Darlene Cates, who had never acted professionally before being cast as the mother of Johnny Depp’s title character in the acclaimed 1993 film “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” has died. The New York Times reports that Cates died in her sleep Sunday at her home in Forney, Texas. She was 69.
Cates played Bonnie Grape, the morbidly obese, housebound matriarch of a troubled Iowa family. Depp played her son Gilbert, with Leonardo DiCaprio as his younger brother Arnie.
“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 Times reports.
Reviewing the film for The New York Times, Janet Maslin called Cates’ performance “believable and emphatic,” and wrote, “The impossible role of Momma is ideally played by Ms. Cates.”
Cates later made appearances on a few TV series, including “Picket Fences” and “Touched by an Angel,” and played Athena the Fat Lady in the TV movie “Wolf Girl.”
The Dallas Morning News reported in 2012 that Cates had lost more than 240 pounds — down from her top weight of 575 pounds to 331. At the time she was said to be recovering from a series of health scares and had undergone four surgeries.