By Samantha Miller
December 23, 2002 12:00 PM

If Leonardo DiCaprio‘s 28th-birthday bash was just another party, the Titanic was just another boat. Private jets bore the actor and his tight-knit band of buddies, including actors Tobey Maguire and Lukas Haas, to Las Vegas for the three-day affair. On the final night, Nov. 16, DiCaprio presided over a packed dance floor at the Palms Casino Resort, where he zeroed in on a brunette and invited her to his party upstairs. She said she had to talk to a friend first. “You won’t come back,” he protested. “Yes, I will,” she reassured him, “because you still owe me another butterfly kiss.” Around 4:30 a.m. DiCaprio—brunette and another female pal in tow—sauntered out of the party suite leaving empty beer bottles, the remnants of a shaving-cream fight and the bodies of several pooped-out revelers in his wake. “This,” he proclaimed, “will make one more day of no sleep.”

Five years after Titanic crowned him King of the World, DiCaprio is back from his self-imposed exile. After a chastening experience with megacelebrity and a two-year absence from the big screen, friends say he has emerged a shrewder star, hoping to regain professional respect while bolstering his box office clout. His one-two comeback punch: the bloody historical epic Gangs of New York (opening Dec. 20) and the con-man caper Catch Me If You Can (Dec. 25). “I’ve been extremely careful about the work that I get involved in nowadays,” he says. “I don’t want to waste my time. I want to make sure going into it that I’m going to grow as an actor.”

He has certainly grown in other ways—and not just the 30 lbs. he packed on to play Gangs’ street tough Amsterdam Vallon (he slimmed down again for his Catch Me role as teenage con artist Frank Abagnale). Since his hiatus, “he’s a wiser person,” says Catch Me director Steven Spielberg. Once a fixture at L.A. and New York City nightclubs, DiCaprio—who split from supermodel Gisele Bündchen, 22, early this year-makes the scene far less frequently, barring the occasional blowout. “I expected to see a party animal who was going to reap harvest with all the girls on the set,” says Spielberg. “I found the opposite. Leo is a homebody.”

His mother, Irmelin, 57, and grandmother Helena visited the L.A. Catch Me set almost every day. “When he wasn’t filming, he would sit with them and talk and laugh,” says costar Amy Adams. (He and dad George, 59, a comic-book artist who separated from Irmelin when Leo was 1, regularly hang out in L.A.) When there’s work to be done, DiCaprio can be intense. “I had the luck to team up with [Robert] De Niro when he was young, and now I feel the same way about Leo,” says Gangs director Martin Scorsese, noting their “similar drive.” But when the cameras stop, so does the seriousness. During the Gangs shoot in Rome he often slipped out to a video arcade near the Vatican. On Catch Me he’d burst into dance moves—”you know, pop-locking, the kind of dancing that makes you look like you’re made of rubber,” according to Adams—and delighted in discussing his favorite cartoons. “He loves the Thundercats,” Adams says.

His posse of longtime pals provides another outlet. “They carry on like your classic ‘boys will be boys,’ ” says Adams. A few have notably dropped from the roster, including magician David Blaine and money manager Dana Giacchetto, who is in prison after a conviction for bilking millions from DiCaprio and others. These days, says Spielberg, DiCaprio “knows who his friends are.”

They too have survived Leomania. After receiving critical acclaim at 18 for 1993’s This Boy’s Life and an Oscar nomination the next year for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, DiCaprio had his teen-idol warm-up with 1996’s Romeo & Juliet. But nothing prepared him for the frenzy that followed Titanic. Getting chased by fans through the streets of Paris and Tokyo was “frustrating and distracting,” says DiCaprio. “There’s no real control over how the media or the public perceives you…. It was a reflective time for me.” Though his 2000 effort The Beach flopped, DiCaprio kept his spirits up, holding court at nightclubs with a continuous catwalk of models. “I’m not going to sit here and say that I wasn’t a little bit of a Don Juan in the past,” he told The New York Times last month. “But I’m certainly not like that anymore.” Tired of the craziness, DiCaprio announced shortly after Titanic’s release that he was taking a year off from Hollywood.

Now the ardent environmentalist, who tools around L.A. in an electric-powered Toyota Prius, appears fully recharged: Friends say he has recently been seeing Jennifer Paulsen, a production assistant for E! Entertainment Television whom he met at a Halloween party at the Playboy Mansion. Next year he has plans to play eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes in a Scorsese-directed biopic. Fame “forced him to go away longer than he ever wanted to,” says Spielberg. “Hopefully he’ll make up for the lost time.”

Samantha Miller

Mark Dagostino in New York City, Alison Singh Gee in Los Angeles, Kwala Mandel in Las Vegas and Praxilla Trabattoni in Rome