Gil Cates in the Skirball Theater at the Geffen in this 2008 photo. (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)
Los Angeles has lost one of its most unrelenting champions of theater.
When the news broke on Tuesday morning that Geffen Playhouse founder and producing director Gil Cates had died at 77, it was as though the unthinkable had happened, something akin to the Hollywood sign tumbling down from its hillside perch.
Perhaps it's inevitable to connect Cates with Hollywood. A stage director who also had a successful career in TV and the movies, he was the go-to producer for the Academy Awards telecast for a number of years, a role that gave him the air of the consummate studio insider, even if in his heart of hearts he was too much a theater person to feel totally at home swimming with the sharks.
Not that Cates, whom I got to know better than any other artistic director in town since I joined The Times in 2006, wasn't skilled in the oily arts of celebrity glad-handing. He was so adept at schmoozing, in fact, that it hardly mattered how obvious his ulterior motives may have been. Like many people who make a disproportionate impact, he was a character, and the great joy of being in his company was seeing him perform his role on whatever impromptu stage was available to him.
The two of us used to have lunch every year at — where else? — the Grill on the Alley in Beverly Hills. An industry watering hole, it was a convenient meeting place for both of us and, of course, everyone there knew him. Agents, studio bosses, publicists and those with Hollywood connections too long in the past for me to place would pay their respects as Cates filled me in on his plans at the Geffen while sneaking in feedback on my performance as critic.
The lunches were usually quite long, two-hour affairs at the very least, filled with chat, some of it contentious but most of it intent on drawing out the other's experience. Cates wanted me to understand the challenge of his mission, how difficult it was to get prospective theatergoers in this town to become actual theatergoers — those blessed souls willing to plunk down a credit card in exchange for an evening of traffic, parking and a play that, however madly it's hyped, is something of an entertainment risk.
On this topic, a missionary zeal would creep into his manner. He tried to convince me that, no matter how much I might find a show to be worthless, it was important for me to start gently and respectfully. He wasn't asking me to bury my opinion, but he thought it was possible to be candid without discouraging the rest of civilization from attending. Differences of opinion are the norm, he'd argue.
He was, despite the battle weariness that began to show more with age, an eternal optimist. He understood my rebuttal, boiled down to the idea that if I wrote reviews with a concern for box office that the writing would be tepid and the verdicts unreliable. But he wanted to heighten my awareness of the impact of my language. He succeeded in the sense that I came to include him in the imaginary readership that accompanies me as I proceed the morning after an opening to knock out a review on deadline.
Mind you, he wasn't always happy with the result or shy about letting me know it. (The reverse was also true, and his compliments were never general but always tied to something he thought deftly handled in the prose.) One review in particular really ticked him off. It came shortly after a pan I wrote of "Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas," in which I asked whether anyone at the Geffen was "capable of making an objective assessment of a script that should have gone no further than a benefit reading with a carefully planned guest list?" That query was met with silence. A week later, however, I filed what I still regard as a tough but on-point response to the UCLA Live production of "Medea" starring Annette Bening. Cates went ballistic, firing off a letter to my editors that said I had lost my way as a critic.
We didn't have lunch for many months after that, but when we did — after Bening had opened later that season in "The Female of the Species" at the Geffen, another work I wasn't wild about — we talked about the incident. I told him that I thought his note had been unfair, that I certainly had no animus against Bening (whom I have lauded extravagantly in the past), and that it was unreasonable to expect that I would dance around my negative opinion just because a big-name actress was willing to do the classics in her own backyard, an admittedly rare and courageous act.
We heard each other, but only after enough time had passed. We talked about the sting of criticism. I shared with him what it's like to be a reviewer in the age of the no-holds-barred blogosphere; he told me what it's like to produce a play that fizzles, then to be accosted in the lobby of his apartment building by neighbors who feel impelled to vent their disappointment to him.