Cates was born in New York City, to a family of television and Broadway production insiders. She is the daughter of Lily and Joseph Cates (originally "Joseph Katz"), who was a major Broadway producer and a pioneering figure in television, and who helped create The $64,000 Question. Her late uncle, Gilbert Cates, produced numerous television specials, often in partnership with Cates's father, as well as several annual Academy Awards shows. Her father and maternal grandmother were of Russian-Jewish descent, and her maternal grandfather was Chinese-Filipino. Cates' mother was born in Shanghai, China.