Why Leo DiCaprio Turned Down Disney’s Hocus Pocus

Here’s Why Leonardo DiCaprio Turned Down the Starring Role in Hocus Pocus
By Staff
October 1, 2023

Actors have been turning down leading roles, for one reason or another, since the beginning of the movie business. In most of these cases of role rejection, the eventual choice for leading man or woman seems irrefutable. Tom Hanks is Forrest Gump. Titanic wouldn’t be nearly as watchable without Kate Winslet as Rose. Is anyone other than Al Pacino as Michael Corleone? Forget about it. Still, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s fun to imagine what could have been, like John Travolta being the one to say “life is like a box of chocolates,” or Gwyneth Paltrow clinging onto the door, or Jack Nicholson making someone an offer they couldn’t refuse. Here’s another one for you: what if Leonardo DiCaprio had been the one to light the black flame candle?

Sure, the 1993 Disney film Hocus Pocus may not be on the iconic level of the previously-mentioned movies, and yes, Omri Katz doesn’t have nearly the same cultural cachet as a Travolta, a Paltrow, or a Nicholson.

But the fantasy comedy flick (which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary) is a beloved Halloween cult classic, and it truly is difficult to imagine a world where Katz doesn’t play Max Dennison, the sarcastic Californian who moves to Salem, Massachusetts, only to get on the wrong side of some majorly wicked witches. If director Kenny Ortega’s meeting with a then-19-year-old DiCaprio had gone a different way, then we might’ve found ourselves living in that world.

DiCaprio and Ortega Met to Discuss the Max Dennison Role

In 1993, Leonardo DiCaprio was a few years away from becoming a household name, but the teenager had a few years of acting under his belt and had already become a hot commodity in Hollywood, largely due to his recurring role as Luke Brower in the hit sitcom Growing Pains.

Despite the fact that DiCaprio was starting to get scooped up by other directors, that didn’t stop Kenny Ortega, the choreographer-turned-director who worked on Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Dirty Dancing and later helmed the High School Musical movies, from shooting his shot and trying to recruit him for the lead role in Hocus Pocus.

In a 2017 interview, Ortega recalled his meeting with the star.

“The [casting] ladies called me up, and they said, ‘We’re sending you an actor today, but he’s not available, but you’re going to fall in love with him, but you can’t have him.’ I’m like, ‘Why are you teasing me?’ They were like, ‘You need to see this guy because he’ll inspire you and if nothing else, he’ll help you find the right guy to play Max.’ “And they send me in a young Leonardo DiCaprio, who I completely and absolutely fall in love with. He’s just the most sincere and most centered and a wild child at the same time.”

Kenny Ortega

While Ortega and DiCaprio had a productive conversation, the future Oscar winner declined an audition for the Disney film in favor of an indie movie that would end up doing wonders for the young actor’s career.

DiCaprio Turned Hocus Pocus Down (Despite the Massive Payday)

In a 2014 interview with Variety, DiCaprio claimed that he was offered “more money than I ever dreamed of” for the role of Max.

“I don’t know where the hell I got the nerve. You live in an environment where you’re influenced by people telling you to make a lot of money and strike while the iron’s hot. But if there’s one thing I’m very proud of, it’s being a young man who was sticking to my guns.”

Leonardo DiCaprio

As it turns out, 1993 was a pretty busy year for DiCaprio. Before meeting with Ortega, he had just finished screen-testing with his future Killers of the Flower Moon co-star Robert De Niro for the leading role in This Boy’s Life, a biographical drama based on the memoir by author Tobias Wolff (DiCaprio would land the part, and receive widespread acclaim for his performance). But, another coming-of-age drama film called What’s Eating Gilbert Grape was actually DiCaprio’s chief reason for turning down the Hocus Pocus gig.

While DiCaprio had yet to even audition for the role of the intellectually disabled Arnie, the teen star was confident in his acting abilities and willing to risk a massive payday to jumpstart his career in the right direction. DiCaprio’s big risk paid off, and not only would he get the role, but he would also receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, making him the seventh-youngest nominee in the category.

Omri Katz Eventually Got the Role, and the Rest Is History

Ortega ultimately understood DiCaprio’s decision, and his meeting with the Los Angeles-born actor moved him in the direction of another LA-based star, who, like DiCaprio, had a successful background in television acting.

“Obviously, [DiCaprio] left and incredible things happened for that young man, but meeting him awakened me to the kind of spirit and fun and sincerity that I was looking for in an actor and when Omri Katz came around, I fell in love again and he was our Max.”

Kenny Ortega, Director (Hocus Pocus)

Having gotten his first big break as John Ross Ewing III in the long-running soap opera Dallas, Katz was a perfect fit for the laid-back, wise-cracking Max Dennison, who teams up with sister Dani (Thora Birch), love interest Allison (Vinessa Shaw), and 17th century boy-turned-black-cat Thackery Binx to face off against the witchy Sanderson sisters (Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimi).

While Hocus Pocus was initially panned by critics, Katz received a Young Artist Awards nomination for his role in the film. Due to heavy syndication on Disney Channel and later Freeform, Hocus Pocus has gone on to cultivate a massive fan base and typically gets top billing on most Halloween movie lists (the non-scary ones, anyway). Katz retired from acting in 2002 — he currently runs a cannabis company called The Mary Danksters. Still, the Hocus Pocus star has fond memories of his involvement in the film and occasionally keeps in touch with his former co-stars.

As for Leonardo DiCaprio, he followed up his Oscar-nominated role in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape with several more career-defining performances (The Basketball Diaries, Romeo + Juliet, Titanic), and before the turn of the century, he became a Hollywood megastar.

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