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Gil Cates, Academy Awards Producer

  • By Marina Dundjerski, Elizabeth Lonky
  • Published Mar 1, 2001 8:00 AM

Pop quiz: Q: Name the only actor ever nominated for an Academy Award twice after his death. A: James Dean.

Q: Who is the youngest performer to win a competitive Oscar? A: Tatum O'Neal, 10.

Q: Who has produced more Oscar telecasts than anyone else? A: Gil Cates, founding dean of UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television and producing director of the Geffen Playhouse.

When 1 billion viewers worldwide settle in to watch the 73rd Annual Academy Awards broadcast on March 25, with its elegantly futuristic set and towering Oscar sculptures, Cates will once again be backstage for the record 10th time as producer.

Cates, 66, is arguably the most successful Academy Awards producer in history. To date, his telecasts have won 15 Emmys and garnered 61 nominations.

Back in 1989, when the Oscar show was being universally panned, Cates was asked by then Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences President Karl Malden to take over. That 1990 Oscar broadcast - a year after the collapse of the Berlin Wall - featured star-studded satellite feeds from Buenos Aires, London, Moscow, Sydney and Tokyo. The telecast received critical acclaim; and Cates was signed on for the following year (taking home an Emmy for that 1991 production).

In the run-up to the recent broadcast, Cates seems remarkably relaxed - though keeping a vigilant eye on the clock - while talking about the show in his Century City office, which is Oscar Central until his crew moves to the Shrine Auditorium a week before show night. "One of the virtues of doing this show, in my 10th year, is that I have a sense of what the demands are going to be, and I can prepare for them," he says.

Indeed, observing "The Master," as Cates is affectionately called by students as well as Academy president Bob Rehme, while he selects music for a theatrical trailer to publicize the show or hops from one press interview to another, one sees polish, skill, poise and enthusiasm. There's not a trace of the cynicism that one might expect from someone who has been doing the same gig for a decade. In fact, he'll tell you repeatedly: "I love doing this show!"

"Each year it's different," Cates says. "If someone wants to study the sociology and anthropology of a given year, they can do a lot worse than studying the Academy Awards, which is a time capsule. In it are all these elements of that year: language, film, interests, fashion."

Ever the professor (he still has appointments in both UCLA's theater and film departments and teaches courses twice a year), Cates says he tries to teach something new to the audience each year. One year he focused on women in film. In another telecast, he celebrated 100 years of movies and aired bits from the first sound test, first color movie and first screen kiss.

"One of the great pleasures of doing the show is that each year we have an opportunity to produce something that is a beneficial experience," he says. "Maybe that comes from my having been a dean or my liking to teach. But you can't say that out loud or else people would be bored by it; if they don't know that it's good for them, then they are more likely to accept it."

Others who learn from Cates' shows are UCLA graduate students. At least one student from the School of Theater, Film and Television has worked on each of his productions. Angela Sostre, this year's intern, said Cates is "a great mentor to look up to" and that she is learning how to interact with other involved in "producing something that big."

Last year, Cates did not produce the Oscars because he had an opportunity to direct James Agee's A Death in the Family for PBS. (Other film credits include I Never Sang for My Father, 1970 and Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams, 1973.) It was only the second time in 12 years that Cates has not produced the show. The other was in 1996, when he concentrated on his new job at the Geffen.

Can viewers expect to see another decade of Cates-produced Oscars? The Master wastes no time answering: "Every year I do it, I think it's the last year. But I love doing the show. I don't have any - what's the word for that - I don't have any desire to make myself hard to get."