Gil Cates, best known for producing Oscars, dies at 77

The movie director and TV producer Gil Cates, who gained his greatest renown as self-declared “ringmaster” of the most hyped, exciting, wryly amusing, wincingly crass, maudlin and bloated circus in Hollywood — in other words, the Academy Awards — died Oct. 31 in Los Angeles. He was 77.

Mr. Cates collapsed in a parking lot at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he was founding dean of the School of Theater, Film and Television.

(Kevin Winter/GETTY IMAGES) - After a long and varied career, Gil Cates was probably most identified with the Oscars.

The university, which announced the death, said the cause was not immediately known. A spokesman for the Los Angeles County coroner’s office had no comment, saying it had not reached Mr. Cates’s family.

In a career spanning more than five decades, Mr. Cates worked on documentaries, episodic television, TV “specials” such as the Oscars and live theater.

By most accounts, Mr. Cates was temperamentally suited to one of the hardest jobs in show business. A fencer in high school and college, he cultivated a reputation for on-set discipline and diplomatic savvy.

He was a past president of the Directors Guild of America, led UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television from 1990 to 1998, and was a producing director of UCLA’s Geffen Playhouse, named after entertainment mogul David Geffen.

As a filmmaker, Mr. Cates displayed understated sensitivity in directing such compelling dramas as “I Never Sang for My Father” (1970), starring Gene Hackman and Melvyn Douglas, and “Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams” (1973), with Joanne Woodward and Sylvia Sidney.

He also directed George Burns in the comedy “Oh, God! Book II” (1980) and earned three Emmy nominations for his directing work on the TV dramas “Consenting Adult” (1985), “Do You Know the Muffin Man?” (1989) and “Absolute Strangers” (1991).

The Oscars were in crisis when Mr. Cates was asked to produce them in 1990. The previous year’s show was universally recognized to have been a long and ugly spectacle — the tone irreparably set in the opening number when actor Rob Lowe sang a duet of “Proud Mary” with a squeaky-voiced Snow White look-alike. The Walt Disney Co., which had not granted approval for use of Snow White’s likeness, filed suit against the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (The suit was settled out of court.)

Producer Allan Carr was practically run out of town for his injection of high camp and litigation into the 1989 show. Hollywood eminences such as Billy Wilder, Paul Newman and Gregory Peck issued a statement calling Carr’s program an “embarrassment” and “demeaning” to the industry.

Actor Karl Malden, head of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, recruited Mr. Cates with a mandate to bring a degree of restraint and taste to the broadcast.

Mr. Cates lured actor and comedian Billy Crystal as host. He also planned for live satellite hookups in London, Moscow and Buenos Aires, in which celebrities would present the awards remotely. Mr. Cates told the New York Times, “This underscores the fact we have a world film community. It’s not just L.A.”

He said of his predecessor, “Carr did a good job. He wanted to do a show with lots of glitz and glitter. I’d like to do a show that is contemporary and reflects the changes in the world.”

Mr. Cates went on to produce 13 more Oscar shows, the last in 2008; he won an Emmy for the 1991 broadcast. The program continued to have its share of detractors, mostly over its length and self-indulgent speeches. And its hosts, including Steve Martin, Chris Rock, Whoopi Goldberg, David Letterman and Jon Stewart, have been inconsistent, at best.

But in a live medium, and a profession brimming with ego, Mr. Cates was praised for his smooth backstage orchestration of a nearly impossible task: to keep the program moving at all costs.

Of the inevitable speeches and thank-you lists by award winners, he simply advised: “Don’t be foolish on the show. Just remember, if you thank a long list of people, four will be very happy but 99 million will be bored and go to the refrigerator.”

He also warned that winners risked being cut off by the full orchestra after 45 seconds.

Gilbert Lewis Katz was born June 6, 1934, in New York, where his father was a dress manufacturer. While attending high school in the Bronx, he developed an interest in fencing that continued through his college years at Syracuse University.

Initially a pre-med student, he switched to theater when his fencing skills led him to be cast in a college production of “Richard III.” After graduating in 1955, he worked as a Broadway stage manager and directed TV game shows before helming his first movie-length documentary, “Rings Around the World” (1966), which was about circus acts.

He received a master’s degree in drama from Syracuse in 1965 and, returning to Broadway, produced Robert Anderson’s series of one-act plays, “You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running,” which ran from 1967 to 1969, and Anderson’s drama about family tensions, “I Never Sang for My Father” (1968).

Mr. Cates’s first marriage, to Betty Jane Dubin, ended in divorce. In 1987, he married Judith Reichman, a gynecologist and “Today” show contributor. Besides his wife, survivors include four children from his first marriage; two stepchildren; a sister; and six grandchildren, according to UCLA.

His late brother, Joseph, was creator of the game show “The $64,000 Question.” Joseph’s daughter, Phoebe Cates, is an actress.