Oscar Producer Gilbert Cates Dies at 77

Gil Cates Beverly Hilton Podium - H 2011
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Gil Cates Beverly Hilton Podium - H 2011

UPDATED: He produced a record 14 Academy Awards telecasts in the span of 18 years.

Gilbert Cates, who produced a record 14 Oscar telecasts during an 18-year span, has died, The Hollywood Reporter confirms. He was 77; his body was discovered in a parking lot at UCLA.

UCLA officials said Tuesday that emergency medical personnel responded to a call on campus at about 5:50 p.m. Monday but were unable to revive Cates. The Los Angeles County coroner is investigating the cause of death. Cates was a professor at the school.

In addition to his work on the Oscars, the genial Cates had a sterling career as a director and producer for films, television and the stage, and he served two terms as president of the Directors Guild of America from 1983-87. The New York native was the producing director of the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood since 1994, the founder and dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television from 1990-1998, and the uncle of actress Phoebe Cates.

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Cates was credited with shaking up the status quo of the Oscar telecasts, bringing in such new-blood hosts as Billy CrystalSteve MartinChris RockWhoopi Goldberg, David Letterman and Jon Stewart. His 14 Oscar telecasts came during the years 1990-2008, and he won an Emmy for the 1991 show hosted by Crystal, the second of the comedian’s eight times at the helm.

“Gil was our colleague, our friend and a former governor of the Academy,” said Academy president Tom Sherak. "He was a consummate professional who gave the Academy and the world some of the most memorable moments in Oscar  history. His passing is a tremendous loss to the entertainment industry, and our thoughts go out to his family.”

His TV subject matter was often bold for the times: He directed Consenting Adult in 1984, which focused on homosexuality, and in 1989 he helmed Do You Know the Muffin Man? which centered on child molestation. He received Emmy nominations for best director for both telefilms.

After a standout career on Broadway, Cates for his first feature produced and directed the emotional I Never Sang for My Father (1970), which starred Melvyn DouglasGene Hackman and Estelle Parsons and earned three Oscar nominations. He then directed Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973), which received Academy Awards noms for Joanne Woodward and Sylvia Sydney.

In 1967, Cates and Sang for My Father playwright Robert Anderson had combined on Broadway for You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running. The next year, Cates produced Sang for My Father for the stage and Anderson’s Solitaire/Double Solitaire.

Cates also produced and directed on Broadway Voices and Tricks of the Trade and produced the Broadway and London productions of Spoon River Anthology.

Born Gilbert Katz in the Bronx on June 6, 1934, Cates graduated from Syracuse University and then returned to New York, where he worked in game shows. He served as a producer on I’ve Got a Secret from 1952-67 and then Haggis BaggisCamouflagePicture This and Across the Board.

He produced and directed the ABC series Hootenanny, a musical variety show that ran on ABC from 1963-64 and featured pop-oriented folk-music acts like Johnny Cash and Judy Collins.

From 1962 to 1964, Cates also directed International Showtime, an NBC series hosted by Don Ameche that introduced American audiences to the best of European circuses and ice shows. He returned to Syracuse in 1965 to get his master’s degree and wrote his thesis on the circus, and his first film as a director was the documentary Rings Around the World (1966). 

Cates began directing TV movies in 1972 with To All My Friends on Shore, which starred Bill Cosby and centered on sickle cell anemia. His TV directing and producing credits were substantial: Johnny, We Hardly Knew YeThe Kid From NowhereCountry GoldBurning RageFatal JudgmentInnocent Victims and A Death in the Family, among many others.

Cates was a prolific TV producer, including Call Me AnnaPatty Duke’s life story. He also produced or executive-produced TV variety specials, often with his brother Joe. They collaborated on such projects as Country Night of StarsElvis Remembered: Nashville to Hollywood and Fifty Years of Country Music

Cates also directed three Cash specials from 1983-85.

His film directing credits also include The Promise (1979), Oh, God! Book II (1980), The Last Married Couple in America (1980) and Backfire (1988).

Cates was a recipient of the DGA’s Presidents Award and received the guild’s Robert Aldrich Award for service. In 1991, he was awarded its Honorary Life Membership. He led the guild’s negotiations committee in the 1980s and four times headed contract negotiations with producers (the guild went on strike in 1987). Cates helped forge the merger between the New York-based Radio & Television Directors Guild and the Screen Directors Guild in 1960.

Cates served three consecutive terms as a governor of the Academy's Directors Branch from 1984-93. He returned to the board for another term beginning in 2002 and held the post of vp from 2003-05.

In 1996, Cates was given the Jimmy Dolittle Award for Outstanding Contribution to Los Angeles Theater, and in 1999 he received the Ovation Award for best play for Collected Stories, starring Linda Lavin and Samantha Mathis, which he directed at the Geffen.

Also for the Geffen, he directed David Eldridge’s Under the Blue Sky in 2002; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 2005 as the inaugural production in the newly renovated Playhouse; a new adaptation of Lerner & Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon in 2006; and Jeffrey Hatcher’s A Picasso, starring Roma Downey and Peter Michael Goetz, in 2007.

“Gil has always referred to the staff of the Geffen Playhouse as his second family,” said Frank Mancuso, chairman of the Geffen Playhouse board. “And it is as a family that we mourn this tremendous loss. 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. As my dear friend Gil would no doubt say, ‘Onward and upward with the arts.’ ”

Survivors include his wife, Today show gynecologist Judith Reichman, who was in Tel Aviv at the time of his death (her daughter had a baby a few months ago), four children and two stepchildren.