  I am thinking of including it when they invent blogs.”  I wrote a letter and that was the end of it.  Mark Twain had numerous volumes of his letters reprinted.  How exactly does that work?  Can you imagine he wrote every one of those letters twice, one to mail, the other to retain in his files, for future publication?  Oh, the unfathomable hubris!  The archivist could have arguably approached the “receivers” but how would they know Twain had written to them? There is probably an answer, but not in this paragraph.)


I wrote, more or less… this.

“Dear Grant,

I just read your book from beginning to end, though not necessarily in that order.  I first went to the “Index” to see if my name was included and when it was, I immediately read those sections first.  Thank you for the two ‘mentions.’

(Note:  There may, in fact, have been one mention, but that’s what happens with age.  The older you get, the more significant you were.  And now, back to the letter.)

“Aside from wanting to compliment you on your lively and informative memoir, I am also writing to register a complaint.  I hope you don’t mind.  Knowing your benevolent reputation, you probably won’t.

Okay, here’s my complaint.

I worked for you at the beginning of my career.  You were genuine, thoughtful, interested and kind.  Most of all, you consistently ran interference between us “creatives” and the network executives, insulating us from their intrusive meddling and allowing us to do our jobs unencumbered by their useless advice.  I can personally attest to this commendable behavior.  You hired the best people you could find and left them entirely alone. 

I have now worked in this business for twenty years.  And I can say without fear of contradiction that I was never treated that protectively again.  I now realize that my experience at MTM was the ‘the exception’, being in no way representative of the treatment I would subsequently receive, wherein bloated egos and unwanted interventions have been, invariably and inevitably, the ‘order the day.’

What I am telling you is, you tricked me.  I thought I would always be treated as respectfully and supportively and I was treated working for you.  During my subsequent career, however,

It never happened again.

I feel seriously misled by my early wonderful experience.  And it is entirely your fault. 

Mr. Tinker,

I want my twenty years back.

That’s all I wanted to say.”


Earl Pomerantz.”

I handed the letter to my assistant who had it  “messengered” immediately to Tinker’s office.

The next day, I get a personal phone call from Grant Tinker.  (Whom I had not crossed paths with for fifteen years.)  He told me he loved my letter, though seeming characteristically uncomfortable with the adulation.  You could feel the man, blushing over the telephone.

Grant shared with me the idea of publishing my letter as a full-page ad in Variety, promoting his recently released memoir.  This caught me off-guard.  I blubbered, “I wrote it for you.  You can do whatever you want with it.”  Sensing my trepidation about publicly contrasting his magnanimous treatment with the substandard behavior of my subsequent employers, Grant made the instant determination of retaining my personal letter “between us.”

And that’s the story.

We need more human decency in the world.

Grant Tinker’s departure has left us with less. 


Frank Paradise said...

Grant must've been chagrined watching what passes for network comedy these days. Great story!

Stephen Marks said...

Mark Twain said....

Dear Earl,

It's better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. You characterized my reproduction of personal letters for historical significance as "hubris", well all generalizations are false, including this one.

You see Earl, I once spent the coldest winter of my life during a summer in San Francisco and during that time I spent many an enjoyable hour with my friend and literary agent Eugene Kettle. As you know Earl, an agent is the type of fellow who gives you his umbrella when the sun is shining but wants it back the minute it rains. I resolved to give to my future readers my present musings without asking anything in return, except perhaps a toast with a good aperitif, for too much of anything is bad but too much whiskey is barely enough.

So Earl, let us not ask if I wrote those letters twice, rather let us ask did the recipients read them twice!


Samuel Clemens