Cates’ sister, Sheri Cates Morgan, posted the sad news to Facebook.
Cates was first discovered by screenwriter Peter Hedges when she appeared on former talk show Sally Jessy Raphael in 1992 to talk about her weight and the pelvic infection that added 150 pounds to her frame. It was the first time in five years that Cates had stepped outside of her house.
At the time of the Sally Jessy Raphael taping, Cates weighed over 500 pounds. When she was 12 years old, her parents divorced and her eating habits spiralled out of control as a form of coping. Despite undergoing a gastroplasty (also known as “stomach stapling”) in 1981, she eventually kept gaining weight and topped out at almost 550 pounds.
After seeing Cates’ tearful pleas on the talk show, Hedges offered her a role in the upcoming film, Gilbert Grape. In the movie, she plays Bonnie Grape, a morbidly obese woman trapped in her house, trying to raise her kids. Her first-ever role, Cates was widely acclaimed for her performance, garnering praise from co-stars DiCaprio and Depp.
The emotional movie took a toll on its actors, and after shooting wrapped, 19-year-old DiCaprio wrote his movie mother a note. (He was later nominated for an Oscar for his work in Gilbert Grape.)
It reads: “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 appeared in a few episodes of TV post-Grape, including shows Touched By an Angel and Picket Fences. She will appear in upcoming film comedy Billboard, which is currently in post-production.
Cates managed to lose approximately 240 pounds by 2012, after she went through multiple health issues in 2010. She was hoping to foray into acting again, telling the Dallas Morning News, “I can do moms real well. I don’t have to delve very deep to find Mom in there.”
Cates leaves behind one daughter, two sons and four grandchildren.