Darlene Cates, who made her professional acting debut as Momma Grape in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, died on Sunday morning. Darlene’s sister, Sheri Cates Morgan, wrote in a Facebook post that she died unexpectedly in her sleep. She was 69.
Peter Hedges, who wrote the book and screenplay for Gilbert Grape, discovered Darlene while watching a 1992 episode of The Sally Jesse Raphael Show called “Too Heavy To Leave The House.” Before traveling to NYC to do the Sally show, Darlene only left her house to see her doctor and she was bedridden for almost two years because of a pelvic infection. Peter saw the episode and contacted Darlene. She was eventually offered the role of Bonnie “Momma” Grape. She took the offer and became one of the best parts of Gilbert Grape.
Gilbert Grape came out toward the end of 1993. It was the movie that gave Leonardo DiCaprio his first taste of his soulmate OSCUH! Leonardo was the only one from Gilbert Grape who got an Oscar nomination. After Gilbert Grape, Darlene continued to act here and there. She did episodes of Picket Fences and Touched By An Angel, as well as a 2001 movie called Wolf Girl, which I really need to see since Thee Tim Curry, Thee Grace Jones and Thee Lesley Ann Warren are in it.
Darlene talked to The Dallas Morning News in 2012 about how she lost 240 pounds and was hoping to get back into the acting game. She also talked about the notes she got from fans and the note she got from one of her acting sons Leonardo DiCaprio. Joanna Kerns wasn’t technically Leonardo’s mom in Growing Pains, so I’m not taking this as Joanna Kerns shade.
“I’ll always remember you as the best acting momma I’ve ever had. You triumphed in your role,” DiCaprio wrote in a note to Cates.
It was a triumph, too, for her fans, many of whom wrote to Cates, thanking her for her bravery.
I realized “how God had used me to touch other people and give them courage by what I did,” Cates said. “And that gave them courage to put themselves out there more.”
According to Darlene’s IMDB page, she did get back into the acting game. She did a short film called Mother in 2014 and a movie called Billboard, which comes out this year.
Rest in peace, Darlene Cates.
Pic: Paramount Pictures