Gil Cates—the film and TV producer best known for overseeing a record 14 Academy Awards telecasts in the span of 18 years—has died, a few weeks after undergoing heart surgery. Cates was 77.
Cates got his start in TV, where he worked on early-’60s game and variety shows like I’ve Got A Secret and Hootenanny before graduating to features with 1970’s I Never Sang For My Father. The film was the first to bring Cates into contact with the Oscars he would one day oversee, scoring nominations for its screenplay as well as actors Melvyn Douglas and Gene Hackman, while Cates would also adapt Father for the stage, part of a prolific theater career that lasted through 2007. On television, Cates soon became known for his work in the TV-movie format: Beginning with 1972’s Bill Cosby-starring sickle cell drama To All My Friends On Shore, Cates produced or directed more than a dozen different films for TV, and developed a reputation for tackling sensitive subjects—like homosexuality in Consenting Adult, or child molestation in Do You Know The Muffin Man?, both of which garnered him Emmy nominations. Other notable credits included Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye, which focused on a young John F. Kennedy, and Call Me Anna, in which Patty Duke played herself in an autobiographical exploration of her own mental illness.
Cates’ work on the big screen often touched on similarly weighty stories, such as the Beau Bridges-Susan Sarandon drama Dragonfly or the doomed romance The Promise, but he also dabbled in comedies such as The Last Married Couple In America and Oh God! Book II, as well as thrillers like Backfire. During the 1980s, he also served two terms as president of the Directors Guild of America, overseeing numerous contract negotiations and mergers, and was the founding dean of UCLA’s School Of Theater, Film And Television. (Reportedly, Cates died on the UCLA campus.) Together with the Oscars, Cates was arguably more recognized for his off-screen work in the movie business than for the movies he made himself. (Which is better than being known simply as Phoebe Cates’ uncle.)
Cates took over the Oscars in 1989, drafted to fix the show after what is still regarded as one of the lowest points in its history: the Alan Carr-produced telecast that kicked off with Rob Lowe and Snow White singing “Proud Mary” for some reason. Saddled with the unenviable task of making the show more modern and less embarrassing, Cates—who had written his master’s thesis on the circus, and thus knew the art of orchestrating chaos—did away with many of the pointlessly glitzy stage numbers, brought in more film clips, and put the focus squarely on a single host, Billy Crystal, who would go on to work with Cates eight times and also score him an Emmy for their 1991 ceremony. Somewhat inadvertently, Cates ended up creating the template not only for all future Oscars, but most televised awards ceremonies.
From 1990 to 2008, Cates continued to work from that template, bringing in other comedian hosts like Whoopi Goldberg, Steve Martin, Chris Rock, David Letterman, and Jon Stewart. And while he got the credit when they succeeded, over the years, he was always the first one blamed for the show’s failings—everything from its tedious length to his attempts to curtail that length with various experiments, like having award recipients make acceptance speeches from their seats. And though he was once the innovator, he loved things that increasingly became antiquated—such as song-and-dance numbers, or giving the whole night an arbitrary theme complete with superfluous clip montages—which eventually led to the Academy looking to once more shake things up after Cates’ last ceremony in 2008.
His absence has definitely been noticed ever since, as the Oscars has again gone back to a sort of pre-Cates era of taking desperate, experimental stabs in the dark, such as having James Franco and Anne Hathaway share hosting duties, and whatever Brett Ratner has planned for next year. But they were or will be working from the successful Oscars model that Cates designed—and if nothing else, no doubt he’ll get a well-deserved extra-special spot in this year’s “In Memoriam” montage on the show that is now so inextricably intertwined with his own legacy. (And if someone forgets him, well, at least Gil Cates won’t get any more angry letters about it.)