Michael Mann Says He Scrapped a James Dean Biopic Over Leonardo DiCaprio Concerns

by Chris Piner

Since his start in 1989, actor Leonardo DiCaprio captivated Hollywood with his charm and more importantly, his talent. Throughout his amazing career on the screen, the A-lister star portrayed numerous characters that led him to quickly become an icon. He also won an Academy Award and three Golden Globes. And when it comes to his wealth, he made the world’s highest-paid actors’ list eight times. In 2019, it was estimated that his films alone grossed a staggering $7.2 billion worldwide. But while DiCaprio worked alongside famed directors like Quentin Tarantino and James Cameron, there are some famous roles that slipped through his fingers. 

During the 1990s, director Michael Mann, who helmed Heat, searched high and low for the actor to portray another legend, James Dean. Having to pick between directing a biopic about James Dean or working with Al Pacino in the 1995 classic Heat, Mann admitted to going with Heat only because Leonardo DiCaprio was too young to play Dean. “That was so weird about James Dean. It was a brilliant screenplay. And then it’s who the hell could play James Dean? And I found a chap who could play James Dean, but he was too young. It was Leo.”

Going far beyond the idea and screenplay, Michael Mann eventually held screen tests with Leonardo DiCaprio. “We did a screen test that’s quite amazing. I think he must’ve been 19 at the time. And from one angle, he totally had it with him. I mean, it’s brilliant. He would turn his face in one direction and we see a vision of James Dean, and then he’d turn his face another direction and it’s no, that’s a young kid. He respectfully undid the James Dean bio for me.”

Leonardo DiCaprio Wanted To Be In Inglorious Bastards

Luckily for Leonardo DiCaprio, the failed opportunity led him to star in other films like Romeo + Juliet and the massively successful Titanic. When the young star portrayed Jack in the historic disaster film, he was 22. James Dean died in 1955 in a car accident. At the time, he was 24. But again, with Mann directing other projects, the door closed on the biopic.  

Another role that slipped through his fingers was in Inglorious Basterds, directed by Quentin Tarantino. Known for his fabulous dialogue, Tarantino’s film about Nazis caught the eye of Leonardo DiCaprio. But there was one character he desperately wanted to play, Nazi officer Hans Landa. 

Speaking about the idea of Leonardo DiCaprio portraying the Nazi officer, Tarantino admitted, “Leo and I never actually got together and talked about Inglorious Basterds. He was curious about playing the role, but I knew I needed somebody with all those linguistic skills. Leo can actually speak good German, but Landa spoke French in the movie more than German. So it was never in the cards.”