LOS ANGELES – Anytime veteran Oscar producer Gilbert "Gil" Cates booked another superstar for the big show, he banged a giant golden gong outside his office.
Gong! Jamie Foxx. Gong! Jennifer Aniston. Gong! Sandra Bullock.
The gong — like the Yiddish words and occasional expletives he used to pepper his speech — hinted at the whimsy and charm Cates brought along with his leadership.
Cates died Monday at 77 after collapsing on the UCLA campus. The cause of death was not immediately known. Friends of Cates told the Los Angeles Times he recently underwent heart surgery.
Cates produced more Academy Awards telecasts than anyone else — a record 14 times. He last produced the Oscar telecast in 2008, when the show was almost sidelined by the Writers Guild strike.
Cates was comfortable at the helm, calling the Oscar gig "an absolutely great job." He'd assemble his staff of loyal workers, many of whom had been with him for years, and go about the task he had done professionally for more than five decades: Putting on a show.
"You prepare, you get out there and something happens," he said in an interview before his 13th Oscarcast.
Cates, is credited with revitalizing the ceremony by bringing in comedians such as Billy Crystal, Steve Martin, Whoopi Goldberg, Chris Rock and Jon Stewart as hosts and establishing a template for the show that has been followed for years.
Martin tweeted his condolences Tuesday. "So sorry to hear Gil Cates has died," the comedian wrote. "He helmed two Oscar shows I hosted. He was delightful, wise, canny and unperturbed. A great fellow."
Academy President Tom Sherak said Cates was a colleague, friend and a "consummate professional."
Cates "gave the academy and the world some of the most memorable moments in Oscar history," Sherak said in a statement. "His passing is a tremendous loss to the entertainment industry, and our thoughts go out to his family."
Though he was the boss — a producer and director, founder of the School of Theater, Film and Television at UCLA, two-time president of the Directors Guild of America and member of the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — Cates was an affable man with an easy smile. He never seemed rushed or stressed, despite the mountain of high-profile tasks on his plate at any given time.
In 2008, he prepared two Oscar shows (in case the writers' strike kept famous folks away), ran the Geffen Playhouse in West Los Angeles (which he founded in 1994), and led the directors guild's contract negotiations. Yet he still had plenty of time to have a relaxed lunchtime chat with a reporter and proudly show off the theater he helped create.
Cates produced and directed plays at the Geffen Playhouse, where he was regarded as "our founder, our leader and our heart."
"Gil has always referred to the staff of the Geffen Playhouse as his second family," board chairman Frank Mancuso said Tuesday. "And it is as a family that we mourn this tremendous loss. Gil built this theater and he will forever be at the center of it."
Cates, the uncle of actress Phoebe Cates, loved the world of entertainment, even with its prima donna celebrities and penchant for excess. He brought a sense of fun to the Academy Awards, once sending an Oscar up in the Space Shuttle Columbia. When Steven Spielberg honored George Lucas during the show, a satellite camera showed the golden trophy floating in space's zero gravity.
"That's the excitement of doing the show," Cates said. "It's big enough that you can do those things."
He was generous with his time and talent. He served as dean of UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television from 1990 to 1998 and remained on the faculty as a professor.
Dean Teri Schwartz called Cates as a "beloved mentor, colleague and friend."
"Today we mourn our great loss but also celebrate Gil's extraordinary vision and countless contributions, not only to (the school) as founding dean and distinguished professor but to the entertainment and performing arts industries and the education of our students." she said Tuesday.
When he was tested, he often voiced his thoughts in Yiddish, which removed any sting.
Once when prodded by a journalist for answers he was reluctant to provide, he playfully threw up his hands and pretended to end the interview, saying, "''Genuk! Enough already! It's time for my nap"
When this reporter admitted she didn't understand the Yiddish reference, he teased her for not being Jewish enough, then allowed the interview to continue for another 30 minutes.
Cates amassed dozens of credits in film, television and on and off Broadway. His film credits include 1970's "I Never Sang for My Father," which was nominated for three Academy Awards, and 1980's "Oh God! Book II" with George Burns.
He belonged to the Directors Guild for more than 50 years, and president Taylor Hackford said Tuesday that Cates embodied the organization.
"Through his decades of service, he guided the Guild gently and charismatically and with great wisdom, and perhaps more importantly, he established what it meant to be a leader of this organization and the entertainment community," Hackford said in a statement. "He was a fierce friend, an even fiercer negotiator and somebody you always hoped was on your side but respected even if he wasn't."
Ever the showman, Cates had a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, where flowers were placed Tuesday. Cates is survived by his wife, Dr. Judith Reichman, sister Florence Adler, four children, two stepchildren and six grandchildren.
At his office at the Geffen Playhouse, his computer monitor was framed by Post-It notes inscribed with inspirational quotes.
"My favorite," Cates once said, "is from Pablo Picasso, who said, 'I am just an entertainer who understood his time.'"
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