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Producer Gil Cates is Oscar’s ringmaster

Cates is ready to drown out any winner who tries to unload a laundry list of thank-yous or exceeds their 45-second limit.
/ Source: The Associated Press

If you want to know what kind of Oscar show to expect from Gil Cates, think of him ordering the orchestra to play off Michael Moore two years ago as the director shouted “Shame on Bush!”

Moore isn’t nominated this year, but Cates is ready to drown out any winner who tries to unload a laundry list of thank-yous or exceeds their 45-second limit, as Moore did. And he won’t feel the least bit guilty about it.

Cates is producing his record 12th Academy Awards telecast, a circus-like gig with potential for magic as well as disaster.

“I love the show, I love the people,” he says. “It’s the last big, live variety show.”

The busiest man in HollywoodWith less than a month to go, Cates and his staff have taken over 27th-floor offices in Century City, where the 70-year-old father of six and grandfather of five often zips through the long hallways on an electric scooter.

On his desk, a digital nameplate scrolls the message: Go away unless urgent!

Stashed nearby, behind a black velvet curtain, are the biggest secrets in Hollywood: the ever-changing details of the show, listed on a white board.

Dressed in jeans and sneakers, Cates briefly lifts the drape on another board containing the names of celebrities. Like a tightlipped war commander, he won’t explain what the names represent.

Cates first produced the Academy Awards show in 1990. The following year he won an Emmy for his Oscar work. His long list of movie credits includes the Oscar-nominated “I Never Sang For My Father” and “Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams.” He’s also produced and directed many television movies and numerous stage productions.

But the one show Cates keeps coming back to is the Oscars — maybe because nobody else seems to want to.

“My good pal Norman Jewison did it one year and he remembered it as a night of terror and would never do it again,” Cates says, smiling. “Sam Goldwyn Jr. did it twice, I don’t think he would do it again.”

Besides being fun — at least for Cates — the gig does have its advantages.

“If I want to get a seat at a restaurant and I’m a little screwed out of it, I’ll say, ‘Occasionally, I produce the Academy Awards.”’

Instant table — and a good one, too.

Each time he’s asked by the academy to produce an Oscar show, Cates likes to plan a surprise or two to augment the evening’s unscripted magic. He pioneered the “necrology” — memorial segments paying tribute to stars who died, now an award-show staple. One year, he put an Oscar aboard a space shuttle and had it handed out via satellite. He’s also brought a bear and a horse on stage to help with presentations.

So what about this year? All he’d say was, “You’ll notice as soon as you watch the show.”

Doing battle with timeIt begins at 8 p.m. ET on Feb. 27 — and Cates knows that ABC wants to put East Coast viewers to bed as close to 11:30 p.m. as possible.

In the control room are two monitors, one showing actual time and another displaying the show’s projected running time — plus or minus.

“It’s like watching a heartbeat,” Cates says. “You’ll see in 20 minutes, you’re 30 seconds over and then something will happen, like a nominee won’t be there who wins, and all of a sudden you’ll be minus 15 seconds. Someone will go on and you’ll be plus 2 minutes.”

Rarely is there extra time to kill. Mostly, Cates is on the lookout for things to trim if the show is running behind.

Cates, whose niece is actress Phoebe Cates, doesn’t discriminate in playing winners off. He pulled the plug on good friend Martin Landau, a supporting actor winner in 1994 for “Ed Wood,” despite Landau’s on-stage plea to halt the music.

“He was really just talking about stuff,” Cates says.

Yet he’ll let someone go on, like Al Pacino did one year, if the remarks are compelling.

“My goal is an emotional show,” he says.

But in the end, it’s the ticking clock that determines whether a winner is played off. They can say anything they want within their 45 seconds, including political rants, although Cates advises against that.

Cates’ favorite acceptance ever?

Director Alfred Hitchcock’s simple “thank you” in 1967 when he received the Irving G. Thalberg award.

“There are 25 awards,” he says. “If everybody just spoke 90 seconds longer than they were supposed to, that’s 40 minutes to the show. Forty minutes!”