Gil Cates: The Man Who Saved the Oscars

Cates came to the Oscars in a moment of crisis, and transformed the show

In the world of the Oscars, few people have had the impact that Gil Cates had.

Cates, who died at the age of 77 on Monday, came to the Oscars in 1989 in the wake of an Oscar-night disaster. That year's show, produced by Allan Carr, was notable for its glitz and tackiness, and is now remembered best for an interminable opening number that included Rob Lowe and an actress dressed as Snow White butchering a rewritten version of "Proud Mary."

Also read: Oscar Producer Gilbert Cates Dead at 77

Gil CatesThe Academy brass wanted to know what went wrong and how to fix it, so they tapped Cates to head a committee to look into what should be done with the show. When his committee made its recommendations, Cates was hired to put them into effect and produce the next Oscar show – a job he subsequently took 14 times over the next two and a half decades.

(Photo by Darren Decker/AMPAS)

He brought in Billy Crystal to host, emphasized film clips and created the template for every Oscars since then.

Also read: How I Convinced Gil Cates to Make Billy Crystal an Oscar Host

“I think Gil totally saved the Oscar show,” director Chuck Workman, who did video packages for many of Cates' shows, told me when I was writing my Oscar book, "The Big Show."

“He was the perfect man at the perfect time. He was able to make it a much more modern show, keep it very much about Hollywood but also catch up with the rest of entertainment.”

Added Jeff Margolis, who directed Allan Carr's show and went on to do Cates' first six Oscars: “Gil had produced television and produced motion pictures and directed television and directed motion pictures, and he had some Broadway experience as a producer and director. He also had a whole different philosophy from Allan. He wanted to do it bigger and better, but he knew the limitations of television. He knew we weren’t making a movie, we were doing a television show, and that was a whole different way of approaching the show.” 

And Frank Pierson, a former Academy president who famously battled with Cates when Pierson headed the Writers Guild and Cates the Directors Guild, ended up hiring Cates to produce two of the shows during his four-year stint as president.

"I think that [the Oscar show has] gotten better over the years," he told me. "And if it has, the one who deserves the most credit is Gil because he really developed the awards show format."

When I wrote about Cates in my book, I pointed out his tendencies as Oscar producer. He felt that each show should open with a film clip, but he also loved staging those oft-maligned dance numbers (though he subscribed to the theory that each individual element should last no longer than three minutes). He liked to give themes to his Oscar shows, and he was fond of surprise appearances by both people and animals. And despite his penchant for dogs and horses and Debbie Allen, Cates was also a steadying, calming influence.

As befit a former college dean and an occasional teacher, Cates had a professorial manner that usually belied his tart tongue. But when the mood struck him, the generally soft-spoken producer delighted in sprinkling his speech with expletives.

I was behind the scenes at most of Cates's Oscar shows; he was the one who allowed me inside the Oscars to begin with, and who let me stick around even when I wrote things that bothered him.

Gil Cates"I've always been a fan of the circus," Cates told me at one of our first meetings. "And this is the greatest circus."

Cates was always amused by the circus he was orchestrating; even in the midst of problems like the invasion of Iraq taking place the week of the Oscar show, he insisted that he could find the fun in the job. He was enamored (sometimes even obsessed) with keeping secrets, and delighted in his later shows when he finally wrestled the Oscars back under three-and-a-half hours.

His shows came to be seen as the conservative approach to the Oscars, but he was also the one who had the clout to take chances and shake up the format. His innovations didn't always work – handing out a couple of awards in the aisles in 2005 was a notably unsuccessful experiment – but he acquired the currency to try things that would be shot down if others suggested them, and he took chances in his last few Oscar shows.

After that experiment with awards in the aisles, Cates told me that he received a letter from an angry member of one of the branches whose members were being denied that long walk to the stage.

"On behalf of all the nominees," it read, "you're an asshole."

After spending time with the man on and off for more than a decade, I can testify that the disgruntled member was dead wrong. Gil Cates was a gentleman and a showman. He produced great shows and bad shows, but did so with integrity and class. And on the Oscar landscape, he was a giant.