Very few actors in Hollywood history have done the next to impossible – create one iconic role, only never to be seen on the big screen again. Most of the time, those one-hit wonders are child actors, who decided (or their parents decided for them) that Hollywood wasn’t a great place for their formative years.
As rare as those one-and-done feature film appearances are for child actors, they’re almost unheard for adults. But among the fortunate few was Darlene Cates, who took the cinematic world by storm with her unforgettable role as Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio‘s housebound, obese mother Bonnie Grape in the 1993 cult hit What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.
Cates, who performed in a handful of TV roles after her feature film debut, passes away on Sunday at age 69, as her sister Sheri Cates Morgan announced in a Facebook post:
“It is with a bitter-sweet 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.”
According to People, Cates was discovered by What’s Eating Gilbert Grape novelist and screenwriter Peter Hedges after the filmmaker spotted her talking about her battles with weight issues on the daytime talk show Sally Jesse Raphael. In the 1985 episode of the show, titled Too Heavy to Leave Their House, Cates noted in an interview with Raphael that a pelvic infection caused her to gain nearly 150 pounds. In 2012, Cates told the Dallas Morning News that she lost 240 pounds and was ready to act again, and as far as feature films go, she got her wish. IMDb lists her among the actors in the upcoming indie comedy Billboard.
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape was also a landmark film for one of its co-stars, as a fresh-faced Leonardo DiCaprio earned his first Oscar nomination (for Best Supporting Actor) for his breakout role of Arnie, the mentally-challenged younger brother of Depp’s grocery store clerk, Gilbert. It will be interesting to see if either Depp or DiCaprio will pay tribute to Cates in the coming days, since What’s Eating Gilbert Grape was not only an important film for both of them, but an extraordinary debut by the actress who no doubt elevated their performances.
R.I.P. Darlene Cates (born Rita Darlene Guthrie): December 13, 1947 – March 26, 2017