Show's unpredictability can give command central the willies

HOLLYWOOD — Considering the brickbats that get thrown his way by cultural critics every year he does it, you might wonder why Gil Cates keeps coming back. But back he is, for the 11th time as Oscarcast producer this year, and with the usual suspects.

“It’s big, it’s really live, it happens all at one time and then, mercifully, it’s over,” says Cates with a chuckle from his office in West Los Angeles. “Who wouldn’t want to do it?”

With his ongoing multipronged career as TV film producer and theater impresario, producing director of UCLA’s Geffen Playhouse), Cates obviously doesn’t need the gig. But you get the sense that he’s kind of an adrenaline junkie.”It’s the unscripted moments that you live for,” he continues, reality TV shows notwithstanding: “They’re the moments you don’t see on television anymore. It’s TV as live theater.”

Or even surreal live theater: When Jack Palance, for example, did his one-armed push-ups after winning supporting actor (“City Slickers”) and told a worldwide audience that he, um, eliminated objects bigger than host Billy Crystal, Cates and crew were stunned. “We didn’t know whether Jack had lost his mind or had had a heart attack,” he recalls. Crystal’s subsequent running gags about Palance’s continuing exploits offstage became the leitmotif of the evening.

Recurring players

In many of the key production and creative positions, Cates has called on those he has worked with before. Among others, Roy Christopher is returning for the 14th time as production designer, Louis J. Horvitz will direct his seventh Oscarcast and Steve Martin will host for his second go-round.

Though Martin had his first meeting with the show’s writers in early December, longtime Oscar show scribe Bruce Vilanch says it isn’t until the nominations are announced that the process shifts into high gear.

“After that you can sort of guess which way the evening’s going to go. We can develop a game book and have at least five good jokes for each nominee.”

As for any adjustments the writers will make in the event the U.S. and its allies have gone to war with Iraq by awards night March 23, Vilanch says that’s not part of the preplanning. “We just take each day as it comes and watch the skies.”

This is the second Oscar show at the Kodak Theater and, despite his long association with the awards, Christopher’s first crack at the oft-maligned facility.

“Whenever I design for a new space there’s always an adjustment period,” says Christopher.

The Kodak has less wing space than the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and less height than the Shrine Auditorium, meaning set elements have to be broken down into smaller pieces. “But it’s a beautiful theater. It has the feel of a European opera house and that subliminally feeds the production design.”

Despite the fact that this is the diamond anniversary of the Academy Awards, Christopher says there won’t be a bauble reference in sight onstage. Rather, the theme of this year’s overall design references movie architecture of 1929 through the 1930s, when art deco met art moderne.

“It’s cool and sleek like the movie star images of the time. Definitely not ornamental,” he says.

Once the telecast gets under way, the heartbeat of the show is in an innocuous 40-foot production truck parked in Kodak’s loading dock by the house-left exit. This is where Horvitz calls virtually every shot from curtain up to the final award for picture. Behind him sit Cates, his staff of associate producers and at least one ABC exec.

It can be an intimidating place. There’s a wall of nearly 30 monitors for the 20 cameras feeding live pictures from every corner of the theater, video playback for film clips, graphics for transitions and chyrons for name IDs as the celebs walk onstage.

How does he prepare for the onslaught? “I say a prayer,” Horvitz says. “I pray to have the focus to see what I need to see and hear what I need to hear. There’s a lot of people who’ve worked three months who are counting on me to to help them tell the story they want to tell.”

As in the past five years, the Oscar telecast will again have it’s own AMPAS-produced half-hour preshow, headed for the third time by Dennis Doty.

“It’s a challenge,” Doty says of his first preshow at the Kodak. For one thing the red carpet is three times longer than the Shrine’s. So instead of one host, there will be four (Chris Connelly from ABC, Jim Moret of CNN, vet “Entertainment Tonight” reporter Jann Carl and “Access Hollywood’s” Sean Robinson).

“There’s a lot of energy and a rapidly changing landscape for our stories,” says Doty. “You have to have the kind of talent that can switch directions and pick up a cue in an instant and make it look easy.”

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