Man of the theater -- and Oscars -- took on the tough jobs

Gil Cates was a gregarious man of great patience and generous instincts who always seemed to be testing himself. Cates, who died Oct. 31 at age 77, could have devoted his life to schmoozing (he was a master at it) and directing an occasional show. Instead, he enmeshed himself in situations and jobs of maximum tension, as though to prove to himself that, even in combat, he could maintain his identity as a “good guy.”

As the producer of Oscar shows (he did 14), Cates was a study in calm crisis-management. As a key negotiator for the notoriously demanding Directors Guild, he firmly pursued his deals while maintaining a spirit of amity. His beloved Geffen Playhouse repeatedly teetered on the brink, but Cates always managed to command new resources.

Friends told him that it would be all but impossible to build and sustain interest in community theater on the Westside of Los Angeles, but Cates pursued his objectives with a genial relentlessness. More than once he confided to me that fund raising was an excruciating exercise, which often left him exhausted and discouraged, but the Geffen remained his cause.

The writers strike of 2007 and 2008 provided some especially demanding moments for Cates. The Directors Guild was prepared to make its deal months before the strike and there was pressure on Cates to express sympathy for the writers or to close a deal for the directors, which would have hurt the writers’ cause (many DGA members were also writers). Under Cates’ urging, the directors maintained neutrality for many months and ultimately helped broker a settlement — again, Cates sought to be a peacemaker, rather than a corporate bully.

Responding to the news of Cates’ death last week, Taylor Hackford, the current DGA president, noted that Cates “was a fierce negotiator,” adding, “you hoped he was on your side but respected him even if he wasn’t.” Steven Spielberg said, “He was the most liked person I knew.”

Charles McNulty, theater critic of the Los Angeles Times, noted how much he enjoyed Cates’ company, but added that Cates was capable of firing off ferocious letters if he felt a review was unfair. A friendly lunch would follow their battles, however.

Knowing Cates for many years, I am persuaded that he did not enjoy living his life on the edge. On the other hand, he could not resist a challenge, just as he could not resist telling a good story. He was, in the end, a man of the theater, and he was destined to live theatrically.

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