The actor was rewarded for his portrayal of former U.S. leader President Abraham Lincoln in the filmmaker's acclaimed biopic with an award from the New York Film Critics Circle, and Spielberg offered up the letter he received from Day-Lewis as he introduced his leading man to the stage at a gala dinner.
Spielberg lost the Best Director honour to Zero Dark Thirty's Kathryn Bigelow, but he was still smiling as he recalled the snub from the My Left Foot star.
The moviemaker told guests he sent Day-Lewis several drafts of the script for Lincoln before he received a rejection letter.
It read in part: "It was a real pleasure just to sit and talk with you. I listened very carefully to what you had to say about this compelling history, and I've since read the script and found it - in all the detail of which it describes these monumental events and in the compassionate portraits of all the principle characters - both powerful and moving. I can't account for how at any given moment I feel the need to explore one life as opposed to another.
"But I do know that I can only do this work if I feel almost as if there's no choice. That a subject coincides inexplicably with a very personal need and a very specific moment in time. In this case, as fascinated as I was by 'Abe', it was the fascination of a grateful spectator who longed to see a story told rather than that of a participant. That's how I feel now in spite of myself, and though I can't be sure this won't change, I couldn't dream of encouraging you to keep it open on a mere possibility."
Spielberg refused to give up on Day-Lewis and now the actor is the clear favourite to pick up a Best Actor Oscar for his role in Lincoln.