Poverty and Family Split Spurred Leo to Pounds 3m a Film Titanic Stardo M; Gran Tells of Screen Idol's Battle

By Carey, Tanith | The Mirror (London, England), January 28, 1998 | Go to article overview

Poverty and Family Split Spurred Leo to Pounds 3m a Film Titanic Stardo M; Gran Tells of Screen Idol's Battle


Carey, Tanith, The Mirror (London, England)


HOME is a six-bedroom Los Angeles mansion with marble jacuzzi, sauna and gym. Liz Taylor and Sharon Stone live close by.

It's no less than you'd expect of a star who can command pounds 3 million a film.

But if life looks good for Titanic heart-throb Leonardo DiCaprio now, it wasn't always that way. For most of his 23 years, the man who now has Hollywood at his feet has been struggling to escape poverty and hardship.

From his earliest days, young Leonardo realised he would have to fight for anything he got. And it was this inborn drive, his 83-year-old widowed grandmother Helene Indenbirken insists, that spurred him to stardom.

"As a child, he knew another boy who earned money appearing in TV ads," she says. "Leonardo said to himself, 'What he can do, so can I' - and soon he was appearing in cornflake commercials.

"He was determined to make it because his family were desperate for the money."

Leonardo's dad, George, a fourth generation Italian-American, met his German born wife, Irmelin, in the early Sixties in New York.

For five years, the bohemian comic book artist worked as an odd-job man before moving to LA to chase the Hollywood dream. Instead, the penniless pair ended up living in a run-down house, off Hollywood Boulevard, dubbed "syringe alley".

Leonardo was just two when his hippy parents split after eight years of marriage.

Irmelin had to take her husband to court to force him to pay just pounds 13 a week for little Leo's upkeep - all George could afford.

Even as a baby, Helene recalls, Leonardo was charmer. "He was the cutest kid," says the proud pensioner, who lives in a small mining village town in Germany's Ruhr valley.

"I first saw him was when I flew out to California about three weeks after he was born.

"Irmelin brought him to the airport in her arms. He had the roundest little face, though he is skinny as a rake now."

WORKING first as a childminder and later as a legal secretary, Leonardo's mum struggled to make ends meet.

The pounds 13-a-week maintenance from George, by then self-employed selling comics from a garage, helped.

In his school holidays, Irmelin would send her son to Germany to stay with her parents in their tiny flat.

There, away from the sleaze and drug problems of LA, Leo went cycling and mushroom-picking with his granddad.

Helene remembers her grandson's holidays as happy times. "From the age of about eight, Leonardo spent all his vacations with us here in Germany.

"He even got his first taste for the sea when his grand- father and I took him on a cruise. We went all over - to the Bahamas and Canada. We also took him skiing in Austria."

Even in those early days, Leonardo's talent was clear.

"When he was 11 or 12, there was a break-dancing competition in the local town. He came second, even though he was competing against bigger boys," Helene recalls.

And he was forever acting. "For instance, he would drink water and then stagger around, making out he was drunk. …

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