Darlene Cates was an American actress best known for her role in the 1993 film “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”, where she played the title character’s housebound mother. She passed away this week, on March 26th.
The early life
Darlene was born on December 13th, 1947 in Borger, Texas, to Dorothy Ann and Truman Madison Guthrie, a homemaker and a gas-station attendant. She mostly grew up in the nearby city of Dumas. Cates had a rough time during her childhood as her parents divorced when she was 12 years old. She took it hard and found solace in food, which eventually led to her overeating and obesity. Cates underwent gastroplasty (a restrictive operation for weight control, also known as “stomach stapling”) in 1981 when she weighed 408 lb (185 kg). She managed to lose 99 lb (45 kg) but eventually gained the weight back and more, with the total weight of 548 lb (249 kg).
While appearing on an episode of “Sally” in 1985 entitled “Too Heavy to Leave Their House”, where she discussed her battle with obesity and how it had affected her life, Darlene was discovered by author and screenwriter Peter Hedges. However, in 1986, pelvic infections caused by her excess weight rendered her virtually immobile, stuck in a bed for two years, during which Cates gained additional 149 pounds (68 kg). Still, Hedges proposed that she play the morbidly obese mother in the 1993 film What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, which she accepted.
Filming of “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” marked the first time she had been out of the house in five years. Her performance in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”, which was her first attempt at acting in any form, received critical acclaim and was lauded be her co-stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp. The role opened some acting opportunities for Cates. From then, television roles followed on the shows “Picket Fences” in 1994, where she played the role of Sophie Wallace in an episode “Squatter’s Rights” and “Touched by an Angel” in 1996 where she played the role of Claudia Bell in an episode “Statute of Limitations”. She had a supporting role of Athena the Fat Lady in the 2001 film” Wolf Girl”. Producer J. Miles Dale flew a small crew and the film’s start from Romania to Texas to shoot their scenes with Cates. Her latest acting credits include a short drama called “Mother” and a movie called “Billboard” she just finished filming.
Two years after her parents divorced, Darlene met her future husband Robert Cates, a U.S. Marine. She lied to him about her age, not revealing the fact that she was a minor at the time. After dating for a year, the couple married on January 11th, 1963. He was 25 and she was 15 at the time. At 18, Cates had her first child, Sheri Ann (born January 1966). She also had two sons, Mark (born October 1967) and Chris (born 1971) and four grandchildren. The family moved around the country while Robert served in the Marines until they moved to Forney, Texas more than 30 years ago.
After years of loneliness, reclusive behavior and chronic depression, she began to return to the world despite her obesity with help of an anti-depressant medication and her story became public news. In 2012, Cates had lost 240 pounds after a series of 2010 health issues kept her hospitalized and unable to walk for nearly a year, and she expressed a desire to resume her acting career. Since then, she has done children’s school seminars on weight and self-esteem.
When referring to her acclaimed work in the film “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”, Cates said that she had to make a choice – she could either stay where she was and be miserable or take a risk and do something exciting. She also stated that she was proud of the way that her character was portrayed and proud of the way the children came around to see that this woman had good qualities, and how much she really did care about her family.
Darlene Cates passed away in her sleep on March 26th 2017. She was 69 years old.
Her daughter, Sheri Cates Morgan, announced her passing on Facebook, posting:
“It is with a bittersweet heart that we share that our precious wife, mother, and Gaga, Darlene Guthrie Cates, was called Home, somewhat unexpectedly, peacefully in her sleep Sunday morning, March 26th”.
“Gilbert Grape” co-star Leonardo DiCaprio honored his on-screen mother with a Facebook post also shortly after her death.
“Darlene was the best acting mom I ever had the privilege of working alongside,” DiCaprio wrote. “Her endearing personality and incredible talent will live on in the memories of those who knew her, and those who loved her work. My thoughts and prayers are with her family during this difficult time.”
She is survived by two sons and a daughter.
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