Leonardo DiCaprio started out on Santa Barbara

 By William Heller, 1998

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Before Titanic, before The Man in the Iron Mask, before What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, Leonardo DiCaprio was on Santa Barbara. And even then, back in 1990, his fellow daytimers could tell he was going places.

"He had a maturity about him", recalls Jan Powell, Santa Barbara's assistant casting director, who auditioned the 15 year old DiCaprio. "I've could tell he tell really wanted to be an actor."

In May 1990, talent agent Bonnie Liedtke needed a teen to play young Mason Capwell in a flashback scene. "I've got a call from the casting director," says Liedtke. "I sent over a couple of kids, and Leo was the one who nailed it. I believe he played a kid with a drinking problem." DiCaprio did not bring Liedtke to the audition. "God forbid," she says with a laugh.

"We cast four kids," says Santa Barbara's Powell. "The four younger versions of four of our major characters. I remember Leonardo because when Bonnie suggested that we bring this kid in, I recall saying, "someone named their kid Leonardo ?" So the name stuck with me. The next time I saw him was in Gilbert Grape, and I was stunned by how much he has grown up."

DiCaprio's Santa Barbara episode put him in a tunnel cave-in with flashback scene with a young Cassandra Benedict, his foster sister. Although DiCaprio was 15, "he played so much younger," says Powell. "We were casting them to be about 12. But DiCaprio was mature and could do the job."

"I'm always looking for kids who are little pros, who want to be doing this," Powell adds. "The first thing I ask (and he recalls asking DiCaprio) is : "Why do you do this, do you like this?" DiCaprio's answers made it clear he was serious. I wouldn't have gone any further with him had that not been the case."

DiCaprio's current success doesn't shock Powell. "I'm not surprised at all," he says.

Before Santa Barbara, DiCaprio did a few Lassie episodes and the short-lived TV version of Parenthood.

While Hollywood is now willing to pay DiCaprio $15 million a film, on Santa Barbara, he earned only "scale plus 10," says Liedtke - $520 plus ten percent, or $572.