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Gil Cates: He Tamed the Showbiz Beasts

The Geffen Playhouse is reckoning with how to continue after the death of producing director Gil Cates.
PHOTO BY JORDAN STRAUSS

Actors, colleagues and critics have weighed in on the Oct. 31 death of Gil Cates, the Geffen Playhouse's producing director, from an apparent heart attack. But many of America's A-list playwrights had a particularly special relationship with Cates, and found his theater to be a "home" — rare in an industry where "these managers of regional theaters are so worried about keeping their subscription audience happy, and [live in] fear of getting a bad review," says playwright Jane Anderson. "Gil was fearless."

So what do playwrights think about Cates, his death and the future of the Geffen?

After the Geffen agreed to premiere Jeffrey Hatcher's A Picasso in 2007, he recalls how convivial Cates was at a local deli. "He had a big turkey sandwich," Hatcher recalls. "We went back to his office and he said, 'I want you to read the play [out loud] because I can learn a lot by hearing the playwright read.' "

Cates turned on his tape recorder and sat back as Hatcher started to read. "After four minutes, I look up and Gil is sound asleep," he says. Hatcher says he might have shaken him but for the gap that would have created on the tape. "After a few minutes, Gil fluttered back to life before he went out again." Or seemed to — because Cates then chimed in, "I'm listening, I'm here," having decided (wisely, Hatcher says) to shut his eyes rather than staring out.

Suggesting that Cates may have been awake the entire time, Hatcher says, "When he smiled, his eyes often did close."

The Geffen presented four of Pulitzer Prize-winner Donald Margulies' plays, including Time Stands Still, which later moved to Broadway. "Gil was a remarkably unpretentious man in a city that prides itself on artifice," Margulies says, summing up Cates as "an enthusiast."

Cates commissioned a Christmas play from Margulies, yet to be written. "I said, 'If you want a Christmas play from me, it's going to be a Jewish Christmas play.' He said, 'That would be great.' So I'm working on A Brooklyn Christmas, dedicated to Gil."

Margulies remembers Cates saying that he kept producing the Oscars in his later years "because for those two months of the year, everyone returned his phone calls. Another reason he continued doing it so many times was because it kept him in touch with so many luminaries that could support the theater. I think that was his motive."

Anderson had two plays, including The Escort, commissioned and produced by the Geffen. Like Margulies, she has a standing commission for an unfinished play. "Gil knew how to schmooze, he had a sense of humor, he knew how to tame the beasts of the business — even the movie beasts — and he knew how to tame critics" with his charm offensive, she says.

Playwright-screenwriter-director Neil LaBute, another Geffen vet, describes Cates as someone "who would stand and talk theater with you in the lobby until some other business forced him away. ... It always seemed to pain him to leave. He loved chatting and being a part of that world so much. We also talked films a lot, and his eyes would light up with great stories about Faye Dunaway or Christopher Plummer or Joanne Woodward. Nothing, however, seemed to make him smile as much as a good night in a seat at the Geffen."

David Rambo, whose God's Man in Texas played at the Geffen in 2002, remembers Cates at a local deli, offering him a commission to write a new book for the Lerner & Loewe musical Paint Your Wagon: "He spoke about the original Broadway production: the romantic sweep of the story, the big voices, the earthiness of the setting. Soon it wasn't Gil Cates speaking, it was 17-year-old Gilbert Katz of the Bronx, recalling the moment he fell in love with the theater."

At the Geffen's Nov. 10 board meeting, a committee was formed to figure out the future of the theater's leadership. Margulies says, "It's a tall order when a producing director the size of Gil dies. It takes time for an institution to recover and reinvent itself. After Joe Papp [of New York's Public Theater] died, it took time."


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