Back in 1993, Leonardo DiCaprio was an eager young actor longing for his big break in Hollywood. At just 19 years old, he had only a few minor roles under his belt, but he was hungry for more. So when he heard that the role of Gilbert Grape in the film adaptation of Peter Hedges’ novel What’s Eating Gilbert Grape was up for grabs, Leo jumped at the opportunity.
The only problem? The studio didn’t think Leo had the name recognition or acting chops to carry such an important role. They wanted a bigger star, someone like Johnny Depp who was red hot in Hollywood at the time after his success in the TV show 21 Jump Street.
But Johnny recognized Leo’s immense talent and selflessly went to bat for him.
Even though Johnny was being heavily courted for the role of Gilbert, he convinced the studio to take a chance on Leo instead. He told them he saw a star in the making and that Leo would blow them away with his performance.
Johnny likely could have landed the lead role for himself if he wanted, but he chose to give up that opportunity to help a young actor he believed in. And his gamble paid off tremendously.
Leo delivered an absolutely mesmerizing performance as Gilbert, the troubled young man struggling to care for his obese mother and mentally impaired brother in a sleepy Iowa town. With sensitivity and nuance beyond his years, Leo depicted Gilbert’s mix of frustration, despair and deep devotion to his family.
The role earned him widespread critical acclaim and his first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. It immediately shot him onto the A-list and studio executives who had doubted him soon came calling with stacks of scripts.
In the years since, Leo has frequently expressed his gratitude to Johnny, crediting him with kickstarting his career. He has called Johnny “a great friend” and “a great mentor” who gave him one of his first big breaks in Hollywood. Their friendship endures to this day.
Looking back, it’s clear Johnny’s insight was spot on. He recognized Leo’s gifts before the rest of the industry caught on. And by selflessly ceding such a coveted leading role to Leo rather than capitalizing on his own red hot career, Johnny demonstrated enormous kindness and generosity.
He understood that the role of Gilbert Grape would be life-changing for a promising young talent like Leo. And Johnny was proven right when Leo churned out one spectacular performance after another following What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, his raw talent and passion electrifying audiences across the globe. From Romeo + Juliet to Titanic to The Aviator and far beyond, the world fell in love with Leo because Johnny opened the door.
So while What’s Eating Gilbert Grape will always be remembered as the film that introduced Leo DiCaprio as a serious acting force, we should also remember it as an inspiring example of one star using his clout to lift up another.
In a cutthroat industry not known for its kindness, Johnny Depp set the bar with his selfless promotion of young Leo all those years ago. And countless other young talents hoping for their big break have surely benefitted from Johnny’s willingness to pay it forward ever since.
Looking back on Leo’s soaring career since 1993, we have Johnny Depp to thank for convincing studio executives to take a chance on the ambitious kid who would become an legendary, Oscar-winning actor. It was a high-stakes gamble that could have stalled Leo’s career before it began if he had faltered in the demanding role.
But Johnny saw Leo’s bristling potential and put his own reputation on the line by going to bat for him. It was an act of both selflessness and keen perception that changed the course of film history. And it demonstrated Johnny’s integrity – on the brink of major stardom himself, he chose to use his newfound clout to boost others rather than just capitalizing on it for his own gain.
The story of Johnny and Leo shows us that real stars lift each other up rather than clinging to the spotlight themselves. And the effects of Johnny’s good deed have rippled out far and wide, from providing audiences everywhere with Leo’s incredible talents to inspiring future generations of actors to pay it forward when they can.
So to Johnny Depp I say: thank you. Thank you for having the vision to see what a young Leonardo DiCaprio was capable of and the courage to make it happen when others doubted. The landscape of film would look very different today without your generosity over thirty years ago. You helped unlock an endless well of creativity that continues to enrich the lives of millions.
And to Leonardo DiCaprio I say: may you never forget those who helped you along the way. Now that you stand tall among the ranks of Hollywood legends, do as Johnny did and lift up promising talents in turn. Use your hard won clout and wisdom to open doors for those just starting out on their journeys. Spot the spark in them that will one day blaze into greatness.
Johnny Depp’s selfless act to cast an unknown talent in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape changed both your lives forever. Just imagine how many futures you can change by paying that generosity forward. Your mentorship could empower the next generation of stars and storytellers whose gifts might otherwise go unseen.
Johnny and Leo. Leo and Johnny. An iconic actor duo bound together by serendipity and human kindness. Your storied history reminds us of film’s awesome power to shape dreams and reflect the human experience. May your shining example inspire all those striving to make their cinematic mark – the Gilbert Grapes waiting for their chance – to support each other on the climb to greatness. Much love and respect to you both.