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2011 Horatio Alger Award Winner

Leonardo DiCaprio

Actor and Film Producer

“If you can do what you do best and be happy, you’re further along than most people.”

Leonardo DiCaprio’s mother was a German immigrant who was born in a bomb shelter during World War II. “My mother’s father was a coal miner who didn’t believe in the Nazi regime,” DiCaprio told Parade magazine. “The family tried to flee Germany but endured years of starvation and sickness. Their determination to survive was amazing. Eventually, they got to New York, where my mother met my dad—an Italian from Flushing, Queens—at City College.”

Shortly after they married, the DiCaprios moved to Los Angeles, where DiCaprio was born in 1974. His parents soon separated, but his father, who made a living creating and distributing underground comic books, remained involved in his son’s life. His mother worked at several odd jobs, mostly as a secretary. They had little money and lived in the poorest sections of Hollywood. “My mom and I lived at Hollywood and Western,” he told Parade. “It was a corner used by drug dealers. I saw a lot of devastation on my block, and it made me think twice about ever getting involved in drugs. It’s evil. Once you take that step and experiment, drugs can take over your life. You are not yourself anymore. That’s something I never wanted.”

DiCaprio reports that he did not have a lot of friends growing up. He spent a great deal of time with his parents, who found inexpensive ways to entertain and enrich his life. They often took him on trips to museums. His mother did everything she could to get her son into the best schools, and she drove him four hours each day to and from school.

As a boy, DiCaprio was a natural mimic who enjoyed his history and drama classes. He thought about one day becoming a biologist or a travel agent because he believed such jobs would allow him to see the world. But when his older stepbrother, Adam, began doing commercials, DiCaprio asked if he could do the same. He signed with an agency and did a commercial for Matchbox cars. That job led to several others, including two educational films.

He also appeared on a television episode of The New Adventures of Lassie, as well as Parenthood. In 1992, he landed a continuing role on the television series Growing Pains. The following year, Robert DeNiro chose him to play his stepson in the movie, This Boy’s Life. In 1993, DiCaprio co-starred as the mentally handicapped brother of Johnny Depp in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, which won him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

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DiCaprio had supporting roles in Marvin’s Room (1995) and The Basketball Diaries (1996) before being cast as leading man in Romeo & Juliet (1996). In 1997, he achieved global fame with his role in Titanic, the highest-grossing film of all time until 2010.

Since then, his films have included Catch Me If You Can (2002), Gangs of New York (2002), The Aviator (2004), Blood Diamond (2006), The Departed (2006), Revolutionary Road (2008), Shutter Island (2010), Inception (2010), Django Unchained (2012), The Great Gatsby (2013), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), and The Revenant (2015).

DiCaprio owns a production company, Appian Way Productions, whose productions include the films Gardener of Eden (2007) and Orphan (2009).

DiCaprio told Parad e that “cinema is the greatest modern art form. No painting makes me want to stare at it for two hours or gives me an experience that a movie does. There’s a quote that will be instilled in me always: ‘Pain is temporary; film is forever.’ It means that whatever you’re going through in your personal life, you have to channel that into what you’re doing. In film, if you don’t go where you need to go, you’ll never get another chance to burn it into the public world forever.”

After making Titanic, DiCaprio’s life changed forever. It brought him so much fame that he had a difficult time handling it. “I thought I valued fame, but once I achieved it, I discovered that I don’t value it at all,” he told Parade. “It’s not authentic—so shallow and empty. That’s why I took a break and didn’t work for two years. I was very conscious that I needed to do something different.”

As DiCaprio thought about his life, he looked for causes that could give purpose to his fame. He became a committed environmentalist and works through public advocacy, political action, and fundraising to stop the rise of global warming and the extinction of species. “When I was very young, biology and the diversity of life were one of my main interests,” he told Parade. “I really care that so many species have been wiped out. I believe in the divine right of all species to survive on this planet. I decided I wanted to be active as an environmentalist. I learned. I asked experts. I got active. I created a website and made a short film called Global Warming.”

DiCaprio earned a nomination for the VH1 Do Something Award, which honors those who inspire young people. In 1998, DiCaprio and his mother donated $35,000 for the Leonardo DiCaprio Computer Center at the Los Feliz branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, which was the site of his childhood home. In 2010, he donated $1 million to Haiti relief efforts after that country’s devastating earthquake. Later that year, he gave $1 million to the Wildlife Conservation Society at a summit hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin to protect the world’s endangered tiger populations.

DiCaprio’s portrayal of Howard Hughes in The Aviator and Hugh Glass in The Revenant won him the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor-Motion Picture Drama, and his role as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street won him the award for Best Actor-Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. DiCaprio has been nominated for six Academy Awards—five for acting and one for producing—and in 2016, he won the Academy Award for Best Actor for The Revenant.

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