Gilbert Cates, a producer and director who produced 14 Academy Awards ceremonies and founded the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, died October 31, 2011, in Los Angeles. He was 77.
Cates collapsed on the UCLA campus, where emergency personnel responded but were unable to revive him. The cause of death was not immediately known.
Born in New York City on June 6, 1934, Cates graduated from Syracuse University and then returned to New York, where he worked as a Broadway stage manager and on television game shows. He was a producer on I’ve Got a Secret, as well as Haggis Baggis, Camouflage, Picture This and Across the Board.
He also produced and directed the musical-variety series Hootenanny, International Showtime and the documentary Rings Around the World.
His numerous other television projects included both series and made-for-TV movies. Among them were Johnny, We Hardly Knew Thee, Country Gold, The Twilight Zone, To All My Friends on Shore, The Affair, After the Fall, Call Me Anna, and A Death in the Family.
We was also a frequent producer of variety specials, often with his brother Joseph, who died in 1998. The siblings worked on such productions as Country Night of Stars, Elvis Remembered: Nashville to Hollywood and Fifty Years of Country Music. In addition, Cates directed three Johnny Cash specials.
He first produced the Academy Awards in 1990 and continued to do so regularly until his final time in 2008 — a total of 14 in all, more than any other producer.
Cates received 16 Primetime Emmy nominations, 13 of them for Oscars telecasts. He won once, for the 1991 show hosted by Billy Crystal — the second of Crystal's eight outings as host. His three non-Oscar-related nominations came for directing television movies: Consenting Adult, Do You Know the Muffin Man? and Absolute Strangers.
He made his feature film debut as director and producer of the Oscar-nominated 1970 release, I Never Sang for My Father. Other features included Summer Wishes, WInter Dreams, Oh, God! Book II, Dragonfly and Backfire.
Cates also founded the School of Theater Film and Television at the University of California, Los Angeles, and was its dean from 1990 to 1998. He twice served as president of the Directors Guild of America and was on the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
In addition, via UCLA, he founded the Geffen Playhouse, where he sometimes produced and directed plays.
He was secretary–treasurer and past president (1983–87) of the Directors Guild of America.
When news of his passing began to circulate, many of his friends and colleagues expressed reflections and condolences via released statements and social media.
Steve Martin, who hosted the Oscars under Cates’ supervision, sent a message via Twitter: “So sorry to hear Gil Cates has died. He helmed two Oscar shows I hosted. He was delightful, wise, canny and unperturbed. A great fellow.”
Motion Picture Academy president Tom Sherak: “Gil was our colleague, our friend and a former governor of the Academy. He was a consummate professional who gave the academy and the world some of the most memorable moments in Oscar history. His passing is a tremendous loss to the entertainment industry, and our thoughts go out to his family.”
Directors Guild president Taylor Hackford: “There are few people in the history of the Guild who have matched Gil’s vision and influence on the organization and our industry. There was no greater champion of the creative and economic rights of directors and their teams and no truer friend to the membership, board and staff of the DGA. For more than 50 years, Gil has served the Guild — as president, as secretary-treasurer, as negotiations chair. It’s impossible to think of a single issue debated, program launched or battle fought on behalf of us all that didn’t have his special touch in its crafting.”
Steven Spielberg: “No one may ever again achieve what Gil Cates achieved in his contributions to the success of the Motion Picture Academy and the Directors Guild. In producing 14 Oscar shows for the Academy and leading the Directors Guild through challenging times and negotiations, he set a remarkable standard for dedication and excellence. He was the most liked person I knew and will be missed by all who knew him as a proud member of our industry and a great pal to everyone.”
He produced and directed plays at the Geffen Playhouse, where he was regarded as "our founder, our leader and our heart," according to a statement Tuesday.
Geffen Playhouse Frank Mancuso: “Gil has always referred to the staff of the as his second family. And it is as a family that we mourn this tremendous loss. Gil built this theater and he will forever be at the center of it — we honor his life by continuing the fulfillment of his dream. As my dear friend Gil would no doubt say, ‘onward and upward with the arts.’”
Teri Schwartz, dean of UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television: “Gil was a great man, distinguished professor, extraordinary artist and visionary leader both at UCLA, the Geffen, and throughout the entertainment and performing arts industries. He was also a remarkable friend to one and all and gave everything of himself with such generosity, kindness and purpose. His loss will be deeply felt by all of us at TFT, throughout the entire UCLA and Geffen community and the entertainment and performing arts industries.”
He is survived by his wife, Dr. Judith Reichman, four children, two stepchildren and six grandchildren.
On March 13, 2007, Cates had the distinction of being interviewed by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation’s Archive of American Television. During the two-and-a-half hour interview, conducted on the stage of his theater production of A Picasso at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, California, by the Archive’s Gary Rutkowski, Cates talked about getting hired as an NBC guide at Rockefeller Center and performing such tasks as “audience waver,” in which he encouraged applause from the studio audience.
He described the excitement of working in “live” television in the 1950s and his association as director and producer on several game shows. He discussed his work as an associate producer on the series Dotto, the game show that infamously ignited the “quiz show scandals.” He described how the show was exposed and talked about the general nature of fixing shows during that era.
Cates went on to discuss projects that he produced and directed in the 1960s, including the pilot for the music-variety series Hootenany, International Showtime (in which he filmed international circus acts) and Electric Showcase (including a show done at the 1965 World’s Fair).
He then talked about his transition to producing Broadway shows, including I Never Sang for My Father, which he later filmed as a feature film with Melvyn Douglas and Gene Hackman. He also addressed several television movies he directed, including Arthur Miller’s After the Fall.
In addition, he went into great detail about his long association as producer of the Academy Awards broadcasts. He described the challenges of mounting the “live” broadcast and recounted several memorable moments from the show through the years. Lastly, he talked about the creation of the Geffen Playhouse, where he served as Producing Director.
The interview may be seen in its entirety here.