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.
[via USA Today]