Among his many accomplishments, Gil Cates obviously will be known as the person who produced more Oscar shows than any one in the history of the Academy. Talk to any producer who has done it just once or twice and you will get this astonished look when you tell them Gil Cates did it 14 times in the last two decades. And with his always calm and cool manner, he made it look so easy. Perhaps that is why every producer doing the show in Gil’s off years always sought out his advice — and he always happily gave it as he told me when I interviewed him exactly one year ago about his memories on being the man behind so many Oscarcasts. “I’ve had lunch with each producer and producing team going back to my off years,” he told me. “The one thing I’ve told everybody is the Oscars is such a big show that no matter what you do there are gonna be people who like it and people who don’t. The most important thing is to do a show you like. There’s no way to get out totally alive. Do a show they find unique and fun and special. That’s a victory.”
Gil Cates had a lot of victories in his long career. As a former president of the DGA, its current secretary/treasurer and its chief negotiator for the last four contracts; as founder of the UCLA School of Theatre, Film and Television; founder and artistic director of the Geffen Playhouse; as director and producer of such multiple-Oscar-nominated films as Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams and I Never Sang For My Father; as well as so many TV films that made a lasting mark on the medium. There’s so much more, but my own personal connection (aside from attending the great theater he oversaw at the Geffen) has always been with the Oscars, and on those occasions when I got to talk to him or interview him I was like a kid in a candy store listening to his stories (sorry, some I just can’t print — off the record). His last show aired in 2008, the year No Country For Old Men won Best Picture. But this was also the year of the writers strike that KO’d the Golden Globes and put a dark cloud over the Oscars until just 12 days before the show was to air, when it was settled. But Cates, with his usual calm of a master negotiator and problem solver, had a Plan A (with all the stars in a strike-free show) and a Plan B (with no stars but a heavy emphasis on history and clips) ready to go, essentially prepping two different shows simultaneously, depending on events out of his control. It’s a good thing he was in charge because a lesser or more inexperienced producer might have cracked under the pressure. Not Gil. In the end, he produced a classy, star-studded show as usual but was ready to deliver whatever cards were dealt.