Though Gilbert Cates will be remembered as the versatile director and producer who oversaw a record 14 Oscar telecasts, those achievements only begin to tell the story of a showbiz luminary who was highly regarded as an industry statesman and tireless champion of the arts.
Cates founded both the Geffen Playhouse and UCLA’s School of Theater Film and Television, where he was a faculty member.
On Monday, at age 77, Cates collapsed in a UCLA parking lot, where the university said emergency medical personnel responded to a call about 5:50 p.m.
“Gil was our colleague, our friend and a former governor of the Academy,” said Tom Sherak, prexy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. “He was a consummate professional who gave the Academy and the world some of the most memorable moments in Oscar history.”
Cates, whose film producing credits include “I Never Sang for My Father” and “The Last Married Couple in America,” most recently oversaw the Oscars as executive producer in 2008, the 80th annual kudofest. He produced his first Oscarcast in 1990, which earned him a Primetime Emmy. He earned another 11 Emmy noms over the years for his work on the kudocasts.
In addition to his work in film, TV and theater, Cates was dedicated to education about the industry in which he made his mark. He served as dean of the UCLA School of Theater Film and Television from 1990 to 1998.
“Today we mourn our great loss but also celebrate Gil’s extraordinary vision and countless contributions, not only to TFT as founding dean and distinguished professor but to the entertainment and performing arts industries and the education of our students, who benefited from his remarkable talent, insights, generosity, experience and wisdom,” the school’s current dean Teri Schwartz.
Cates’ work with the DGA spanned decades. He was the guild’s current secretary-treasurer, and logged two terms as prexy from 1983 to 1987. He also headed the DGA negotiating committee during the last four rounds of contract talks with the majors, paving the way for the end of the WGA strike in 2008 when, as DGA negotiating committee head, he helped hammer out the industry template for new media residuals.
“Gil Cates embodied this guild,” DGA prexy Taylor Hackford said in a statement. “Through his decades of service, he guided the guild gently and charismatically and with great wisdom, and perhaps more importantly, he established what it meant to be a leader of this organization and the entertainment community. He was a fierce friend, an even fiercer negotiator and somebody you always hoped was on your side but respected even if he wasn’t.”
Cates served on the committee that developed plans for the guild’s iconic headquarters, which stands at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Laurel Avenue in West Hollywood.
With his extensive knowledge of DGA affairs, Cates for years was a key go-to person for DGA national director Jay Roth, who admired his integrity and his drive.
“What really drove him was how much he cared about the people at the guild and his fellow directors,” Roth told Variety. “He had an incredible ability to see things in the future and he never let relationships be defined by circumstances. He had an incredible sense of perspective. His word was gold. When he told you he was going to do something, it got done. And he expected that of other people. There were no curve balls with Gil.”
Cates was also devoted to his legit work at the Geffen, where he served as producing director from its inception in 1995. Starting in 1994, he led the charge to transform what had been the Westwood Playhouse into a prime L.A. showcase for high-end theater. He personally wooed mogul David Geffen for the $5 million donation that put his name on the door. In 2010, the playhouse surprised Cates at its annual fundraiser when it announced that the organization’s main stage would be renamed the Gil Cates Theater.
Geffen Playhouse chairman Frank Mancuso noted that Cates often referred to the Playhouse as “his second family.”
“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,” Mancuso said. “As my dear friend Gil would no doubt say ‘onward and upward with the arts.’ ”
Cates’ film work was overshadowed by his other industry accomplishments. But “I Never Sang for My Father,” the 1970 film version of the Broadway hit starring Melvyn Douglas, Gene Hackman and Estelle Parsons, earned Oscar noms for Hackman and Douglas and screenwriter Robert Anderson. Joanne Woodward and Sylvia Sidney landed Oscar noms for the Cates-helmed “Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams” (1973). He also helmed a number of TV movies in the 1980s and 1990s.
Cates was feted by the DGA in 2005 with the guild’s Presidents Award. The same year he was honored by the ASC with its Governors Award.
Cates is survived by wife Dr. Judith Reichman, four children, two stepchildren and grandchildren. He is also survived by a sister, Florence Adler. Son Gil Cates Jr. is a writer-director.
(Dave McNary and Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.)