Among his many accomplishments, Gil Cates obviously will be known as the person who produced more Oscar shows than any one in the history of the Academy. Talk to any producer who has done it just once or twice and you will get this astonished look when you tell them Gil Cates did it 14 times in the last two decades. And with his always calm and cool manner, he made it look so easy. Perhaps that is why every producer doing the show in Gil’s off years always sought out his advice — and he always happily gave it as he told me when I interviewed him exactly one year ago about his memories on being the man behind so many Oscarcasts. “I’ve had lunch with each producer and producing team going back to my off years,” he told me. “The one thing I’ve told everybody is the Oscars is such a big show that no matter what you do there are gonna be people who like it and people who don’t. The most important thing is to do a show you like. There’s no way to get out totally alive. Do a show they find unique and fun and special. That’s a victory.”
Gil Cates had a lot of victories in his long career. As a former president of the DGA, its current secretary/treasurer and its chief negotiator for the last four contracts; as founder of the UCLA School of Theatre, Film and Television; founder and artistic director of the Geffen Playhouse; as director and producer of such multiple-Oscar-nominated films as Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams and I Never Sang For My Father; as well as so many TV films that made a lasting mark on the medium. There’s so much more, but my own personal connection (aside from attending the great theater he oversaw at the Geffen) has always been with the Oscars, and on those occasions when I got to talk to him or interview him I was like a kid in a candy store listening to his stories (sorry, some I just can’t print — off the record). His last show aired in 2008, the year No Country For Old Men won Best Picture. But this was also the year of the writers strike that KO’d the Golden Globes and put a dark cloud over the Oscars until just 12 days before the show was to air, when it was settled. But Cates, with his usual calm of a master negotiator and problem solver, had a Plan A (with all the stars in a strike-free show) and a Plan B (with no stars but a heavy emphasis on history and clips) ready to go, essentially prepping two different shows simultaneously, depending on events out of his control. It’s a good thing he was in charge because a lesser or more inexperienced producer might have cracked under the pressure. Not Gil. In the end, he produced a classy, star-studded show as usual but was ready to deliver whatever cards were dealt. And the challenging experience of that show didn’t sour him on the thrill he got every time up at bat. He told me he was ready to do more.
“I’ve always loved doing it. I would love to do it another five or six times. I don’t know how anyone can get tired doing it,” he said. Sadly he never got to do it again. And in those 14 shows he never really stopped innovating despite the annual criticism that goes with the territory of doing the impossible and making an Oscar show that pleases everybody. “One year (in 2005) I gave many of the awards in the audience. I thought it was novel and fun. A lot of folks thought it was too novel. Obviously I didn’t do it the following year,” he told me. “You have to respect the Academy and respect the purpose of the awards and then do something that has your own unique feel on it.”
He was proud of all the hosts he brought into the show including Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, Steve Martin, Chris Rock, Jon Stewart and even David Letterman, whose infamous “Uma … Oprah” bits did not go over big (even Letterman regularly bad-mouths his own performance). Cates told me he thought Letterman did just fine and in his typical gentlemanly manner refused to throw him under the bus when I asked whether in hindsight he regretted bringing him in.
“The host is the key. My own favorite hosts are people who have had experience with stand up comedy because once you’ve played a lot of houses with drunken people and people who don’t care and people whose attention is elsewhere you build up an ability,” he said. In other words you are ready to host the OSCARS.
Cates proved himself with grace under fire right from the very first show he produced in 1990. It was the year after the infamous “Snow White/Rob Lowe” show that Allan Carr produced, and a lot of high-profile Academy members were horrified and complained loudly. Disney even threatened to sue. Cates led a task force to address the disaster and eventually took on the producing duties himself for the next year’s show, which was also the first time Crystal hosted. The rest is Oscar history. The Academy and the industry owe this man a lot.
When we spoke he was full of ideas for the future, the shows he hoped to get another crack at. He wasn’t as concerned about the endless other awards groups that try to imitate Oscar even though he admitted they can create a certain amount of fatigue. “Most of the others are precursors to who wins the Oscar. That’s the BIG award, that’s the only one that really counts and is significant. In a way I’ve always regarded those other shows as noise but nonetheless noise that has to be taken into consideration,” he said. “But as long as the Academy board keeps their eyes open to the possibilities of change, they are in great shape.”
The Oscars were in great shape when Gil was around. So was the entire industry. The tributes that continue to pour in today are testament to that.