(Photo: Everett Collection/Dallas Morning News)Darlene Cates' feature film debut was memorable. In 1993's "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," she played Bonnie, a morbidly obese, severely depressed mother, and Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio played her sons. Nearly 20 years later, the 64-year-old Texas native has dropped almost 250 pounds and hopes to start acting again.
In an interview with the Dallas Morning News, Cates says that a series of health issues caused her to drop the weight — from 575 pounds to 331. Her goal is to lose 100 more. After a year-long stay in the hospital, which included three near-death experiences, she is mostly bedridden and can't walk. But she hopes to. Another hope? To get back into acting — perhaps even playing a mom again.
"I can do moms real well," Cates told the paper. "I don't have to delve very deep to find Mom in there."
Cates has fond memories of working with DiCaprio, Depp, and the rest of the star-studded cast on "Gilbert Grape." She told the newspaper about a surprise birthday party the cast and crew threw for her. And she cherishes a letter that DiCaprio, then 19, gave her when they wrapped. "I'm not really the best in expressing my words in writing but you are the most special person I have ever [met]," he wrote. "I'll always remember you as the best acting mamma I ever had. You triumphed in your role."
The role had many parallels to Cates' real life. She didn't leave her home for five years before agreeing to appear on "The Sally Jessy Raphael Show" in 1992, in an episode called "Too Heavy to Leave the House." Casting directors saw her on TV and soon she left her home again — to go to the "Gilbert Grape" set. She easily connected to her character, who was so depressed over her husband's suicide that she didn't leave her home for seven years.
Cates received many fan letters following the role. She said she realized "how God had used me to touch other people and give them courage by what I did." She said, "And that gave them courage to put themselves out there more." And she still hears from fans about Bonnie — these days on Facebook. "I can always tell when … ["Gilbert Grape" has] been on TV because there'll be a rush of 'friend' requests."
Now in physical therapy and no longer diabetic, she hopes to be walking soon and making trips out of her house this fall. She's looking forward to the future, which includes her upcoming 50th wedding anniversary and a potential return to acting. Looking around her bedroom, Cates told the paper, "I have looked at these things about as long as I can look at them, and I'm ready to blow this joint."