HAMMOND: Gil Cates, A Man For All Oscars

R.I.P. Oscar Producer Gilbert Cates

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.

  1. Nobody’s done it better than Gil, and nobody does it better than you do, Pete. What a glorious tribute to a true legend and gentleman.

  2. As a distant cousin and classmate I knew Gil before he was “Gil Cates” and he was a Gentleman and class act even then.

  3. I had the honor of knowing mr cates personally…he was a true gentleman. the kind you don’t see alot these days in show biz.
    this is a huge loss for the world. i hope his family is doing ok. his legend will live on for sure.

  4. I just received the news of Gil’s passing. We first met when we worked together on “I Never Sang For My Father”. He was a thoughtful and considerate gentleman. In all the years that passed since then my impression of him never changed. I am saddened by his leaving and will miss him dearly.

  5. Gil was one of the nicest, most gracious and professional people in this city. He will be missed on many levels…

  6. A masterful combination of creativity, production skills and taste. A rare breed who garnered the admiration of everyone who worked with, or knew him.

  7. Gil brought a gentlemanly grace to everything he did. I was lucky enough to work with him. He was one of the smartest, most genuine people I’ve ever met.

  8. RIP dear Gil. He taught so much when i worked with him on MOW’s in the mid ’70s. He was talented, gracious and patient. He loved stories, actors and the business. He will be missed.

  9. The funeral is scheduled to run from 5 to 9 but isn’t really expected to end before 11 due to long-winded speeches and a musical number from Rob Lowe.

  10. Gil Cates was a gentleman, kind, loving, nurturing, caring. He was a
    Renaissance man. There was nothing he couldn’t do. Gil had the ability to make each and every person he met feel like they were the most important person in the world. In this quality he was absolutely genuine. He had a love of life. He certainly changed my life. Though we came together for work, in the many years together, I valued our personal friendship more than any picture we could make together.
    The world lost a great man today. But his legacy will live on. Gil loved the Circus. And when he produced, he gave us all a three ring circus filled with all the glorious marvels that touch the heart of the child in us. God bless you Gil. Louis J

    1. Louis J,
      You said it all about our pal Gil. He was the best friend I ever had. Gil always maintained his zest for life and we are all the better for having known and loved him.
      RIP Gil from your goomba Chuck

  11. My partners and I worked with Gil on a project when we were less than nobodies and he couldn’t have kinder or more gracious. He treated us like kings and his creativity, tenacity and enthusiasm kept things rolling. We’ll never see another like him, G-d rest his soul.

  12. I am so glad to read Mr. Hammond’s eloquent tribute to Gil Cates, and for mentioning the fact that he directed two outstanding and hopefully-not-forgotten theatrical films in the early 1970s. I was in my 20s and new to the movie business when I was offered the Unit Publicist position on “Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams” in the fall of 1972. My two previous jobs in publicity were so horrendous that I swore I would never do that job again (since most members of the crew seemed to disdain publicists as an unnecessary intrusion on the filmmaking process). But after reading Stewart Stern’s brilliant screenplay, I took a leave of absence from my job writing for a small film publication for the opportunity to work with artists like Mr. Stern, Joanne Woodward (a woman and actress in a class by herself), Martin Balsam, the cranky but lovable Sylvia Sidney (making a comeback after a 16-year absence from movies) and Mr. Cates. It turned out to be one of the happiest, most enriching experiences of my life, and I attributed the rare sense of calm and content on the set at all times to Mr. Cates. He treated me with the same gentlemanly concern and caring as he did everyone from Ms. Woodward right on down to the lowliest p.a. When we wrapped the location filming in NYC a few days before Xmas, Gil (as he preferred to be called) gifted each of us with a token of thanks–a sterling silver key ring from Tiffanys. I still have that gift, and nearly 40 years later, my memories of that solid gold gentleman remain as vivid as if they only happened yesterday. RIP Gil, and thank you.

  13. Wonderful tribute to a loved and respected member of the profession.

    Let’s glorify more of THESE PEOPLE and stop admiring childish entitlement monsters who pollute this town with both their inner and outer ugliness.

    1. My two previous jobs in publicity were so horrendous that I swore I would never do that job again (since most members of the crew seemed to disdain publicists as an unnecessary intrusion on the filmmaking process).

  14. Mr. Hammond’s wonderfully endearing tribute to Gil Cates touched me. However, I would like inject one more addition to the many innovations Mr. Cates brought to the Academy Awards. In 1993 he brought me in as the First Woman Announcer ever to grace the telecast. It had taken 65 years to open that door, through which several more women have also stepped through.
    Working under the great auspices of Gil Cates was a deeply rewarding, rich, indelible experience for me. One that he blessed me with seven times, including his last Oscar Show in 2008. Deepest condolences to the Cates family. RIP Gil and thank you!

  15. Well said, Pete.

    The irony about the star-free Oscarcast Cates had prepared for ’08 is that if it happened, Ms. Finke would likely have been on this very site snarking it to death.

  16. My heart is heavy to learn of Gil’s passing. Knowing and working with him was a great pleasure and privilege. His artistic passion was matched by his passion for people, his positivity was matched by his pragmatism and his humor was matched by his compassion. Like a good father he always offered me wise counsel and warm guidance. My thoughts are with his beloved family and colleagues whose love and respect he so richly deserved.

Comments are closed.