Why Young Leonardo DiCaprio was Snubbed for James Dean Biopic

Leo DiCaprio and James Dean
Jim Smeal/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images; Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

Director Michael Mann recently revealed why DiCaprio wasn't right for the role despite an 'amazing screen test.'

At 19 years old, Leonardo DiCaprio almost got the chance to play the iconic and gone-before-his-time movie heartthrob James Dean. However, the superstar was apparently just too young for the role.

In a recent interview with Deadline, director Michael Mann revealed that, before he helmed his 1995 crime classic Heat, he was attached to direct a biopic about the Rebel Without a Cause star's short but intense life.

"It was a brilliant screenplay. And then it’s [the question of] 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," Mann recalled. "We did a screen test that’s quite amazing."

DiCaprio was 19 -- only five years younger than Dean when he died at 24 in a fiery car crash in September 1955 -- but still had a boyish and youthful look -- for the most part.

"From one angle, he totally had it with him. I mean, it’s brilliance. He would turn his face in one direction and we see a vision of James Dean," Mann recalled of DiCaprio's screen test. "Then he’d turn his face another direction and it’s no, that’s a young kid."

Mann said he felt DiCaprio would be absolutely perfect for the project in three years' time, but Mann decided he had to move on to a different project because he couldn't imagine shooting the Dean biopic without DiCaprio. 

"He, respectfully, undid the James Dean bio for me," Mann explained.

While the James Dean biopic didn't pan out, DiCaprio went on to star in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet in 1996 and became a household name with his performance in 1997's Titanic.

DiCaprio never went on to work on any of Mann's films in the future, although Mann did serve as a producer on 2004's The Aviator, which earned DiCaprio an Oscar nomination.