Actress in DiCaprio movie loses weight, wants work


The unlikely actress who landed a role alongside Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio as the overweight, dysfunctional matriarch in 1993's "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" is a different woman now.

She's lost more than 40 percent of her top weight -- from 575 pounds to 331. She's feeling optimistic, and she'd like to act again.

But she can't -- yet.

The 64-year-old Forney resident is still recovering from a series of health scares that kept her in the hospital for almost a year, from December 2010 to last November.

After four surgeries and three near-death experiences, she'd lost almost 250 pounds. She could barely move.

She still can't walk, but she's set an important goal: She hopes to be able to transfer bed-to-wheelchair, wheelchair-to-van and van-to-church for her grandson's confirmation in October.

It's not the first time Cates has been stuck at home.

She spent five years in self-imposed house arrest before appearing in a 1992 episode of the Sally Jessy Raphael Show -- "Too Heavy to Leave the House."

When she had to venture out, she stayed in the car, shielding herself from judging glances. She weighed more than 500 pounds at the time.

After the show, she felt more liberated.

"I didn't know if . (people) were staring at me because I'm fat or because they recognize me," she said. "And all of a sudden . I am free. It doesn't matter anymore.

"People can be cruel, but that doesn't mean you have to take it home, wrap yourself up in it and wear it."

Turns out she was being watched -- by casting directors.

Soon, Cates found herself en route to Austin to play Bonnie Grape, a character she related to in many respects: Bonnie loved her family, was afraid to leave the house and was a "real" person -- not just a fat person.

The cast treated her like a real person, too. One scene hit particularly close to home for Cates -- when Bonnie left the house for the first time in seven years.

Take after take, Cates got exhausted and emotional. After somebody yelled "cut" to finish the last take, a surprise birthday party erupted -- for her.

"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."

And that from the woman who, in 1992, told Sally Jessy Raphael, "I've always had this fantasy, this goal, of being able to go to the mall . and sit there and not have anyone notice me."

After "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," every trip to the mall brought clusters of teenagers asking for autographs, said Cates' daughter, Sheri Morgan.

"Mother was able to show them that people who were different aren't really that different," Morgan said.

This time, it's not shame that's keeping Cates in the house.

One of the last times she was out of bed was June 17 -- Father's Day -- when she put on new, smaller-size clothes and, with the help of her son, Mark, moved into her wheelchair.

Outside, she and her grandson, 13-year-old Jesse, saw a tree covered in yellow and white butterflies.

"When Jesse touched one of the butterflies, they all took off. It was like they were all interconnected," Cates said. "They all took off at one time, and then they were fluttering and lighting on us.

"It was just like God was saying, `I know you don't get out much, so here, this is a gift."'

Now, Cates can sit up in bed. She's not diabetic anymore, and she recently started physical therapy.

"We just want her out in the community again," Morgan said. "I know that's where she flourishes."

Cates wants to reclaim the life she was living before her hospital stay: church activities, baseball games, movie going -- and lots of family time.

She likes her purple room and its creature comforts. But she's had enough.

"I have looked at these things about as long as I can look at them, and I'm ready to blow this joint," she said in her rich drawl.

In January, Cates and her husband, Bob, will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.

She met Bob when she was 14 and he was a 24-year-old Marine. She looked older, though -- she told him she was almost 18. After getting her mother's consent to marry, she only revealed her true age to her husband on their wedding night, weeks after her 15th birthday.

In their early years, when her husband was in the Marines, the young family moved from place to place -- California, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Texas.

Cates had their first child, Sheri, at 18. When two more followed, she raised the children while her husband went overseas. She comforted herself with food.

When they moved to Forney about 30 years ago, the pounds kept piling on. Cates tried to lose weight by dieting and even had her stomach stapled. Nothing seemed to work for long.

But that was then, and this is now. She's encouraged by the almost 250 pounds she's shed. She hopes to lose 100 more.

She said she had a couple of acting prospects lined up, but that was before her hospital stay. Now, she'd like to do one or two projects a year that don't take her away from family too long -- she's a mom at heart.

That's why, Cates said, she's likely to be typecast as one if she acts again.

"That's great, because I can do moms real well. I don't have to delve very deep to find Mom in there," she said.

In the meantime, Cates still has her old fans -- and some new ones on Facebook.

"I can always tell when . (Gilbert Grape has) been on TV," she said, her bright blue eyes shining, "because there'll be a rush of `friend' requests."

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