Gil Fates: 1914-2000
Gil Fates always had the kind of job I always felt was television's version of managing a candy store.
To be the man who called so many of the shots of the golden era of the panel show, to be backstage when Judy Garland balked at signing in as a mystery guest, and to know Miss Francis' gowns really did come from Bonwit Teller was a dream job.
The news of Fates' passing this past Monday is all too stark a reminder of how we've lost three of the giants of the Goodson-Todman era in the last five years in Gil, Chester Feldman and Ted Cooper. Men who knew the foundation on which the greatest game show empire in television history was built.
Gil was a genuine pioneer. When he did a little number called CBS Television Quiz in 1941, he was one of the first humans ever to be seen (albeit by a mere handful) on television (Dennis James beat him by two years, first facing the camera in 1939).
He tried his hand as an emcee but the Fates, to coin a pun, would send Gil in the direction of producing. Fates was the kind of point man who exists in any well-run company. He kept the creative and financial directions going and walked through minefields to keep emcees, panelists and networks happy.
Gil was a ripe 35 when What's My Line? hit the air. Though Fates was executive producer at various intervals for I've Got a Secret and To Tell the Truth, as well, his legacy to all of us came in the 25 years he supervised the granddaddy of panel shows.
That legacy was embellished with the book Gil wrote in the late 1970s, appropriately titled "What's My Line?" Now out of print, the volume is one of the finest primers of the behind-the-scenes operations of network television's longest-running prime time game and a chapter of anecdotes about its two sister shows.
Fates left no question where he stood on his emcees. In the book, he clearly offered the view Garry Moore was the best host in the history of the genre because of Garry's natural personality before the camera and his flexibility on a show which often required extraordinary dexterity.
His self-deprecating humor carried over into the book, when he described the day he finally went before the panel on the syndicated Line as a mystery guest. Wrote Fates: "Very big mystery....very little guest."
Fates also offered a revealing portrait of the year (1967) when CBS canceled all three of its classic panel shows and Password from its prime time schedule and, the next year, dropped daytime To Tell the Truth. The future of what appeared to be a collapsing empire in Goodson-Todman hinged in large part on the performance of the syndicated version of Line. Enormous obstacles presented themselves, but Fates managed to squeeze seven more years out of the old girl, even when station executives were originally told Goodson-Todman may not be able to deliver a fresh mystery guest on every show.
Fates is the last of the classic show supervisors from the G-T stable to leave us. Watching the current butcher job of Secret on cable's Oxygen and fearful of a sex-emphasized Truth in the fall, one longs for some former Goodson-Todman staffer with a connection to Fates, Cooper and Feldman and the integrity with which they shepherded their torch.
Jack Narz told me recently Gil Fates and another respected producer of the era, Gil Cates, regularly exchanged letters---which included rich descriptions of situations where the two were confused for each other. One has the feeling those letters are full of show business folklore.
Fates was around when television had no rules and the producers and performers had to write the rules as they evolved. He saw the industry mature and move from live to tape, black-and-white to color and---in his own genre---become an unfriendly host to his style of program in prime time.
In his 85 years, Fates' contributions to television, in general, will probably be underappreciated in relation to the prestige afforded the Norman Lears or Steven Bochcos or E. David Kelleys of the world. Yet, for those of us who have seen game and panel shows mold a part of our lives, what Gil Fates did in 1950 helped pave the way for what Michael Davies accomplished in 1999.
The next time you catch a Sunday repeat of the G-T classics on Game Show Network, look for Gil's name at the top of most of the Line episodes. Offer an unspoken thank you. True, he was charged with a number of the headaches his series faced. Yet, Gil Fates was the man who gave us many incomparable moments. I keep going to his candy store again and again because the flavors suit my tastes quite well.
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