If River Phoenix had never died, would Leonardo DiCaprio’s career be the same?

Last night, on a Saturday evening at about 12:21am, I was reading the Wikipedia for River Phoenix (what else would one possibly be doing at that time?). I came across two things I didn’t know (well, way more than that — like how close River Phoenix and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers are — but two for the purposes of this post):

  • River had been interested in making The Basketball Diaries into a film. That did happen, in 1996 — with Leo DiCaprio in the lead.
  • He had expressed interest as the lead in Total Eclipse. That went to — you guessed it — Leo.

River Phoenix did in October of 1993, tragically. At the time, Leo had predominantly been in TV shows (RoseanneGrowing PainsParenthood) and then received acclaim in This Boy’s Life. (Another big movie for him, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, didn’t actually come out in the United States until December 1993 — two months after the tragic passing of River Phoenix.)

Leo was about four years younger than River Phoenix (former born in 1974, latter born in 1970).


If you think Titanic was “the” break for Leo (probably true), you have to wonder — would he have gotten there (the attention of James Cameron, etc.) without things like The Basketball Diaries and Total Eclipse? For Titanic, they needed a potential heartthrob; they didn’t necessarily need a great actor (which Leo was already proving with This Boy’s Life and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape).

Major sliding doors moment here, then, but if River Phoenix lives through Halloween 1993 — many argue he should have — is Leo’s career in the same place now?

He probably still has the women and potentially the yachts — but you could make a case that certain roles, perhaps even Titanic, would have found their way to River Phoenix or other young stars of the time because Leo didn’t have that steadily-increasing branding.

Hell, I mean — Titanic itself could have gone to Jeremy Sisto, apparently:

Lest you think I’m a total moron (I probably am), here’s HitFix on the same topic of Leo and River:

River Phoenix was well on his way to being a bankable star when he passed away. Acclaim was something that had become a given, and he was certainly not above making a decision that was about getting better opportunities and being able to help get something good made. He would have, at the very least, been in the running for “Titanic,” and I can imagine Cameron wanting that perfect blend of credibility and commercial appeal, and someone a little older. After all, Phoenix was set to star in “The Basketball Diaries” at one point, and “Total Eclipse” is another role that was his at first. It is not a stretch to say that DiCaprio’s early days could have easily been delayed or deferred if Phoenix was around to take roles away from him.

There’s also this:

If River lived I do think Leonardo would have had a career still… but if River took Titanic… it would have meant Leonardo would probably need a few more major movie roles to live upto the fame and celebrity him taking Titanic gave him… Titanic pretty much made Leo a household name, so he might not be as popular but I do think he would still be a respected actor, because he has the talent.

In the broader scope of things, young Leo in the early 1990s considered River Phoenix an icon/hero — and purportedly saw him early in the evening he ultimately died.


Ted Bauer

One Comment

  1. Wrong Cameron only seen what’s eating Gilbert grape and Romeo and Juliet at the time so really he would still be the choice for titanic. Besides Leo is much better looking than Rive Phoenix . Just sayin

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