Putin praises DiCaprio as 'real man' after harrowing journey to tiger summit

Actor Leonardo DiCaprio narrowly escaped two plane crashes en route to a five-day tiger summit hosted by Putin, who is no stranger to derring-do himself.

Alexei Druzhinin/Ria Novosti/AP
Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (l.) listens to actor Leonardo DiCaprio during their meeting, dedicated to a five-day 'tiger summit,' in St. Petersburg, Nov. 23.

Leonardo DiCaprio faced his share of airborne thrills and spills playing the legendary airman, tycoon Howard Hughes, in the 2004 bioepic "The Aviator."

But on his way to attend the global "Save the Tiger" summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, Mr. DiCaprio nearly met with real-life aviation disaster twice: first when his Moscow-bound flight had to turn back to New York with its engine reportedly in flames, and again when the private aircraft he chartered was so severely buffeted by winds that it had to make an emergency landing in Finland.

For his perseverance, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – who knows a thing or two about looking macho – awarded DiCaprio the highest accolade a Russian guy can offer: he called him a nastoyachshi muzhik, which is a particularly rustic way of saying "a real man."

"I would like to thank you for coming," Mr. Putin told the actor when he belatedly arrived Tuesday night, bearing a $1 million gift for the tiger preservation program. (See video.)

"A man with less strong nerves might have refused and thought [your brushes with disaster] were a sign that you should not come," Putin said.

DiCaprio's close calls in the skies

DiCaprio's first attempt to reach St. Petersburg on Sunday failed when the Moscow-bound Delta Boeing 767’s engine flamed out, and the crippled plane returned to New York.

The next day he switched to a small Gulfstream private jet, but it nearly ran out of fuel battling unexpectedly strong headwinds over the Atlantic, and barely made safe haven in Helsinki.

"DiCaprio didn't just come to St. Petersburg, he busted into St. Petersburg across the Front Line.... Permit me to say this. In our country, that's what we call a real man," Putin said.

Putin's own derring-do

Since becoming Russia's president a decade ago Putin, a former KGB spy and judo master, has periodically indulged in somewhat more stage-managed feats of macho derring-do.

These include flying in the rear seat of an Su-24 fighter plane to the war-torn republic of Chechnya, observing a missile launch from the deck of a nuclear submarine, co-piloting a supersonic Tu-160 bomber, and diving more than a kilometer to the bottom of Siberia's Lake Baikal in a Mir-1 mini-submarine.

Showing a softer side, Putin last week asked people to help him name his new Bulgarian Shepherd puppy, given to him by the Bulgarian prime minister on a recent visit, by posting their suggestions on his official website.

One of the stories Putin might have swapped with DiCaprio during the lengthy tête-à-tête the two enjoyed at the tiger summit was the time, two years ago, when he saved the lives of an entire television crew from a Siberian tiger. After the captive animal broke its bonds and went on a rampage, Putin shot it with a tranquilizer gun and sedated it – thereby saving not only the crew, but the specimen of an endangered tiger species as well.

"Putin's interest in saving tigers should be no surprise. He's devoted a lot of effort to ecological problems," says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected Duma deputy. "He's even told people that after he retires his goal is to find some way to work on environmental issues."

DiCaprio's uncanny resemblance to Lenin

During their meeting DiCaprio warmed up to Putin, mentioning that he, too, is of Russian descent.

"The name of my ancestors was Smirnov," DiCaprio said. "I always wanted to bring my grandmother to St. Petersburg, but that never came to fruition before she died two years ago."

A Russian film producer, Alexander Borodyansky, noting DiCaprio's uncanny resemblance to Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin, is reportedly in talks with the actor to play the Bolshevik leader in his new film "Lenin's Brain." The storyline apparently involves a resurrected Lenin returning to organize a Communist revolution in the US.

"I’m sure that when you get to know St. Petersburg you will be proud of your Russian roots," Putin told DiCaprio.

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