Darlene Cates, who played Leonardo DiCaprio‘s house-bound mother in the acclaimed 1993 film What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, died on March 26. The Texas-native was 69 years old.
Cates battled obesity for most of her life, weighing over 500 pounds at one point. In 2012, she announced that she lost 240 pounds and had dreams of re-starting her acting career.
Cates is survived by her husband, retired U.S. Marine Robert Cates; her sons March and Chris; her daughter Sheri Ann; and four grandchildren.
“Darlene was the best acting mom I ever had the privilege of working alongside,” DiCaprio wrote in a statement on his Facebook page. “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.”
Here’s a look at her life and career.
1. She Died in Her Sleep on March 26
Cates’ family told TMZ that she died in her sleep on the morning of Sunday, March 25. They did not give any further details.
Cates was born in Borger, a city in North Texas, and grew up in Dumas. When her parents divorced, she was 12 years old and she dealt with the stress by eating. Although she did have a gastroplasty in 1981, she re-gained much of the weight she lost.
The Dallas Morning News reported that Cates’ top weight was 575 pounds. By 2012, she was down to 331 pounds.
At the time of her death, Cates lived in Forney, just outside Dallas.
2. Writer Peter Hedges Discovered Her After Watching a 1992 Episode of ‘Sally Jessy Raphael’ She Was On
Peter Hedges, who wrote the novel and screenplay What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, discovered Cates after watching a 1992 episode of Sally Jessy Raphael. In the 1985 segment, she talked about her life, with daughter Sheri Ann by her side. When she filmed the segment, it was the first time Cates had been out of the house in five years.
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape was published in 1991 and became a film two years later. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom, it stars Johnny Depp as a grocery store clerk who has to care for his obese mother and his mentally disabled brother Arnie. Leonardo DiCaprio earned his first Oscar nomination for playing Arnie.
“There was this immediate draw to her,” Hallstrom said of Cates in a 1993 Los Angeles Times profile of Cates. “There was nothing stereotyped in the real Darlene, because she was so sweet, she had such a wonderful self-irony and such a wonderful sense of humor–and you could tell from that brief interview on Sally Jessy Raphael. She was this wonderful personality in this disguise of her own body.”
After the film’s release, DiCaprio famously wrote a letter about Cates’ acting, which was the first time she’d ever acted in a movie.
“I’m not really the best in expressing my words in writing but you are the most special person I have ever [met],” DiCaprio wrote, notes People Magazine. “I’ll always remember you as the best acting mamma I ever had. You triumphed in your role.”
3. She Began Struggling With Her Weight After a Pelvic Infection
In the Sally Jessy Raphael segment, Cates said that she quickly gained weight after getting a pelvic infection. It caused her to gain 150 pounds quickly.
According to the LA Times, Cates got an infection related to the Dalkon Shield, a contraceptive device that caused injuries to hundreds of people. A 1987 New York Times report notes that over 200,000 American women testified that they were injured and sued A.H. Robins Company, the company that made it.
Cates was bed-ridden for two years. When she recovered in 1985, she weighed too much to even stand.
“I became very depressed,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1993. “I wouldn’t leave the house except to go to the doctor. I would sit there with a handful of pills and not have the courage to take them and not have the courage to live either.”
4. She Met Her Husband When She Was Only 14 Years Old
Cates was married to Robert Cates, a retired U.S. marine. They married in 1963, when Cates was just 15 years old. They were married until Cates’ death.
According to the Dallas Morning News, Cates and Robert met when she was only 14 years old. She told him he was 18 and only revealed her true age after they married. She got permission from her mother to marry Robert.
They had their first child, Sheri Ann, when Cates was 18 years old. The family moved around the country while Robert served in the Marines. She began gaining more weight, as she sought comfort in food when he was away.
They moved to Forney, Texas over 30 years ago.
5. In 2012, She Said She Lost 240 Pounds & Hoped to Act Again
In 2010, Cates suffered a series of medical setbacks and was in the hospital from December 2010 to November 2011. In 2012, she told the Dallas Morning News that she lost 240 pounds after four surgeries and three “near-death” experiences. Although she still could not walk, she hoped to get back into acting.
She said she had acting opportunities come up before 2010. She still wanted to make one or two more movies. Cates also embraced being typecast as a mom.
“That’s great, because I can do moms real well. I don’t have to delve very deep to find Mom in there,” she told the Morning News.
In that same interview, she showed just how proud she was of Gilbert Grape. “I can always tell when … [Gilbert Grape has] been on TV, because there’ll be a rush of ‘friend’ requests,” she told the Morning News.
Cates had no acting experience when she appeared in Gilbert Grape, and she only received a handful of offers to appear in other projects after the film came out. She made appearances in episodes of Picket Fences and Touched by an Angel in 1994 and 1996, respectively. In 2001, she appeared in a TV movie called Wolf Girl and made a short film called Mother in 2014.
She just finished working on Billboard, a movie written and directed by Zeke Zelker that stars Eric Roberts and Heather Matarazzo. The film is about a radio station hosting a billboard-sitting contest.
“What you weigh may affect your life, it may affect your ability to get a job, your ability to attract a mate, but it doesn’t have anything to do with your value as a person, Cates told the Los Angeles Times in 1993. “(Now) I really feel like there’s not anything I couldn’t try. Boy, talk about being let out of a prison.”