Leonardo DiCaprio turns 45 tomorrow. He’ll be 50 before you know it because time flies when you can’t get enough of the treadmill. I chatted with Leo a few days ago at a San Vicente Bungalows after-party, and between the lines I was thinking “wow, the train is moving faster and faster.”

DiCaprio has been a power-hitter and marquee headliner for 22 years now, or since Titanic. 26 years if you count The Boy’s Life. Nobody can ever diminish or take away the killer performances he’s given in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, The Departed, Inception, Revolutionary Road and especially The Wolf of Wall Street…a lot to be proud of. And I can’t wait for what happens with Killers of the Flower Moon.

But when I think of vintage DiCaprio I rewind back to that dynamic six-year period in the ’90s (’93 to ’98) when he was all about becoming and jumping off higher and higher cliffs — aflame, intense and panther-like in every performance he gave. I was reminded of this electric period this morning that I watched the below YouTube clip of DiCaprio and David Letterman in April ’95, when he was 20 and promoting The Basketball Diaries.

I respected Leo’s performance in This Boy’s Life but I didn’t love it, and I felt the same kind of admiring distance with Arnie, his mentally handicpped younger brother role in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, partly because he was kind of a whiny, nasally-voiced kid in both and…you know, good work but later. Excellent actor, didn’t care for the feisty-kid vibes.

But a few months before Gilbert Grape opened I met DiCaprio for a Movieline interview at The Grill in Beverly Hills, and by that time he was taller and rail-thin and just shy of 20. I was sitting in that booth and listening to him free-associate with that irreverent, lightning-quick mind, and saying to myself, “This guy’s got it…I can feel the current.”

Then came a torrent: a crazy gunslinger in Sam Raimi‘s The Quick and the Dead (’95), as the delicate Paul Verlaine in Total Eclipse (’95), as himself in the semi-improvised, black-and-white homey film that only me and a few others saw called Don’s Plum (’95), as the druggy Jim Carroll in The Basketball Diaries (’95), as a wild, angry kid in Jerry Zak’s Marvin’s Room, opposite Claire Danes in Baz Luhrmann‘s Romeo + Juliet, as Jack Dawson in Titanic and finally as a parody of himself in Woody’s Celebrity. Eight performances, and every one a kind of sparkler-firecracker thing.

Then Leo took what felt like a year and half to drink and party (two-thirds of ’98, a good portion of ’99), and during that phase he was in a Randall Wallace clunker called The Man in the Iron Mask, giving the first “what the fuck is this?” performance of his career. And when he returned in Danny Boyle‘s The Beach (which opened in February of ’00) he’d gone doughy or something. That snap-crackle thing felt watered down or less focused or whatever. I only know that when he came on-screen in The Beach I said to myself “wait…what’s going on?” His face looked a bit puffy, his longish hair had been shorn off and his manner seemed dodgy and oblique.

DiCaprio’s career has been what’s been over the last 18 or 19 years. He gives it hell every time at bat and sometimes he really connects. But there was something wild and flame-throwy during that crackerjack period of the ’90s, and I still get off on it when I catch one of those eight films. My favorites are still The Basketball Diaries, Don’s Plum, Marvin Room and Titanic.

Titanic came out 22 years ago? Good effing God. — Appropriated from 8.22.15 post and then updated.