Cates was born Phoebe Belle Katz in
New York City, New York to Lily and director and producer Joseph Cates
(born "Joseph Katz"). Her uncle is producer/director Gilbert Cates and her
stepfather was Marshall Naify, a horse breeder. Cates' maternal
grandfather was of Chinese/Filipino descent, and her father as well as her
maternal grandmother were of Russian Jewish origin. Cates attended the
Professional Children's School and the Juilliard School.
Cates achieved icon status in 1982 for her popular girl role in Fast Times
at Ridgemont High, particularly the monumental topless scene in which she
sheds her bikini top in a slow-motion fantasy sequence. As Fast Times
became a defining early-'80s cult classic, this image of her became
inextricably imprinted on a generation of teenage boys.
That same year, in the romance film Paradise, and in contrast to the
coyness of Brooke Shields in the similarly themed The Blue Lagoon, Cates
displayed copious nudity, although a body double may have been used in
some of the close-ups. In a People magazine article, Cates said she had
expressed reservations about this situation to her father, who advised her
to play it in whatever way she felt was artistically and financially
honest. She is quoted as saying "I was only 17 when I did my nude scenes
in Paradise. They were serious and more difficult because they were not
easily justified. But the topless scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High
was funny, which made it easy."
Her later film roles were more modest and largely oriented toward younger
audiences, who remember her best as the female lead in the two Gremlins
films, and the 1991 film Drop Dead Fred. Her face made the covers of teen
magazines such as Seventeen, Tiger Beat, Teen Beat and others. In 1991,
she was slated to be in Father of the Bride, but dropped out due to
pregnancy. In 1994, she starred along with her husband Kevin Kline in
Princess Caraboo. In 1996, she narrated the award-winning documentary
short, The Flame, a film about the nonprofit world hunger organization
In 1985, Cates appeared Off-Broadway in Rich Relations by David Henry
Hwang at Second Stage Theatre.
Cates is estranged from her mother. In 1989, Cates married actor Kevin
Kline, whom she had originally met while auditioning for the part that Meg
Tilly ultimately won in The Big Chill. Kline and Cates make their home in
New York City and have two children, Owen Kline, born in 1991 (who, in
2005, received rave reviews for his performance in The Squid and the
Whale), Greta Kline, born in 1994. Owen and Greta appeared in Cates' most
recent film, The Anniversary Party (2001). The film was an ensemble drama
written and directed by Scottish actor Alan Cumming and Cates' real-life
best friend of the past 25 years, Fast Times at Ridgemont High co-star
Jennifer Jason Leigh. In the film, Cates played, fittingly enough, a
Hollywood actress who has retired from acting to be a full-time mother.
In 2005, Cates opened her own boutique called Blue Tree on New York's
"Young people are more
sophisticated today, thanks to magazines and movies and even porno
cable television. As a New Yorker I think I've matured faster than
other young people. I'm street smart."
"Kids today are much more independent than their parents were. We're
really into getting jobs and we mature sexually much earlier than a
generation ago. Or, at least, we are involved in sex earlier."
"I was only 17 when I did my nude scenes in Paradise (1982). They
were serious and more difficult because they were not easily
justified. But the topless scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High
(1982) was funny, which made it easy".
"In this business, if a girl wants a career, she has to be willing
to strip. If you've got a good bod, then why not show it?"
"If the film, play or any project I'm involved in requires some sort
of violence or nudity to advance the plot, scene or character in any
way, then I would be considered unprofessional not to oblige. Of
course, I want to make sure -- and I think I always have -- that the
scenes are shot in good taste. I try to have some control; now that
I know what I'm capable of including in a contract, I can continue
that control. Nudity is not something I necessarily want to avoid
and yet it's not the most fun thing in the world to do. It's part of
the job as far as I'm concerned because you bare yourself
emotionally and that's just as terrifying as baring yourself
physically. It's all part of acting."