Gil Cates and Me
I first met Gil Cates when I was an undergrad, an older undergrad, at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television. Cates was the head of the department and already shaking things up in a great way. He would come and see our performances, cheer on the students when they had any sort of success. I shook his hand when I finally got my degree, an eternal fuck up in life made good, the only person in my family to graduate college. What I remember about him then was that he was a force for good at UCLA. He changed it from being just the film school – with theater kind of pushed to one side. By putting it all under one umbrella, there was more prestige to graduate from the School of Theater, Film and Television. Theater majors were all really pleased by this. Film students might have been a little bugged. Cates brought his many Hollywood connections to UCLA and really changed things mostly overnight. His legacy is felt there still.
The next time I met Gil Cates I was on life change number two. I had dropped out of grad film school at Columbia, gone through a miserable breakup and had very little to account for in life. I somehow got a job working at the box office for the Geffen Playhouse. During that time, we were worked so hard and under such bad working conditions (which weren’t all that bad) that we were going to vote to unionize — it was all a lot of hot air, looking back on it. I got promoted to working in the subscriptions department before all of this happened — it’s true that as the Geffen Playhouse was forming they did use students as cheap labor for sure – we did work overtime and we didn’t get breaks and yes, their success depended on this. So we were rightly angry. But I think we took it too far. I remember near the end of my employment there my friend and I were giving out subscriptions to “house seats,” like front and center that people would have as long as they wanted them. They were supposed to be reserved for VIPs but we, with all kinds of unlimited access, just started giving them out for the hell of it. I still wonder if there are people who attend the Geffen Playhouse that have these great seats because my friend and I totally broke the rules.
The night before we were to strike and unionize, Gil Cates came down to our office and had a long discussion with us about what what we should do. I remember how frank it was and how whatever it was he said it stopped us from taking action (again, trust me, this was hardly necessary and, in the end, just a lot of drama) — he promised us better pay and no more overtime. It seemed reasonable enough but I was kind of over it and wanted to leave. So I was about to write a very dramatic, scathing “letter of resignation” that went on and on about my stay at UCLA and how disappointed I was in him and how he was treating employees. His secretary at the time read the letter and pulled me aside. “You know, you can draw more flies with honey than vinegar.” She was right. I never gave Cates the letter. He might have known me if I had.
The next time I met up with Cates I was a single mom. My website, called Oscarwatch then, was doing well but I wasn’t yet making a living off of it. I went to work part time for the Dean’s office at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. My boss was Gil Cates. He didn’t have any idea I was the person who wrote Oscarwatch.com, nor would he ever remember I worked at and almost picketed outside the Geffen Playhouse. He certainly would have never remembered shaking my hand as I got my diploma. I worked under him as a regular assistant/secretary. I spent most of my time talking on the phone and messing around online at that job. I was never focused enough to do a good job and I’d end up quitting after about six months. But I’ll never forget saying hi to Gil Cates when he’d come into the office, how friendly he was, how he never skipped over you when he walked by you. One time he stopped and looked at me and said “don’t I know you from somewhere?” I looked at him back and said “yeah, I attended school here and you gave me my diploma.”
He said “That’s right. It’s nice to see you every day smiling and working hard. But make sure to do something with your life, will ya?” He gestured around the tiny office I was working in, “I mean really.” We both had a good, knowing laughed. “I’ll try,” I said.
Since then, I’ve seen him a few times at Academy functions but of course, never said hello. He wouldn’t know me anyway. I always wondered what I would say to him if I ever had a chance to have an actual conversation with him. But I’ve always know that if I ever talked to Cates as the person I am now I like to think he would have been proud somehow.
But now I realize what bothered me so much about hearing that he’d passed on was that I never got to properly thank him in ways I’m only starting to realize now. For things seen and unseen. I know he will be missed.