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Hollywood producer, director Gil Cates dies at 77

Gil Cates, a longtime Hollywood stalwart credited with reviving the annual Oscars telecast, died Oct. 31 at 77.

Cates had directing, producing, and acting credits, including the 1970 film, "I Never Sang for My Father," starring Melvyn Douglas and Gene Hackman, and "Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams" from 1973, starring Joanne Woodward and Martin Balsam.

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One of his “signature accomplishments” was making the the annual Academy Awards program a must-see event by recruiting such hosts as Billy Crystal, Steve Martin, Whoopi Goldberg, David Letterman, Chris Rock, and Jon Stewart.

“The industry’s annual showcase acquired a sharper comic bite and unveiled segments, such as the opening montage in which Crystal parodied nominees’ film clips, that proved popular with viewers,” his hometown paper, the Los Angeles Times, reported.

"So sorry to hear Gil Cates has died," Steve Martin tweeted. "He was delightful, wise, canny and unperturbed. A great fellow."

In all, Cates produced 14 Oscar programs, was founding director of the Geffen Playhouse, founding former dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, a two-time Emmy winner, and Oscar nominee.

In 1998, Cates co-produced “the exuberant celebration” of Israel’s 50th anniversary at the Shrine Auditorium, which was broadcast across the US.

Longtime Hollywood-based writer Tom Tugend wrote that Cates “expressed some qualms” about Anglicizing his name (he was born Katz) and “said he was astonished that many people didn’t realize he was Jewish.” He had done so after his older brother Joseph, also a director and producer, and father of actress Phoebe Cates, had done so.

Cates told Tugend, “I don’t lay tefillin, and I only go to shul on the High Holy Days, but I feel very proud to be Jewish.” He was a member of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

Cates said the impact of his Jewish heritage went “well beyond a count of plays with specifically Jewish themes and characters.” He told Tugend that  he saw in “Harriet’s Return,” which dealt with Harriet Tubman’s struggle for the freedom of African-American slaves, a play of basic Jewish concern.

He was born Gilbert Katz in New York City the son of a dress manufacturer. He studied theater at Syracuse University, where he mastered fencing, led him to train actors in swordplay for a play, and then into acting himself. He directed and produced plays on Broadway, at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre and at other venues.

He served two terms as president of the Directors Guild of America, from 1983 to 1987, and led a fight against the practice of colorizing black and white films.

As founder and producing director of Geffen Playhouse, Cates provided a showcase for actors such as Annette Bening and Jason Alexander, and playwrights such as Donald Margulies and Neil Labute.

The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org.

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