Gilbert Cates, best known as the man behind a record 14 Academy Awards ceremonies, died last night (Sept. 31) in Los Angeles. The 77-year-old director and producer collapsed in a parking lot on the UCLA campus; emergency personnel were unable to revive him. Although the cause of death isn’t known, Cates reportedly had undergone heart surgery about a month ago.
“Gil was our colleague, our friend and a former governor of the Academy,” Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Tom Sherak was quoted as saying in an official statement from the Academy. “He was a consummate professional who gave the Academy and the world some of the most memorable moments in Oscar history.”
Cates won an Emmy for the 63rd Academy Awards ceremony in 1991, his second stint as Oscarcast producer and the year Dances with Wolves won Best Picture. Between 1990 and 2008, he was nominated for 12 other Emmys for his Oscar shows. In fact, the Emmys bypassed him only once: for the 1992 Oscarcast, the year The Silence of the Lambs won.
Although Cates found producing the Oscar telecast “an absolutely great job,” not everyone – both within and outside the Academy – thought he was the right man for it. About the 2001 ceremony, Damien Bona wrote in Inside Oscar 2: “It was already manifest that we were back to a Gilbert Cates show, because in contrast to the cool music heard last year [produced by Richard Zanuck and Lili Fini Zanuck], Bill Conti was playing the same schlocky arrangements as always, things that sounded as if they might have been written for a Mitzi Gaynor TV special from 1966.”
Yet, generally poor reviews and sagging ratings notwithstanding, Cates – who had once flatly stated he would do no more than three Oscar shows – kept coming back again and again.
Although now chiefly associated with the televised Academy Awards ceremonies, Cates was also a founder of UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television – acting as dean from 1990 to 1998 – and the Geffen Playhouse, located right across the street from the UCLA campus/medical center. Additionally, he directed plays, a couple of dozen television movies, and a handful of features.
In fact, Gilbert Cates’ best film-related work took place far from the Academy Awards ceremonies. Two of his ’70s movies in particular, the family dramas I Never Sang for My Father (1970) and Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973), are notable both for Cates’ quiet, subtle handling of the dramatic situations and for the generally masterful performances: I Never Sang for My Father featured Melvyn Douglas, Gene Hackman, and Estelle Parsons; Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams featured Joanne Woodward, Martin Balsam, and Sylvia Sidney (photo). Douglas and Woodward were nominated for Oscars, and so were Hackman and Sidney in the supporting categories (even though Hackman was as much a lead as Douglas).
Douglas, Woodward, and the veteran Sidney, a first-time nominee after more than four decades in films, should have won. They lost to, respectively, George C. Scott in Patton; Glenda Jackson in A Touch of Class; and nine-year-old Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon.
Among Cates’ other efforts were The Affair (1973), a so-so television movie chiefly notable as the first of two Natalie Wood made with husband Robert Wagner after their 1972 re-marriage (their first marriage lasted 1957-1962; their second television pairing was in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1976); the critical and box office disappointment The Last Married Couple in America (1980), a comedy that was Natalie Wood’s first big-screen star vehicle in nearly a dozen years (the previous year, Wood had what amounted to a supporting role in the disaster movie Meteor); and the 1985 TV movie Consenting Adult, a well-intentioned – perhaps a little too much so – gay-themed drama featuring Marlo Thomas and Martin Sheen as the befuddled parents of a young gay man (Barry Tubb) coming out to himself. Consenting Adult earned Cates an Emmy nomination and a Golden Globe nod to Marlo Thomas.
Also of note, Cates’ received a Directors Guild Award nomination for his television adaptation of Patty Duke’s autobiography (with Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan), Call Me Anna (1990). Duke played herself in the movie, which revolves around the Oscar winner’s struggle with mental disorders.
Cates’ two other Emmy nods were for Do You Know the Muffin Man? (1989), a tale of child sexual abuse with Pam Dawber and Stephen Dorff, and the abortion drama Absolute Strangers (1991), starring Patty Duke and Henry Winkler. He was also the recipient of the DGA’s President’s Award in 2005, the same year he received the American Society of Cinematographers’ Board of the Governors Award.
Additionally, Cates served three consecutive terms as a governor of the Academy’s Directors Branch, from 1984 to 1993. He returned to the board for another term beginning in 2002, and held the post of vice president from 2003 to 2005. He also served twice as DGA president.
Gilbert Cates photo: AMPAS