Bates was born in Memphis, Tennessee, the youngest of three daughters of Bertye Kathleen (née Talbert; 1907–1997), a homemaker, and Langdon Doyle Bates (1900–1989), a mechanical engineer. Her paternal grandfather was lawyer and author Finis L. Bates. One of her great-great-grandfathers emigrated from Ireland to New Orleans, Louisiana, and served as President Andrew Jackson's doctor. She graduated from White Station High School, and later attended Southern Methodist University, where she majored in theatre, is a member of Alpha Delta Pi sorority, and graduated in 1969. She moved to New York City in 1970 to pursue an acting career. She was raised Methodist.
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