Gil Cates had completed his second term as DGA president and was serving a third during the only time in Guild history that a strike has been called.
“If there is to be war, then let us fight it with every weapon at hand. United, there need be no doubt as to the outcome,” Cates declared in a speech in July 1987 to prepare members for the action.
The outcome was not in doubt for long. Five minutes after picketing had begun at Columbia, Warner Bros. and NBC in Los Angeles, an accord was reached that settled differences with the AMPTP.
“The industry had never seen a strike like that,” Cates recalls. “It was meticulously planned - we had 700 people there on time, walking the picket line with printed signs. We had a catering truck, a hospital truck, 10 portable phones, and a communications trailer, which was very unusual at the time. When management looked outside and saw this armada, we reached an agreement in minutes.”
With negotiations settled, Cates stepped down as had been previously arranged, and Vice President Franklin J. Schaffner assumed the Guild’s top post.
Cates produced and directed the 1970 feature version of the Broadway hit I Never Sang for My Father, which earned three Academy Award nominations. His 1973 film Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams received two Oscar nominations, and he directed the Emmy-winning NBC dramatic special To All My Friends on Shore, among dozens of other television series.
Cates looks back with satisfaction at a number of key achievements during his tenure - not least the construction of the DGA’s six-story, $20 million headquarters on Sunset Boulevard. He’s also proud of playing a key role in promulgating the DGA’s Low Budget Agreements. “Today, everyone takes it for granted, but at the time, staffing prices were the same, whether someone was making a film for $50 million or $1 million, and it was tough getting everyone to lower their terms. The key was getting them to realize that it was enlightened self-interest; because it would bring more people, and the younger directors, into the Guild.”
Born and raised in the Bronx, Cates earned an MFA at Syracuse University and was directing game shows in New York when he attended his first Eastern Directors Council meeting. “There in the room were Frank Capra, Mel Brooks, Rouben Mamoulian, Delbert Mann, Elia Kazan - I thought to myself, my God, what I could learn from these people!” Cates exclaims. “And to me, the Guild has always been more a Guild than a union. There’s a big distinction - a guild not only looks out for a person’s interests in terms of credits and income, but it looks to make you grow in your art and craft. There has always been an educational component.
“The original members got together not for more money, but for creative rights so the producers would give them freedom to do their job better. I always loved the Guild, the camaraderie in it, the fellowship of the men and women. And I always felt that the DGA was the premiere guild of the entertainment industry because of this unique attitude.”
Among his many credits, Cates has produced the Academy Awards broadcast more than a dozen times and currently serves as the producing director at the Geffen Playhouse.
Cates founded the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, where he still teaches. In 2005, he was recognized with the Presidents Award for his continuing service to the Guild, particularly in the area of contract negotiations where he has served as chair for the most recent 2002 and 2005 negotiations.
“You have to enjoy interaction, and making things happen, and you have to be political, which I define as focusing on the art of the possible,” reflects Cates, now the DGA’s secretary-treasurer, on his success leading the negotiations team. “But at the end of the day, I’ve done it because I really like the people.”