Darlene Cates, the Mother in ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,’ Dies at 69

Darlene Cates, who played the morbidly obese housebound mother in the acclaimed 1993 film “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” died on Sunday at her home in Forney, Tex. She was 69.

David Morgan, her son-in-law, said she died in her sleep. He did not specify the cause.

Ms. Cates had never acted professionally before being cast in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” as the mother of Johnny Depp, in the title role, and his younger brother, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. The film’s screenwriter, Peter Hedges, had spotted her on an episode of the talk show “Sally Jessy Raphael” on which she discussed her struggles with her weight. She weighed more than 500 pounds at the time.

The film, directed by Lasse Hallstrom, won acclaim for its sensitive portrayal of a troubled but loving family in a small Iowa town. Reviewing it for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “The impossible role of Momma is ideally played by Ms. Cates,” whose performance she called “believable and emphatic.”

Ms. Cates later appeared on episodes of the television series “Picket Fences” and “Touched by an Angel” and in the made-for-TV movie “Wolf Girl.”

“Once I did the Sally show,” she told an interviewer, “all of a sudden I realized that if I went out and people stared at me, I wouldn’t know if they were staring at me because I was fat or because they recognized me from being on TV. That empowered me.”

Darlene Cates and Johnny Depp in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” Credit Paramount Pictures, via Photofest

Darlene Cates, ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’ Star, Dead At 69

Darlene Cates, who starred as Bonnie Grape in 1993’s “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” died in her sleep on Sunday morning, her family told TMZ. 

Cates, best known for playing Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio’s housebound and overweight mother in the Peter Hedges novel-turned-movie, was 69. Her daughter, Sheri, took to Facebook to share the news, writing, “We take comfort in knowing that she is no longer in pain and is in the arms of our Heavenly Father.”

Cates was reportedly cast in “Gilbert Grape” after Hedges watched her on a 1992 segment on “Sally Jessy Raphael,” entitled “Too Heavy to Leave Their House.” Casting directors offered Cates ― who was close to 600 pounds and housebound at the time ― the role of Bonnie, and she accepted. It was a standout performance by Cates, who went on to appear in shows like “Picket Fences” and “Touched by an Angel.” She is also set to star in the new movie “Billboard,” which is currently in post-production.

In 2012, Cates revealed she lost 250 pounds after years of health problems. She told the Dallas Morning News that she hoped to act again, as she had such a lovely experience with “Gilbert Grape.”

Her on-screen son DiCaprio wrote her a note after the film, telling Cates, “I’m not really the best in expressing my words in writing but you are the most special person I have ever [met]. I’ll always remember you as the best acting mamma I ever had. You triumphed in your role.”

Rest in peace, Darlene Cates.

R.I.P. Darlene Cates, Gilbert’s mom in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

Darlene Cates, the actress who played the housebound mother in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, has died. Cates’ daughter announced her death on Facebook earlier today, saying the actress went “peacefully in her sleep” on Sunday morning. She was 69.

Cates’ breakout role in Grape came after she appeared on an episode of Sally Jessy Raphael titled “Too Heavy To Leave Their House.” On the show, Cates talked about how being morbidly obese impacted her livelihood, openly discussing how a pelvic infection caused her to gain 150 pounds. Gilbert Grape author and screenwriter Peter Hedges caught Cates on the show, and knew she’d be perfect for the role of the mostly housebound Bonnie Grape.

As Cates later told the Dallas Morning News, she thought the role would help her both address her own insecurities—she once said she had a fantasy about being “able to go to the mall… and sit there and not have anyone notice me”—and help encourage others who might be struggling with size-related insecurities “to put themselves out there more.” Cates lost and gained hundreds of pounds over her lifetime, and in 2012 lost almost 250 pounds in an effort to both get her health on track and be able to act again.

According to People, Cates felt especially bonded with Leonardo DiCaprio on the Grape set, and the actor later wrote her a note praising her acting. In the note, DiCaprio said, “I’m not really the best in expressing my words in writing but you are the most special person I have ever [met]. I’ll always remember you as the best acting mamma I ever had. You triumphed in your role.”

Cates also appeared in episodes of Picket Fences and Touched By An Angel. She is survived by her husband of 54 years, three children, and four grandchildren.

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