Oscars producer Gil Cates has a lot on his plate

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LOS ANGELES — It’s another working lunch for Gil Cates. Sitting behind a broad desk in his office at the Geffen Playhouse, the theater he helped establish 12 years ago, Cates faces a wall of autographed posters from past shows. Beside him is a computer screen covered with tiny bits of paper bearing inspirational quotes.

‘‘My favorite,’’ Cates says, ‘‘is from Pablo Picasso, who said, ’I am just an entertainer who understood his time.’’’

Cates can relate. A director and producer of theater, film and television, Cates, 73, has produced more Academy Awards telecasts than anyone else. This year, he’s taking on his 14th Oscar assignment. But there’s more on his plate than that and a grilled-cheese sandwich.

Cates is planning not one, but two Oscar shows: the traditional star-studded affair and a second, clip-filled alternative should the Hollywood writers strike remain unresolved and nominees refuse to attend.

Meanwhile, he still serves as producing director of the Geffen, where he keeps an eye on nightly activity, and he’s been a leader in the directors guild’s recent contract negotiations.

Despite juggling three full-time jobs, Cates is smiling.

‘‘They each have different peaks of activity,’’ he says. ‘‘There are peaks and valleys. I just don’t want to have two peaks hit at the same time.’’

For most of the year, the Geffen is his base of operations. Running a theater has been a lifelong dream. Cates oversees operations, helps choose the season’s plays and aids fundraising efforts. His eyes sparkle with a parent’s pride as he shows visitors around the premises, pointing out the great view from the green room and the building’s two elevators.

‘‘We’re very proud of our elevators,’’ he says.

Cates has helped administer more than $20 million in renovations since taking over the building, which sits across the street from the University of California, Los Angeles.

When asked to helm the Oscars — a call he has gotten almost annually since 1990 — Cates chooses the show’s director, set designer and host. A few weeks before the show, he moves his office to the Oscar headquarters a few miles away.

The Academy Awards gig, which he calls ‘‘an absolutely great job,’’ is even more intense this year because of the need to plan a strike-ready contingency show. If actors don’t attend, Cates will fill the time with film clips and other non-celebrity numbers.

The Oscar producer typically maintains a big magnetic board on which the show’s 12 acts are plotted out. This year, Cates has two such boards, says Sid Ganis, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Another extra task Cates has taken on this year is serving as chairman of the Directors Guild of America’s contract-negotiating committee, a job he’s done twice before.

Cates was appointed by the guild’s president, and together they chose committee members and outlined the terms of the union’s contract. DGA members are voting this month whether to ratify the new agreement.

Efforts for all three things — the Oscars, the Geffen and the DGA negotiations — are ongoing, Cates says, and the timing allowed him to perform a juggling act. The Geffen season was selected before he took the Oscar job, where ‘‘much of the heavy lifting is done before the new year.’’

‘‘It kind of slows down between New Year’s and the nominations ... and that leaves a gap in January,’’ he says. ‘‘And that was the gap in January in which I chaired the negotiations committee.’’

Cates makes it sound easy. But Ganis, his longtime colleague and friend, says the veteran producer has a valuable skill that serves him in all three pursuits.

‘‘Some people have this ability to be involved in a topic, then turn in the opposite direction and, without losing a beat, be involved in a whole other issue that has nothing to do with what be was being wise about 10 seconds before,’’ Ganis says. ‘‘He’s rather extraordinary and I have new respect for him at every turn.’’

Perhaps, then, another of Cates’ favorite quotes, from Vincent Van Gogh, should come as no surprise: ‘‘If one is a master of one thing and understands one thing well, one has at the same time insight into and understanding of many things.’’


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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on February 1, 2008 3:12 PM.

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