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Remembering Grant Tinker, 'Mary Tyler Moore' Producer And NBC Chair


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, FRESH AIR's TV critic, sitting in for Terry Gross. TV executive Grant Tinker died last week at age 90. Today, we'll listen back to Terry's 1994 interview with him, as well as a 1995 interview with Mary Tyler Moore, Grant Tinker's ex-wife, who starred in two famous and influential sitcoms with which Tinker was involved - "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Grant Tinker was a major influence on and in television for the second half of the 20th century.

He started out as an ad executive for Procter & Gamble, where he helped shape "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and met his future wife, that show's co-star, Mary Tyler Moore. Early in his career, he also was a low-level NBC executive for a while. But in 1970, he broke from the pack and founded MTM Enterprises, an independent TV company named after Mary Tyler Moore and showcasing her with its first television production, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Then, Tinker took over a broadcast network, running NBC in the 1980s and bringing it from last place to first.

In the case of Grant Tinker and why he's widely considered the best and most influential network executive in TV history, it wasn't so much what he did, as how he did it. Over the years, I've interviewed dozens of people who worked with and for Grant Tinker. And each and every one of them said that the most amazing and important thing about him was that he identified the people he thought were the most creative, then encouraged them to do what they wanted while protecting them from network interference.

As a result, Tinker's string of hits and creative TV triumphs, either as a production executive or network chairman, included not only "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," but "Hill Street Blues," "St. Elsewhere," "Cheers," "The Cosby Show" and others. Many of those shows weren't just critical and popular successes. They were groundbreakers an envelope pushers. "The Dick Van Dyke Show" had been the smartest TV sitcom of the '60s and became the model for "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," premiering on CBS in 1970. In that series, Mary Tyler Moore ended up playing Mary Richards, a single, working woman, at a time when that was a quietly, but clearly feminist premise for a TV sitcom.

Even in the pilot episode, during her job interview at a TV news operation in Minneapolis, Mary Richards had the nerve to stand up to the chauvinist news director Lou Grant, played wonderfully by Ed Asner.


EDWARD ASNER: (As Lou Grant) Look, Miss, would you try answering the questions as I ask them?


MARY TYLER MOORE: (As Mary Richards) Yes, Mr. Grant, I will. But it does seem that you've been asking a lot of very personal questions that don't have a thing to do with my qualifications for this job.

ASNER: (As Lou Grant) You know what? You've got spunk.


MOORE: (As Mary Richards) Well...

ASNER: (As Lou Grant) I hate spunk.


ASNER: (As Lou Grant) Tell you what - I'll try you out for a couple of weeks, see if it works out. If I don't like you, I'll fire you.

MOORE: (As Mary Richards) Right, right.

ASNER: (As Lou Grant) If you don't like me, I'll fire you.

MOORE: (As Mary Richards) Yes, yes.


BIANCULLI: MTM Enterprises generated a string of smart, successful sitcoms after that, including "The Bob Newhart Show." Then it changed the TV landscape again in the late '70s by taking the Lou Grant character from its "Mary Tyler Moore" sitcom and spinning him off into a drama series called "Lou Grant." The concept there was that the content was about 70 percent drama, 30 percent comedy, but without a laugh track - just like life. It's a formula that has informed almost every quality TV-drama ever since, from "The Sopranos" to "Breaking Bad."

Here's a scene from the first episode of "Lou Grant." It's an intentional gender-reversal mirror image of the start of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." This time, it's Lou Grant seeking a job, this time on a Los Angeles newspaper. And this time, it's a woman publisher, played by Nancy Marchand, who's very clearly in charge of the job interview. She's petting a small dog as it sits on her desk. And Lou already is visibly uncomfortable.


NANCY MARCHAND: (As Margaret Pynchon) You look like you're about to throw a punch.

ASNER: (As Lou Grant) It's a suit.

MARCHAND: (As Margaret Pynchon) Oh, we've had three men at the city desk in the last eight months.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I told him.

MARCHAND: (As Margaret Pynchon) One of them died in the men's room, one quit, and I fired the third.

ASNER: (As Lou Grant) Why'd you fire him?

MARCHAND: (As Margaret Pynchon) I didn't like him. I didn't like the one who died in the men's room either. Oh, Barney - hush, baby. Oh, calm down, yes, you little dog. You like dogs?

ASNER: (As Lou Grant) Yeah, I like dogs, big dogs.

BIANCULLI: Then came another massively influential MTM production, "Hill Street Blues," which brought serialized storylines and sophisticated filming techniques to the TV cop drama. From the very start, the opening roll call scene, held by Michael Conrad as Sergeant Phil Esterhaus, "Hill Street" was a study in barely controlled chaos. And most of the good TV dramas that followed, from "St. Elsewhere" to "L.A. Law," tried hard to emulate an equal.


MICHAEL CONRAD: (Sgt. Phil Esterhaus) All right, item 14 - still got a gang of juveniles on 119th Street, hitting at old people cashing Social Security checks.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You ain't getting mine.

CONRAD: (Sgt. Phil Esterhaus) So how about let's give that situation a little extra effort.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Hear, hear. Hear, hear.

CONRAD: (Sgt. Phil Esterhaus) All right. Item 15 - item 15 - at this point in time, we got the same purse-snatcher, working wolf from the projects on South. He's a male, black, age approximately 30, 6-feet, 6-inches tall, medium build. He is further described as wearing a long, blond wig...


CONRAD: (Sgt. Phil Esterhaus) Powder-Blue cocktail-type dress, gathered in little tucks at the waist.


CONRAD: (Sgt. Phil Esterhaus) Item 16 - gang homicides. We had two last night. They're going to be reprises.

BIANCULLI: Those shows and others overseen by Tinker changed the course of TV history and the level of TV quality. Terry Gross spoke with Grant Tinker in 1994 about his memoir "Tinker In Television." Their conversation began with "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and how that show was conceived with memories of "The Dick Van Dyke Show," on which the actress co-starred as Laura Petrie, the wife of Van Dyke's Rob Petrie, still fresh in everyone's minds.

Early on, the lead character in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" was supposed to have been divorced - an idea Tinker says didn't fly.


GRANT TINKER: Yeah, that was sort of silly, I thought. CBS resisted that a lot. I mean, it literally said things like people will think she's divorced from Rob Petrie. We solved that problem with them by agreeing, OK, she wouldn't be divorced. She will be coming off a failed affair. So they preferred a failed affair to divorce, strangely, I thought.


How did the network feel about a single working woman?

TINKER: They didn't have any problem with that concept. They did have a lot of problems when we did the show - which came off very well - the pilot when we finally did it. They did research, as networks always do, and they found all kinds of things wrong, as research frequently does. They found Mary Richards was a loser. Rhoda Morgenstern was, I don't know whether they used the word ethnic or New York, but they didn't like her. And Phyllis Lindstrom, Cloris Leachman, was abrasive.

All the things that made the show as it proceeded, bothered them in terms of their research. But we got sort of famous for resisting network suggestions. And we were able to maintain what we had.

GROSS: Now, "Hill Street Blues," when you had the pilot episode for that, the pilot tested negative. And you even reprint some of the notes in your book.

TINKER: Right.

GROSS: So what was wrong with "Hill Street Blues," according to the research?

TINKER: Oh, the pandemonium in the cop house bothered them, which at least I remember as being part of what was entertaining about the show. The fact that Furillo, played by Daniel Travanti, was not - didn't seem to be in charge. The cops were kind of, you know, losers also. They just thought everything that turned out to be strong about the show was weak. And it's very similar to the Mary situation. And I'm not a big believer in slavishly following research. It's one of the things that's wrong with television is that if you throw the whole - the decision-making process to the research department, you're not making any instinctive, visceral judgments about programs, which are show business.

And many shows that went on to become very successful would never have been seen if that had been the case. I think research is a tool, one of several, but should be used much more modestly than they frequently use it.

GROSS: Why did you leave MTM to return to NBC and take over the company?

TINKER: Well, because the chairman of RCA, the parent company of NBC, asked me to and he caught me at a moment when I thought I couldn't match the 11 years of MTM that I'd already had. I had fond memories of my prior two terms at NBC, knew a lot of people there and I was very unhappy as I watched the network decline. And so all of those things gave me this feeling of wanting to help save the company, which was really going down for the third time. And I went back and with the help of some very good colleagues, we did manage to save it.

In fact, we succeeded beyond our fondest hopes.

GROSS: So when you got to NBC to head the company, what were the problems you perceived and how did you try to fix them?

TINKER: Well, morale was one. Everybody was just very sick of losing. And so we addressed that by having a bunch of company meetings, you know, in person and connected by satellite to all the other locations, just letting people blow off steam, ask questions, make complaints and so on. And we began to, I think, get back on sort of a family feeling that I remembered at NBC in earlier days. And then we began - at first, by the way, the first couple of years, we didn't do much at all. We neatened it up and maybe cut some losses, but we didn't - our programs weren't that successful.

And then we began to get successful. And as I say in the book, success begets more in television because if you have a show like "Cosby," you can put something behind it and that show will almost automatically succeed because the audience flows into it. And as we got the what we call building blocks like that, we did build other shows. And then pretty soon, we had a very successful network and a quality one because we had recruited mostly quality producers.

GROSS: You met Mary Tyler Moore, to whom you were married for about 11 years, through "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

TINKER: Eighteen years.

GROSS: Eighteen years, excuse me (laughter). You were at the company, I guess, for 11 years.

TINKER: Right.

GROSS: OK, so how did you meet her?

TINKER: I met her when we did the pilot of the "Van Dyke Show." Laura Petrie had, you know, nobody had really thought too much about that because, you know, the star was going to be Rob Petrie. And Mary was cast as Laura Petrie just almost by a lucky accident. Danny Thomas had once read her to play his daughter. And she didn't get the part because Danny said no one would believe she's my daughter with a nose like that - hers being quite different from his. And when Sheldon and Carl were looking for and not finding Laura Petrie, Danny happened into the office one day and said, what about that girl with the three names?

And so they called Mary in, and the result was her being cast as Laura Petrie, which she did, I think, so much better and so much more completely and so much more comedically than they had hoped that it became a more balanced show between office and home. And she really made it - obviously, I'm a suspect source to make this comment, but I think she made a huge contribution to that show.

BIANCULLI: Grant Tinker speaking to Terry Gross in 1994. The television executive and MTM production studio head died last month at age 90. Mary Tyler Moore starred in two sitcoms with which Grant Tinker was involved, "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." We'll hear Terry's interview with her after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering TV pioneer Grant Tinker who died last month at the age of 90. Let's hear an excerpt of Terry's 1995 interview with Mary Tyler Moore. In the early 1960s, she starred as Laura Petrie opposite Dick Van Dyke's Rob Petrie on "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Created by Carl Reiner, it was the funniest, most sophisticated and most modern TV comedy of the decade. And Mary Tyler Moore, as the thoroughly modern Mrs. Petrie, was one of the show's biggest strengths. Here's a clip. Laura has just appeared on a live TV game show and tells her husband that she's upset about something she said.


MOORE: (As Laura Petrie) At the very end of the show, I didn't handle myself too well with that Patrick rat.

DICK VAN DYKE: (As Rob Petrie) Oh, he got you to say something embarrassing, didn't he? What was it?

MOORE: (As Laura Petrie) That Alan Brady is bald.


VAN DYKE: (As Rob Petrie) You - you - you said he had no hair.


VAN DYKE: (As Rob Petrie) On television. Honey, oh, sweetheart, you - you knew that was a secret, didn't you?

MOORE: (As Laura Petrie) Yes.

VAN DYKE: (As Rob Petrie) Yeah, that's right. What's the fun of telling if it's not a secret?


MOORE: (As Laura Petrie) But, Rob, he tricked me.

VAN DYKE: (As Rob Petrie) Oh, he tricked you. All right, he tricked you. Oh, he's very, very tricky. But telling the whole world about Alan's wig - oh, are we in trouble.

MOORE: (As Laura Petrie) Well, Rob, you saw the way he asked those questions. I mean, you just hardly know how to answer them.

VAN DYKE: (As Rob Petrie) I am surprised you didn't blab about his nose being fixed.


MOORE: (As Laura Petrie) I didn't know Alan had a nose job.

VAN DYKE: (As Rob Petrie) No, up till now it was a secret.


GROSS: What were you told about the character of Laura?

MOORE: Just that she was going to be a wife, a television wife. And that really had its classical parameters and dimensions. And they were established and they hardly ever varied except as to whether or not the wife was the star of the show, in which case she was the funny one, or if she were the straight man for the male star and she was then totally supportive. But all these wives were kind of obedient and, you know, a representative of the vows to love, honor and obey. They hardly varied from that. And with Carl Reiner's character, the way she was written, Laura actually had opinions of her own. And while she was asserting herself, she also didn't make Dick Van Dyke look like a dummy. It was a matter of two people.

I mean, society's expectations at that point still said, hey, wait a minute, lady, you only go so far here. But I think we broke new ground, and that was helped by my insistence on wearing pants, you know, jeans and capri pants at the time because I said I've seen all the other actresses and they're always running the vacuum in these little flowered frocks with high heels on, and I don't do that. And I don't know any of my friends who do that. So why don't we try to make this real? And I'll dress on the show the way I do in real life.

GROSS: But it wasn't that easy. The sponsors were afraid you'd look brazen.

MOORE: Right. They pointed specifically to - they used a term cupping under. And I can only assume that that meant my, you know, my seat, that there was a little too much definition. And so they allowed me to continue to wear them in one episode - one scene per episode and only after we check to make sure that there was as little cupping under as possible. But...

GROSS: Cupping under referring to the fit of your pants...

MOORE: The fit of the pants, yes.

GROSS: ...On your behind

MOORE: On my behind, right. But within a few weeks, we were sneaking them into a few other scenes in every episode, and they were definitely cupping under and everyone thought it was great.


MOORE: And the funny thing is, you know, women liked me. They were not envious of the fact that their husbands had a crush on me. It was OK with them. They were the first to - when I would meet people, they'd say, my husband loves you so much and he thinks you're so sexy. And this was an odd thing because they were also able to identify with me as a friend, as a girlfriend. There was no resentment and no fear.

GROSS: Now, how did you come up with the voice to say, oh, Rob.

MOORE: (Laughter) I don't know. I guess it began with the cry. The first time I cried was the episode in which Laura bleaches her hair blonde, looks in the mirror and with her friend Millie's help decides she looks more like Harpo Marx than what her goal had been. And so she quickly tries to dye it back before Rob gets home from work. Now, this is a real stretch of the imagination. She decides to dye one half of her head back, not being able to get the other half done before Dick walks in the door. And so she greets him half blonde, half brunette and sobbing.

And I had always been a big fan of Nanette Fabray who worked with Carl Reiner and Sid Caesar on "The Show Of Shows." And I loved her humor. I loved the way she cried, and so when I was called upon to bring forth the tears in my scene, I'm not sure how much of it was out and out stolen from Miss Fabray and how much of it was just a matter of influence. But there was definitely a cracking in the voice and an inability to maintain a tone and a certain amount of verbal yodeling that took place and from that came, oh, Rob.


BIANCULLI: We're listening back to our 1995 interview with Mary Tyler Moore as part of our tribute to pioneering TV executive Grant Tinker who died last month at the age of 90. We'll hear more of Terry's interview with Mary Tyler Moore and a review of the new film "La La Land," starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, after a break. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


MOORE: (As Laura Petrie, singing) Cleopatra was gal so beautiful and she had certain spark. Famous men she swayed when the game she played, beauty never fade, so Cleo made her mark. Antony - everybody.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (As characters, singing) True, mon, true.

MOORE: (As Laura Petrie, singing) That is the actual fact.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (As characters, singing) True, mon, true.

MOORE: (As Laura Petrie, singing) That is the actual fact. Romeo and Juliet, when they say let's wed, they choose balcony scene. They same thing you see in the balcony of movie show, guess you know what I mean (ph).


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Today we're saluting Grant Tinker, the influential TV network and studio executive who died last month at age 90. Let's get back to Terry's 1995 interview with Mary Tyler Moore, who once was married to Grant Tinker, and who starred in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," the first program created by the company named after her and founded by Tinker, MTM Productions. Tinker and Moore met when he was an advertising executive working on "The Dick Van Dyke Show," on which she co-starred as Laura Petrie, the wife of Van Dyke's Rob Petrie.


GROSS: Did you do a lot of rehearsing with Dick Van Dyke or did you just have to do it minutes before the actual broadcast?

MOORE: Oh, the whole show was done in what they call multiple camera technique. It's still done today. But back then, we were maybe the sixth or seventh show to use the technique. It began with Joan Davis, not Lucille Ball, as everyone thinks. Joan Davis did a show called "I Married Joan."

GROSS: (Singing) What a girl, what a world, what a life. Yes.

MOORE: Hey, good for you.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MOORE: And then "Lucy" and several other shows followed. But in that show, it's a little like doing theater that's captured on film. You rehearse for five days. And then on the evening of the fifth day, the audience comes in and the cameras having blocked their moves and yours lined up with them, you film it from top to bottom in continuity. So during those five days, it was - at least the first three days, it was very much a matter of rehearse and contribute and attempt things and not be afraid to fail, to make a fool of yourself.

Just pick yourself up and if it didn't happen this time, then the next time you experiment, maybe it will. It was a wonderfully supportive, creative environment. And Dick Van Dyke was the most generous and supportive human being that I have ever worked with. And he very strongly influenced my life and my standards when I went out on my own later on.

GROSS: Oh, I have another question about Laura Petrie's look.

MOORE: Yeah.

GROSS: Laura wore a flip.

MOORE: (Laughter).

GROSS: A perfect little flip.


GROSS: Whose idea was the flip and how were you wearing your hair in real life at the time?

MOORE: In real life, I was wearing it in a flip, but it wasn't quite as backcombed and lacquered as it was on the show. I mean, that thing had so much hair spray on it, you could hang clothes from it.

GROSS: When you say that thing, was it your hair or was it a wig?

MOORE: Yeah, it was my hair. But it was quite thoroughly sprayed and done by somebody else. But my - in person in between shows, that was the way I wore it. It was just a little limper.

GROSS: Let's talk about "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," a show which I still love to watch. I'm so glad that Nick at Nite...


GROSS: ...Carries these shows. I still love to watch "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "Mary Tyler Moore." Now, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" got started 'cause CBS wanted to build a series around you. And you and Grant Tinker hired people to, you know, write - come up with the idea, write a series. What was the original premise?

MOORE: The original premise was not too different from the one that we ended up pursuing. But I was to be divorced from a doctor and - rather than having, as we ended up doing, having me live with this doctor through medical school and internship and residency and then been dumped. CBS felt that having been divorced was unacceptable from a societal point of view, that people would see nothing humorous in divorce. How could you possibly laugh at a woman who had a broken marriage in her past?

And not only that but, my God, they would think you were divorced from Dick Van Dyke, the world's most wonderful, adorable person.

GROSS: That's so silly.

MOORE: Yeah, and instead, what's so odd from a morality point of view is that they found it acceptable that I had lived with this doctor, never married him, and then the relationship broke up and I went off to start my new life. So I don't know, morality, I guess, is a very personal thing.

GROSS: The character of Ted Baxter was originally conceived as being someone of your age.

MOORE: Right.

GROSS: And there might be some, like, romantic attraction between you?

MOORE: Exactly. He was probably going to be tall, dark and handsome. And instead, what walked through the door was Ted Knight - short, white-haired and handsome, yes, but not what you'd call a love interest. But the writers, the writer producers, Jim and Allan, were so open. And I think that's an important part of being a successful artist is being open to new ideas and input. And they saw this man and they began to think potential. All right, so it isn't our original idea but, oh, wow, look and feel and salivate over all the juicy stories we could do in another direction.

And that's what happened. And they cast Ted.

GROSS: What won them over? Was that big, pretentious voice part of it?

MOORE: You know, there was another thing that won them over. It wasn't just the fact that he was pomposity to the Nth degree, but that there was a vulnerability and a sweetness to Ted. We found out later that Ted, who was a more out-of-work than in-work actor, had gone out and bought himself a blue blazer and a crest and had it sewn on the pocket so that he would look the part. And everybody just thought that was, you know, real throat-clenching stuff. And, you know, if there had been any doubt about whether or not he was the right one, that clinched it.

GROSS: I think one of the real famous moments in television openings, you know, one of the famous freeze frames is you throwing your hat in the air in the opening of the show with...

MOORE: Right.

GROSS: ...The jingle underneath.

MOORE: Yeah.

GROSS: Do you remember that moment?

MOORE: Oh, do I. It was freezing cold. It was in Minneapolis in January, I think, or February. And we didn't know what we were doing. We were just there to grab a lot of footage that shows a young woman's exuberance being in a new city, looking around, gazing at the sights. And I had in my hand a hat, a little beret that my aunt had given me for Christmas. And I had packed that along with whatever other warm things that I had, which weren't too many 'cause I was a Californian, to go to Minneapolis to do these film spots.

And Jim Brooks said, oh, I have a good idea, Mary. Take that hat, put it on your head, and now run into the intersection - and it'll be all right. We'll watch for cars. And throw it up in the air as if to say, this is my town and I'm celebrating my life that is taking place. And I did it and luckily, magically wasn't hit by a car, although I got some pretty strange looks. And in fact, in, I guess, it must be in every episode, you can see this one woman in the background who looks at me as if not only am I the world's strangest person, but that she would like to personally lock me up.

But it's interesting - isn't it? - that something that becomes burned in people's impressions and memories can happen so happenstancely (ph) out of nowhere. It wasn't written. It was just a spur-of-the-moment idea.

GROSS: So that traffic was the real thing.

MOORE: Oh, yeah, it was. And it's a good thing I didn't have to speak any lines because my lips weren't working it was so cold. I literally could not form words.

GROSS: I have a colleague here who said "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" made me who I am today - single.


GROSS: And I thought that was particularly funny because, you know, all those years you were playing Mary Tyler Moore you had no idea what it was like to be single.

MOORE: Right.

GROSS: You got married as soon as you got out of high school. You divorced but you were only single for about six months before marrying Grant Tinker.

MOORE: That's right. Boy, you've read the book, haven't you?



GROSS: (Laughter) So, really, you'd never lived that kind of single life.

MOORE: No, I hadn't. And when Grant and I finally ended our marriage and I went to New York to do a Broadway play "Whose Life Is It Anyway?" I decided to stay in New York and try to capture my life for myself. I had never been on my own. I had never experienced any of the situations that Mary Richards had lived for the rest of the world every week. And I set about to make that happen for myself. I dated, I made friends, I had a little apartment, I did my own shopping and schlepped my own clothes to the dry cleaner and back and the laundry and all of that stuff. And I sort of generally played house but in real life.

GROSS: Mary Tyler Moore, thank you very much for talking with us.

MOORE: Thank you. I really enjoyed it, Terry. It's like talking with a pal.

BIANCULLI: Mary Tyler Moore speaking to Terry Gross in 1995. And now we'd like to end our salute to TV executive Grant Tinker by hearing from someone who got his big break on a television series overseen by Grant Tinker. From 2008, this is Denzel Washington.


GROSS: Let's go to the very early Denzel era. And let's see if our listeners recognize you in this scene. And hint, it's the pilot for a series, a TV series that ran a long time. And you co-starred throughout the run, and it helped make you a star. So here we go, the very early Denzel.


DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Dr. Philip Chandler) Forty-two-year-old white obese female, four-day day history of right upper-quadrant pain, no history of cholelithiasis or peptic ulcer disease.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Has the pain changed with time or position?

WASHINGTON: (As Dr. Philip Chandler) No, physical examination temperature was 39.5 degrees centigrade, blood pressure 130 over 80, no jaundice present.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Is the abdomen distended?

WASHINGTON: (As Dr. Philip Chandler) No, there's a plus-two over four tenderness in the upper quadrant. The liver is 10 centimeters in breadth, 2 centimeters below the right coastal margin. There is a palpable mass just below the liver edge where the...


GROSS: (Laughter) That's your first scene...

WASHINGTON: I think I mispronounced that. I think it's cholelithiasis. And it sounds like I said cholelithiasis. I believe - any doctors out there if they call in let me know. I believe it's cholelithiasis.

GROSS: Well, that's you in your first scene in the pilot of "St. Elsewhere."

WASHINGTON: Twenty-five years ago.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

WASHINGTON: But I remember that cholelithiasis, that's interesting.

GROSS: Yeah, it is. I hope you had it, whatever the heck it is.

WASHINGTON: I couldn't tell you what it is.

GROSS: (Laughter) How did you get the part on "St. Elsewhere."

WASHINGTON: I was doing a great play - and I say that because it was - called to say "A Soldier's Play," which went on to become "A Soldier's Story," you know, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982.

GROSS: Right, the movie version was "A Soldier's Story."

WASHINGTON: Yeah, movie version was "A Soldier's Story." The play was an off-Broadway play in New York. And they came to New York reading actors for this TV series "St. Elsewhere." I never really wanted to do television because I wanted to do plays and movies, and I didn't want to become well-known for television. But this was an interesting script with many characters, so my agent thought, well, you know, you could get lost amongst the other characters. And so to make a long story long, they chose two actors, I believe, from New York, myself and David Morse.

GROSS: What was the audition like?

WASHINGTON: Shoot, that was 25 years ago. I don't remember. I guess it was good. I got the part. I guess it was good...

GROSS: You don't remember what you had to do?

WASHINGTON: Oh, no - no, actually, I don't. I imagine - maybe I read that scene. Maybe that's what I had to do. You know, did you say that was from the pilot?

GROSS: It's from the pilot.

WASHINGTON: That was from - so maybe - that's probably what I had to read. That's a perfect example of where your speech training and training in the classics - you know, Shakespearean training comes in to be able to say those lines.

GROSS: To rattle off all those...

WASHINGTON: To rattle off all the - yeah, all of that...

GROSS: All of those medical conditions most people don't know.

WASHINGTON: ...Techno-speak - yeah, exactly, I don't know - cholelithiasis, I do remember that, though.

BIANCULLI: Denzel Washington speaking to Terry Gross in 2008. He was one of the stars of "St. Elsewhere," one of the many shows overseen by influential TV executive Grant Tinker, who died last month at age 90. After a break, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews the new CD from Allyson Seconds. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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