Gil Cates, the Hollywood showman who transformed the annual Academy Awards telecast from a tired and predictable affair into a polished entertainment extravaganza with hosts such as Billy Crystal and Steve Martin, has died. He was 77.
Cates may have been best known as the guiding hand on 14 Oscar telecasts, but he was a creative and versatile force. He was an Emmy Award-winning television and film producer and director who also directed plays on and off Broadway, the impresario of the Geffen Playhouse, and he fostered generations of entertainers as a professor and dean of UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television.
He collapsed in a UCLA parking lot Monday evening and emergency medical technicians were unable to revive him. The cause of death was under investigation but appeared to be natural causes, the Los Angeles County coroner’s office said. Friends said he had undergone heart surgery last month.
As the founder and producing director of the not-for-profit Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, Cates helped provide a home for frontline Hollywood talent, including Annette Bening and Jason Alexander, to practice their stagecraft, and a nurturing environment for leading contemporary playwrights such as Donald Margulies and Neil Labute.
An effusive, outspoken man, Cates boasted an impressive portfolio of job titles that was matched by his extensive Rolodex of personal and professional contacts.
One of his signature accomplishments was revamping the annual Academy Awards telecast. Cates was widely credited with re-energizing a formula that had grown tired and predictable, recruiting such hosts as Crystal, Martin, Whoopi Goldberg, David Letterman, Chris Rock and Jon Stewart.
When Cates took over the Oscars telecast in 1990, the show’s reputation was reeling from one of the most risibly inept moments in Oscar history. The opening number of the Allan Carr-produced 1989 telecast featured Rob Lowe singing “Proud Mary” while cavorting with an actress playing Snow White, a spectacle that drew laughter from viewers and derisive snorts from TV critics.
Under Cates’ direction — 14 shows, more than any other individual — the industry’s annual showcase acquired a sharper comic bite and unveiled segments, such as the opening montage in which Crystal parodied nominees’ film clips, that proved popular with viewers.
“So sorry to hear Gil Cates has died,” Martin tweeted Tuesday morning. “He was delightful, wise, canny and unperturbed. A great fellow.”
In a statement, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Tom Sherak said Cates “gave the academy and the world some of the most memorable moments in Oscar history.”
Cates’ own films as director included “I Never Sang for My Father” (1970), with Melvyn Douglas and Gene Hackman; and “Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams” (1973), starring Joanne Woodward and Martin Balsam.
Cates served three consecutive terms as a governor of the academy’s Directors Branch, from 1984 to 1993. He returned to the board for another term beginning in 2002 and held the post of vice president from 2003 to 2005, according to the academy.
He also served two terms as president of the Directors Guild of America, from 1983 to 1987. His extensive connections within the film and television industries, and his well-prepared but nonconfrontational approach to dealing with the studios, helped him earn the studios’ trust during several series of contract negotiations.
“There are few people in the history of the guild who have matched Gil’s vision and influence on the organization and our industry,” guild President Taylor Hackford said in a statement. “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.… Gil Cates embodied this guild.”
As president, Cates led a successful fight against the practice of colorizing black and white films. He also presided over the guild’s first “strike” in its history, a largely strategic maneuver that lasted less than an hour.
But some screenwriters criticized Cates “as the deal-maker who gave away the lion’s share of income from home video sales during a contract negotiation” in the 1980s, according to a 2007 Times story.
Born Gilbert Katz in New York City on June 6, 1934, Cates was the son of a dress manufacturer. He was married to Dr. Judith Reichman and had four children and two stepchildren. He is the uncle of actor Phoebe Cates.
He studied theater at Syracuse University, where he mastered two esoteric skills: fencing and guessing peoples’ weights and ages at a carnival summer job.
A Times story said that when fencing, Cates “would spend hours some days lunging at ‘suspended doughnuts’ to sharpen his aim.” His prowess led him to be recruited to train actors in swordplay for a stage production, which eventually led him into acting.
After finding work in New York as a stage manager, Cates went on to direct and produce plays on Broadway, at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre and at other venues.
In 1995, Cates presided over the opening of the Geffen Playhouse (formerly the Westwood Playhouse), which had been donated to UCLA in 1994 and was renamed after a $5-million gift from David Geffen, the music, film and theater mogul. In subsequent years, Cates directed several shows there, including a critically well-received production of Margulies’ “Collected Stories.”
Whether backstage at the Oscars or greeting guests at the Geffen, Cates was the same warm, demanding, wisecracking presence. It was a manner befitting a lifelong lover of the circus, whose passion for culture in all its high-low permutations matched his affection for the brassy arts of showmanship.
“Gil has always referred to the staff of the Geffen Playhouse as his second family,” Frank Mancuso, Geffen Playhouse chairman of the board, said in a statement. “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.’ ”
Los Angeles Times staff writer David Ng contributed to this report.