The Joyful Journey of Kathy Bates

UPDATED: May 21, 2024
PUBLISHED: July 20, 2014

Kathy Bates is stretched out on a sofa in the den of her gracious 1920s Los Angeles home. Mr. Mojo Rising (nickname Mini Mo), Zelda Zonk (named for Marilyn Monroe’s alias) and Stelly Bell (more formally known as Stella) are snuggling against her.

Licking Bates’ fingers, stretching a petite scruff in a bid to be petted, the three adored Yorkies show no evidence of being intimidated by the actress who has made her much-heralded career playing some of the most terrifying characters to hit the screen.

This season Bates co-starred opposite Jessica Lange and Angela Bassett in the acclaimed FX series American Horror Story as Delphine LaLaurie, a character based on a real-life 19th-century New Orleans socialite who tortured and killed her slaves. There was, of course, her indelible Oscar-winning role in Misery as Annie Wilkes, the deranged fan who abuses novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) when she learns he’s writing her favorite character out of his books. Bates was gruff as a criminal lawyer defending underdogs in Harry's Law—gruffer still when the series was canceled after its second season. Despite strong overall ratings, it ranked low in drawing a viewership in the 18–49 demographic that advertisers covet. “We were the highest-rated scripted show on NBC, and we were kicked to the curb because our viewers were too old,” Bates says. “Being of a certain age myself, I took it very personally.”

The motto she shares on her Twitter page is similarly forthright. “My life in balance: Do no harm. Take no s**t.” As Ryan Murphy, co-creator of American Horror Story, puts it, “There’s nothing fancy about Kathy Bates except her credentials. She’s a down-home gal, and I love that about her.”

On this afternoon, a couple of days before she returns to New Orleans to resume shooting on American Horror Story, Bates is without airs. Her face is scrubbed of makeup, her feet are bare, and she’s wearing the kind of loose-fitting dress you don to curl up with a good book and a cup of tea. Bates is reflective and open, though she leaves the niceties of offering refreshment to her niece and personal assistant, Linda, and remains reclined on the sofa.

Bates, 66 on June 28, has without question earned a day off her feet. She is emerging from what had been a grueling time. In July 2012, two months after Harry's Law was canceled, Bates was diagnosed with breast cancer. The timing, she says, was ironic, coming just a couple of weeks after she spoke to an audience of several hundred at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center about being an ovarian-cancer survivor—she’d been diagnosed and successfully treated in 2003.

She had gone to France to “get away from everything,” she says, when she began to experience discomfort in her stomach. A  full-body scan revealed the breast cancer. “Cancer runs like a river through my family,” Bates says. She had a double mastectomy, making chemo or radiation unnecessary. “I miss Harry's Law more than I do my breasts,” she jokes, but she suffers from mild lymphedema in her left arm. A buildup of excess lymph fluid that causes swelling, lymphedema is a frequent side effect of breast surgery in which lymph nodes are removed.

For several weeks, Bates had worn a wrap around her arm to control the swelling, until her doctor told her she no longer needed it. “Well, then, what should I sleep with,” Bates recalls asking. “I  want you to wear a tiara to bed,” her doctor told her. Bates exclaims with a whooping laugh, “I love her!” Bates’ good friend Shirley MacLaine—the two have appeared in five movies together over the past two decades—says that this resilient humor is characteristic. “Kathy is very courageous in how she approaches her life,” MacLaine says. “She gets a look on her face when something really serious occurs—whether it’s a show cancellation or a discussion with her doctor—that’s both compassionate and a mask, and then she goes within and asks the questions of herself that empower her to move forward.”

What is helping Bates move forward these days is her work on American Horror Story, never mind that she plays a brutally sadistic character who ends up decapitated by season’s end. “Delphine LaLaurie is perhaps the most evil woman of all time,” Murphy says. “I wanted somebody to play that role who would bring some weird vulnerability to it, who would make us understand why this woman did these awful things.” There was only one actress who could pull it off, he said: Kathy Bates. When Murphy reached out to Bates, she hesitated about meeting him. “I thought, ‘Do I really want to go back to work right now?’” Bates admits. “Maybe subconsciously part of it was about going out in public again and having to go through costume fittings after the mastectomy.”

Still she decided to meet with Murphy. “She had such a terrible experience with her last show, I could understand that she was a little gun-shy,” Murphy says. “I pitched her and said, ‘Just think about it.’ ” An hour after they parted, Murphy’s phone rang. It was Bates. “I’m in,” she said.

Murphy has seen a big change in Bates over the past several months. “When we first started shooting, she was a little weak,” he says. “But every day she got stronger, and she’s so vital now. I think acting is like oxygen to Kathy. It fortifies her. It gives her strength.” Bates agrees, saying, “The show has been a miracle.”

She has been swimming regularly, she says, eating healthy, sleeping better and has gone from “huffing and puffing” up steps when she first got to New Orleans, to being able to take them effortlessly. What’s especially healing about The Big Easy, she believes, is the warmth of the people. Ask somebody at a Laundromat—yes, Bates does her own laundry: “It’s a fortune in hotels!” she explains—where they like to eat, and they invite you home to dinner. “I’ve met the most wonderful people there,” Bates says. “It’s like Alice in Wonderland. The difference is that they’re all sane; they’re people who are helpful and healthy for me to be around….

“I’m learning to stay in the present moment and I’m learning to take better care of myself.” This has come with the restorative hospitality of New Orleans, ongoing psychotherapy and a couple of tools on mindful living. Bates endorses the audiobook Don't Bite the Hook: Finding Freedom from Anger, Resentment, and Other Destructive Emotions by the American Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön, along with the paperback Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness by mindful meditation pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn. Lately she’s even begun to consider having reconstructive surgery.

As Bates speaks, a touch of a Southern accent creeps in. It’s something that has been happening more often of late for the Tennessee native. “But even more than my accent, my Southern personality is coming back, which I like. I like who I  am when I rediscover my roots: I’m congenial, open, kind, polite, inclusive, genteel, down-to-earth, tolerant. I take the time to learn people’s names—people I meet in the grocery store.”

Bates grew up in Memphis and began performing in plays during high school, then went on to study acting at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. After graduating from SMU in 1969, she moved to New York. “My acting teacher told my parents that I was not conventionally attractive,” Bates says, “but he thought I should have the opportunity to go to New York, so they gave me $500 and a very nice wardrobe, and I went.”

After a couple of lean years, she moved back home, taking a job as assistant to the director of the Memphis opera company. “But I couldn’t stay in Memphis,” Bates says. “I had just changed too much, and I didn’t fit in.” She returned to New York, outfitting an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with furniture she found on the street, working as a waitress and an office temp while developing a thicker skin when it came to auditions. “In those days I got rejected so much that you just get used to it. Getting hired is what’s unexpected.”

Through the ’70s and ’80s, Bates won more and more work on the stage, in regional theater and later off-Broadway and on Broadway. She earned a Tony nomination for her stirring performance as a suicidal daughter in ’night, Mother and an Obie as a romantic outcast in Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune. Still, when the plays were made into movies, Bates lost out to other actresses—Sissy Spacek in ’night, Mother and Michelle Pfeiffer in Frankie and Johnny. The rebuffs stung, and, she says, “reinforced those negative messages you internalize about not being pretty enough.”

By the time Bates was cast in 1990’s Misery, she had a long and varied résumé. She guest-starred on almost every major drama of the ’80s, including Cagney & Lacey, St. Elsewhere, China Beach and L.A. Law. There were appearances on soaps and even a trio of episodes of The Love Boat. Movie roles ranged from the forgettable—My Best Friend is a Vampire—to the memorable—Robert Altman’s Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (reprising, for once, a role she’d originated on Broadway). Bates was 42 when she picked up her best-actress Oscar for Misery—she felt seasoned, if not scorched. “I’d like to thank the academy,” she began her acceptance speech, and then paused…. “I’ve been waiting a long time to say that.”

An Academy Award is a great antidote to insecurity. “I really felt for the first time that I had made it, that I belonged in Hollywood,” Bates says. “My head was pretty swelled pretty fast.” But, in a story she likes to tell, she found herself on a movie set in Chicago a few days after winning her Oscar, walking one of her Yorkies late at night. When the dog had “done its business,” as she puts it, Bates realized she hadn’t brought along a waste bag. After a frantic search, she found a piece of paper on the ground and as she picked it up to serve as a makeshift pooper-scooper, she saw that the paper had her autograph on it. Bates laughs: “It was like God was just taking me by the elbow and saying, ‘Settle down. Just settle down.’ ”

That dose of humility aside, Bates landed plum roles after Misery—and more Oscar nominations. In 1999 she earned a best-supporting actress nom, playing an aide to a philandering presidential candidate (John Travolta) in the satire Primary Colors. Four years later she was again nominated, this time for a best-supporting-actress statue for her romp as a free spirit in About Schmidt, a role that also garnered her lots of attention for a scene in which she steps, topless, into a hot tub with Jack Nicholson. She has had a long string of other memorable roles, in Titanic, Fried Green Tomatoes and Dick Tracy; she worked with Woody Allen on Midnight in Paris, Sam Mendes on Revolutionary Road and Jerry Seinfeld on his animated film Bee Movie.

It’s been a prolific, and commended, career in TV as well. Bates has been nominated 10 times for acting Emmys, finally winning one in 2012 for a guest appearance on Two and a Half Men. She has also worked behind the camera, earning a best-director Emmy nomination for the TV movie Dash and Lilly, about the romance between writers Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman, and going on to direct episodes of Oz, NYPD Blue, Homicide: Life on the Street and Six Feet Under.

“I call Kathy ‘the actor whisperer,’” says Alan Poul, executive producer of Six Feet Under. “Actors don’t necessarily speak a common language. Kathy knew when to leave them alone, and when to say a couple of well-placed words.” She also trusted her gut. “She knew immediately when something worked,” Poul says, “and if it worked on the first take, she’d stop there.” (Later, in Season 3, Bates would join Six Feet Under in a recurring guest role.)

Bates’ return for the next season of American Horror Story has been confirmed. She co-stars alongside Melissa McCarthy and Susan Sarandon in the raunchy road comedy Tammy, set to hit theaters over the July 4 holiday. After that she’ll play an unorthodox foster mother in The Great Gilly Hopkins, based on a popular young adult novel, and a headmistress, opposite Dustin Hoffman and Alfred Molina, in the independent film Boychoir.

Between those jobs, Bates is trying to find time to paint, polish her French and spend more time on two causes she supports: Days for Girls, a nonprofit that provides feminine hygiene products to girls in impoverished communities worldwide who would otherwise miss school on days when they are menstruating, and the Innocence Project, dedicated to using DNA evidence to exonerate people who have been wrongfully convicted.

Bates would also like to get involved in literacy efforts. “There are something like 700 million people in the world who can’t read. And there are many, many adults even in our country who can’t read beyond an eighth-grade level.” She wants to do something more than donate money. “Maybe a documentary,” she muses.

A couple of years ago, when Harry's Law was canceled and Bates was battling cancer, “I really felt my road was narrowing,” she says. Today she can imagine many forks in that road. Making a documentary film. Having a romance. Single since her marriage to actor Tony Campisi ended in 1997, Bates says she has a close group of friends that feels like family. “They’re the people that I just love the most, and they give me the most joy and love and  acceptance.”

Not long ago she found herself flirting for the first time in a very long while—with a man in a New Orleans pizza parlor—and enjoying it. “Don’t know who said this,” Bates began a recent tweet, “but it feels good to be lost in the right direction.”

Find out what surprising figure showed Kathy Bates how to regain hope after the bleakest time in her life in a short but inspiring anecdote.

Jessica Krampe is the digital managing editor for A graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, Jessica has worked for news, entertainment, business and lifestyle publications. Outside of the daily grind, she enjoys happy hours, live music and traveling.