After a yearoff, Cates in charge

Producer speaks on kudocast's host, critics, doing what he wants

A limping Kirk Gibson stands at the plate, Dodgers down by two runs, and here’s the pitch from Dennis Eckersley …

Probably not too many people turned off the television at that moment 13 years ago on that October night.

Gil Cates, back for his 10th go around as the producer of the Academy Awards, likens his global broadcast to the Fall Classic. No matter the length, which normally pushes four hours, the Oscar show provides enough drama that nobody’s lunging for the off button on the remote.

“I view the show as a great game of the World Series,” says Cates. “It is what it is.”

And what it is, of course, is the day Hollywood loves to pat itself on the back and recognize its own accomplishments. And that’s not even including the fashion show and party town frivolity that occurs before and after the big show.

“The length is less important that the entertainment value,” he says of the show that this year will no definitive theme as there has been in year’s past.

“The truth is if the awards were handed out quicker, I don’t know if people would like that.”

Last year, Cates — who also serves as producing director of the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood — was directing a segment of PBS’ yet-to-be-aired American Literary Television’s “A Death in the Family” and wasn’t able to produce the Oscars. Academy president Robert Rehme asked Richard and Lili Fini Zanuck to take over while Cates offered some advice.

“Dick is an old friend of mine and I warned him about where some of the pitfalls can occur,” says Cates, who watched the show in the Shrine Auditorium audience with his son.

“I enjoyed the show but I felt I should be doing things. It was a strange feeling. I felt impotent.”

It’s an empty feeling that he’s only experienced twice over the past 11 years. He produced every show from 1990 to 1995 and then let Quincy Jones take a crack at it before the Zanucks stepped in last year.

Cates agrees that having two very different audiences watching can bring challenges but he believes if the black-tie crowd on hand is enjoying the show, chances are so are the movie fans from around the world.

“Basically, I try to keep my eye on the television audience. I think if the people in the house like what’s going on, so will the people at home,” he explains. “For me, I’m just doing a TV show. In a way, a great variety TV show. The trick is to keep entertaining.

Crystal clear

Critics often judge the awards on the abilities of its host. How well one person can entertain both the Shrine attendees and the millions at home, all the while keep the machine running smoothly and at as brisk a pace as possible.

Billy Crystal has been universally applauded for someone who has all the perfect sense of humor and respect for film to make everyone happy.

Due to his commitments directing the upcoming HBO pic “61,” however, Crystal had to bow out this year as host. And the gutsy Gates knew this when Rehme asked him to produce.

“I attended Billy’s daughter’s wedding in September and I was sitting with David Steinberg, Billy’s manager,” Gates recalls. “He told me, ‘If you do the show this year, Billy wasn’t going to be able to do it.’ ”

After taking the producing gig, Cates called on Steve Martin, who had once turned down an invite to host, to see if he was interested. Martin, an actor, author and playwright, accepted.

Once word got out that Martin was hosting, Cates knew he had a made an excellent choice.

“You really have to know how to work a room and he’s such a terrific entertainer and so classy,” Cates says. “It was interesting how immediate and positive the response was once people found out he was hosting.”

So as the final, frantic days wind down before the March 25 event, Gates keeps one thought in the back of his head.

“Samuel Goldwyn gave me a piece of advice,” Cates confesses. “No matter what you do, there are going to be some people who won’t like it so you might as well do what you want.”

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