Family & Companions
The cinematic object of desire for many a young man in the early 1980s, Phoebe Cates was a model-turned-actress who gained plenty of attention for her sexually charged roles in films like "Paradise" (1982), "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (1982) and "Private School" (1983). Her willingness to appear nude on camera made her a favorite of teenaged viewers and devotees of cinematic skin, all of which eventually pigeonholed Cates as wantons. The runaway success of "Gremlins" (1984) moved her into more wholesome roles, but she struggled to find substantive parts in its wake. By the early 1990s, she had abandoned acting altogether to focus on her family with actor Kevin Kline and business opportunities. Her brief film career, however, provided enough memorable moments - albeit somewhat prurient ones - to ensure her a permanent place in the annals of screen sex symbols.
Born Phoebe Belle Katz on July 16, 1963 in New York City, NY, she was part of a show business family that included father Joseph Cates, a prolific television producer and occasional director; her uncle, Gilbert Cates, who was best known for producing numerous Oscar telecasts and directing "I Never Sang for My Father" (1970), and her godmother, who was cited as either actress Joan Crawford or novelist Jacqueline Susann. Cates' exotic looks came from the mix of her father's Russian-Jewish background and that of her mother, who was Russian and Chinese. Cates was educated at the exclusive Professional Children's School in Manhattan, and displayed a gift for ballet at an early age. She later won a scholarship to the School of American Ballet, but was forced to give up dance at age 15 due to a knee injury. While babysitting for family friends, she was encouraged to try her hand at modeling, and for a brief time, Cates graced the cover of several youth-oriented publications such as Seventeen, as well as appeared in a handful of television commercials.
While dancing with friends at New York's Studio 54, she was approached by Canadian director Stuart Gilliard to star as the female lead in "Paradise" (1982), a crass, low-budget knockoff of "The Blue Lagoon" (1980). Cates co-starred with "Eight is Enough" (ABC, 1977-1981) juvenile lead Willie Aames in the film, which required both actors to appear nude in several scenes. Cates also warbled the film's forgettable theme song. A minor hit on the grindhouse circuit, it paved the way for producers to cast - or exploit - Cates largely for her physical attributes.
Cates' big break came later that same year in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (1982). A star-making vehicle for many of its cast members, which included Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Eric Stoltz and Judge Reinhold, Cates was remembered less for her breezy turn as Leigh's sexually adventurous friend than for removing her famous red bikini top in Reinhold's masturbatory fantasy. The one-two punch of "Paradise" and "Fast Times" cemented Cates as a sex kitten of the first order for male moviegoers in the early 1980s, and she would struggle to extricate herself from such typecasting for the rest of her career.
Her next efforts played directly to fans of her more salacious efforts. "Baby Sister" (ABC, 1983) was a sudsy TV movie that cast her as a man-eating 19-year-old with designs on the husband (a hapless Ted Wass) of her older sibling (Pamela Bellwood). "Private School" (1983) was a stunning juvenile teen sex comedy with Matthew Modine infiltrating the title location in drag in order to lose his virginity with his nubile but innocent girlfriend (Cates), while "Lace" (ABC, 1984) was a spectacularly trashy miniseries based on the novel by Shirley Conran about a movie starlet who takes over the lives of three former boarding school classmates in order to find out which is her mother. The film briefly entered the national lexicon thanks to Cates' line, "Which one of you bitches is my mother?" A half-hearted sequel, "Lace II" (ABC, 1985) found Cates pursuing one of three "bastards" to find out which is her father.
In 1984, Cates on-screen fortunes took a turn for the better with "Gremlins," the Stephen Spielberg-produced horror-comedy about a plague of pint-sized monsters running amok in a small suburban town. Though the special effects were the film's raison d'être, Cates proved she could play a character who was not driven by pure carnal need, and even held her own in a bizarre monologue about her father being stuck in the chimney during Christmas. A massive hit during the summer of that year, it caused a seismic shift in Cates' career, allowing her to segue from the softcore cellar to more mainstream fare.
Ironically, Cates' new screen persona was somewhat aloof and unapproachable. She was the spoiled fiancée of Michael E. Knight, who throws her over for angel Emmanuelle Beart in the cornball comedy "Date with an Angel" (1987). Her fashion model on the rise in "Bright Lights, Big City" (1988) throws over boyfriend Michael J. Fox in favor of her career, and "Shag" (1989) cast her as yet another sheltered socialite who must come out of her shell to enjoy life through dancing. Only the trite "Heart of Dixie" (1989) offered a different character; albeit a more ridiculous one, in her Southern sorority sister with a penchant for early 1960s Beat fashions and lifestyle.
Perhaps sensing that her cinematic fortunes were on the wane, Cates began devoting more of her attention to the New York stage. She made her theater debut in a 1985 production of David Henry Hwang's "Rich Relations" and soon added appearances at Lincoln Center (in "The Tenth Man") and The New York Shakespeare Festival ("Much Ado About Nothing") to her resume. Meanwhile, her film career continued unabated, though at a decidedly lesser wattage. "Gremlins II: The New Batch" (1990) should have been as big a hit as its predecessor, but its satiric tone was lost on most moviegoers. "Drop Dead Fred" (1991), with Cates as a young woman plagued by the return of her childhood imaginary friend (British comedian Rik Mayall) suffered the same fate, and while the indie drama "Bodies, Rest and Motion" (1993) was seen by few moviegoers, Cates' performance received its share of positive reviews.
"Princess Caraboo" (1994) gave Cates her first chance to play a character beyond her usual screen choices; the English film cast her as the real-life title character, a 19th-century con woman who passed herself to the British upper class as the lost scion of Polynesian royalty. Again, it received a limited theatrical release, but earned Cates excellent reviews. Unfortunately, the film would be her last for almost a decade. She turned her back on the movie business to raise her two children with actor Kevin Kline, whom she had met during auditions for "The Big Chill" (1983) and later married in 1989. Their son, Owen Kline, would later decide to follow his parents into the movie business, and made an impressive debut in Noam Baumbach's "The Squid and the Whale" (2005), during which his mother was always on set to oversee her young son. He was cast at the recommendation of Cates' friend and Baumbach's wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who had noted his relaxed, mature manner.
Leigh would later entice Cates back to film acting for one final turn in "The Anniversary Party" (2001), Leigh's directorial debut with friend Alan Cumming. The indie drama, which also starred the co-directors as a Hollywood couple who invite their friends - all played by their real-life friends in the business - to a party that rapidly devolves under the influence of ecstasy. Cates played the wife of an aging star (Kevin Kline), while her two children played their offspring. The film earned a National Board of Review Award for Excellence in 2001. In 2005, Cates branched out into business by opening her own boutique, the eclectic Blue Tree, on Madison Avenue in New York City. The location also gave her one additional acting role in a charming promotional film co-starring Kline that played on the store's website.
Cast (Feature Film)
Music (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Screen acting debut in "Paradise"
TV debut in "Baby Sister"
Co-starred in the hit film "Gremlins"
Off-Broadway debut in "The Nest of the Wood Grouse"
Had lead in the ABC miniseries "Lace"
Starred in "Lace II" (ABC)
Broadway debut, "The Tenth Man"
Reprised role in "Gremlins 2: The New Batch"
Starred opposite husband Kevin Kline in "Princess Caraboo"