Family & Companions
An enormously gifted actor, River Phoenix made his film debut in Joe Dante's childhood fantasy "Explorers" (1985) before breaking out as the streetwise but kindhearted Chris Chambers in Rob Reiner's beloved coming-of-age drama "Stand by Me" (1986). A string of high-profile roles followed, including Harrison Ford's eldest son in "The Mosquito Coast" (1986), a social-climbing teen in "A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon" (1988) and the son of Soviet spies being hunted by Sidney Poitier in "Little Nikita" (1988). Earning an Oscar nomination as the son of fugitive radicals in "Running on Empty" (1988), Phoenix also played the teenaged version of the famed archeologist in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" (1989) and wowed critics with his Independent Spirit Award-winning turn as a gay hustler in Gus Van Sant's "My Own Private Idaho" (1991). Famous for his activism on behalf of animal rights and environmental causes, the devoted vegan struggled privately with drug addiction. Tragically, in the early morning hours of Oct. 31, 1993, River Phoenix died of a massive drug overdose outside of the Sunset Strip nightclub The Viper Room. Although the collective decision made by his family and friends to never publicly discuss him limited younger generations' knowledge of his impressive cultural legacy, River Phoenix left behind a body of work and scale of artistic potential that marked him as the greatest actor of his generation; a figure whose untimely death signaled a turning point for an already disillusioned Generation X.
Born Aug. 23, 1970 in Madras, OR, River Jude Bottom was the son of free-spirited hippie parents, Arlyn Sharon Dunetz and John Lee Bottom. Naming their son after the Buddhist concept of the river of life, as well as The Beatles song "Hey Jude," River Bottom was raised to play music practically from the moment he was born. While he was still a baby, his parents dropped out of mainstream society to become migrant fruit pickers in the United States before joining the Children of God cult to become missionaries and live a commune-based lifestyle free of material possessions. As they welcomed a string of siblings, including daughter Rain and son Joaquin (later, Leaf), the family rose within the ranks of their cult, moving to Caracas, Venezuela. Although John Bottom attained the rank of "Archbishop of Venezuela and the Caribbean," the family received no financial support from the Children of God, and Phoenix and his sister Rain often played guitar and sang on a street corner as children to earn money to support the entire family.
Phoenix's unorthodox, nomadic upbringing would instill the young man with a passionate social conscience and sensitivity, but would also hinder his ability to completely acclimate to the demands of modern life and to feel fully at home in the fast-paced United States. After his parents grew disillusioned with the Children of God following the organization's warped policies promoting children as sex objects, they managed to return the family to America by stowing away aboard a cargo ship. The return home did not mean the family would sacrifice their high ideals, however. They became passionate vegans and continuing to give their children nearly complete autonomy in making life decisions. In 1979, the family adopted the last name "Phoenix" to represent their collective rebirth. Precociously intelligent and blessed with beauty and charisma, Phoenix and Rain attracted attention for their brother/sister singing act. After moving their brood from Florida to Hollywood in an effort to "share their children and their message with the world," the Phoenix clan won over child agent Iris Burton, who agreed to represent Phoenix and his siblings, which now included sisters Liberty and Summer. After cutting his professional teeth in commercials - which he soon quit due to his own ethical concerns of what it was he was promoting - twelve-year-old Phoenix made his screen debut as young Guthrie McFadden on the short-lived musical drama series, "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" (CBS, 1982-83), for which he won a Young Artist Award.
A striking screen presence, the young actor quickly booked a series of high-profile TV roles, including a dyslexia-themed "ABC Afterschool Specials" (1972-1996) installment, before landing the starring role in the charming Joe Dante-helmed sci-fi fantasy "Explorers" (1985). Although the film, which also featured a young Ethan Hawke, was not a box office smash, it became a cult favorite and a generational touchstone, earning Phoenix his second Young Artist Award and cementing his status as a rising talent. For his work as the younger brother of a suicidal teenager (Zach Galligan) forced to separate from his equally troubled girlfriend (Molly Ringwald) in "Surviving" (ABC, 1985), Phoenix nabbed his third Young Artist Award. The following year, Phoenix delivered on all his initial promise with an iconic turn as the tough but tender Chris Chambers, best friend of Gordie Lachance (Wil Wheaton) in Rob Reiner's beloved coming-of-age classic "Stand By Me" (1986), based on Stephen King's story "The Body." Also starring a young Jerry O'Connell and Corey Feldman, the movie followed four best friends in search of adventure and a dead body. The Oscar-nominated film became a pop culture sensation, with Phoenix's surprisingly sensitive, nuanced turn proving the best and most memorable performance in a film packed full of them. Years later, Phoenix's final scene as audiences learn of his character's tragic fate would become one of the more difficult cinematic moments to separate fact from fiction. Reiner would later say that even decades after his young star's premature death, he still had a hard time watching Chris Chambers' final scene. At the time however, the four main young stars earned the Jackie Coogan Award for their collective work and Phoenix's career shot off like a rocket.
That same year, Phoenix played Harrison Ford's eldest son in Peter Weir's adventure "The Mosquito Coast" (1986), earning very public plaudits from the venerable Ford as well as another Young Artist Award. He fell in love with co-star Martha Plimpton, and the two soon became one of the "It" couples of their generation: a blend of raw acting talent, social consciousness and intelligence. Although he publicly espoused a vegan, eco-friendly lifestyle of healthful choices and remained an outspoken activist, Phoenix privately acknowledged many contradictions in his personal life, including an addiction to smoking and, at that time, occasional drug usage. Although his immense charisma and professional potential seemed untouched by his drug use at this early time, many of Phoenix's friends pleaded with him to quit, but the actor's need to self-medicate as a way to deal with the pressures of celebrity and the demands of life in the wake of such an unconventional childhood won out. The fact that the young boy had been the large family's sole breadwinner for years, supporting not only his own family, but a growing number of hippie hangers-on who took up residence at the family's Gainesville, FL home did little to help matters. In fact, Plimpton and others would later remark that River was treated as the head of the family; "the golden child" whom they all looked to for answers and emotional and financial support - even his own parents.
Now the thinking teen's sex symbol - much to his dismay - Phoenix next starred in the teen romance "A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon" (1988) but continued to succeed in more adult fare, scoring opposite Sidney Poitier as the initially unsuspecting son of sleeper Soviet agents in the thriller "Little Nikita" (1988). Although he never achieved massive commercial clout, Phoenix was earning the best professional reputation of his generation, marrying his movie star good looks with a searching vulnerability that belied his youth. He received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor as a piano student on the lam with his fugitive 1960s radical parents (Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti) in Sidney Lumet's "Running on Empty" (1988), reuniting onscreen with Plimpton for a beautifully heartfelt performance that, in many eyes, marked him as capable of cinematic greatness, a la Dean and Brando. For his work, he also won the National Board of Review's Best Supporting Actor as well as a nomination for a Golden Globe. Not afraid to switch gears and genres, Phoenix teamed up again with one of his many on-set father figures, Harrison Ford, to play the young Indiana Jones in the riotous prologue of "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" (1989). His clever homage, complete with Ford's particular tics and line delivery, were completely mastered by Phoenix who had been watching Ford's mannerisms like a hawk ever since they had worked on "The Mosquito Coast" three years prior.
After a quirky turn as Devo the mystical pizza-maker in Lawrence Kasdan's black comedy "I Love You to Death" (1990) and a multilayered, romantic turn in Nancy Savoca's "Dogfight" (1991) as a young Vietnam-bound Marine who strikes sparks with aspiring folk singer/ugly duckling Rose (Lili Taylor), Phoenix finally claimed the crown as the leading actor of his generation with a fearless portrayal of a gay, narcoleptic street hustler opposite Keanu Reeves in Gus Van Sant's "My Own Private Idaho" (1991). Actors of all stripes would point to the campfire moment where Phoenix - who rewrote this scene in order to make his character gay - declares his love for Reeves' character, as a master class in Method acting and what made them want to become actors themselves. For his turn, Phoenix won Best Actor honors from the National Society of Film Critics and the Independent Spirit Awards. It was during the shooting of this film, however, where his once seemingly harmless drug usage that many young people indulged in at that time escalated to a new, darker level. Phoenix was nothing if not dedicated to his craft. In order to inhabit his character of Mike Waters, Phoenix hung out with real street hustlers and drug dealers on the streets of Portland, OR where the film was partially shot. Believing he had to become Mike, he delved into heroin use full bore, aided and abetted by several cast members and real-life hustlers serving as consultants - many of whom ingested massive street drugs, all the while living together in Van Sant's house during the infamous shoot.
The die had been cast and Phoenix would begin a slow, torturous slide into heroin and cocaine addiction for the final two years of his life, although he would clean up in time for each production, more or less. He notched a small role in the Robert Redford thriller "Sneakers" (1992), reuniting with father-figure Poitier and hitting it off with new father-figure, Dan Aykroyd, who recognized in the sensitive drug addict similarities with his late partner, John Belushi, who had famously overdosed on heroin and cocaine in 1982. Aykroyd was but one of many friends and family members who noticed the actor's deteriorating physical presence as he lost weight and began lacking basic hygiene as well. He also began spending more time than usual in L.A. versus Gainesville in order to be closer to his "Idaho" friends like Reeves and new best buddy, Flea, sometime actor and bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. In fact, Phoenix became entranced with the rock-n-roll scene, as he has been performing music since he was a child. When in town, he lived with Flea and befriended bands like R.E.M and the Butthole Surfers, among others. Also a talented musician, Phoenix had formed the rock band Aleka's Attic with his sister Rain a few years prior and had always hoped to break out as a musician, so he was naturally drawn to that world - a world that only exacerbated his drug usage. Unfortunately, by the time he began filming his next movie, word in Hollywood had spread - that the supposed clean-living golden boy had a serious substance abuse problem.
For his next film, Phoenix convinced Peter Bogdanovich that he was not only clean, but was the perfect country-music singing bad-boy for the director's latest project, the country-western drama "The Thing Called Love" (1993). It was on the set of this film - which also co-starred a pre-fame Sandra Bullock and Dermot Mulroney - where he met and fell in love with actress Samantha Mathis. Despite his happiness over his new girlfriend and a chance to sing on film, the actor seemed increasingly dissatisfied with Hollywood and his place in it during interviews. Knowing he was - as he later told friend and "Idaho" co-star Bill Richert - "having trouble keeping his head above water in this crazy business," he expressed his desire to retire from acting and to devote himself to his family, his music and environmental activism. This was a man who spent his pay checks buying up rain forests in South America in an effort to preserve them. But someone had to pay the family bills, and when he was approached by director George Sluizer to star in the apocalyptic thriller "Dark Blood" (1993), he reluctantly signed on to the now infamous film. During production in the New Mexico desert, Sluizer and his leading lady, Judy Davis, clashed constantly, leaving Phoenix in the middle. Davis also made things unpleasant for her young co-star, who often ended up in tears in calls to family and friends back home. The young actor had never encountered anything but kindness from his co-stars, many of whom treated him as their own son. When production wrapped in the desert, it was back to L.A. for the final days left in the shoot.
Tragically, however, Phoenix's brilliant career and life would end shortly after his arrival in Los Angeles. On Oct. 30, 1993, he, Mathis, and his visiting brother Joaquin and sister Rain traveled from their hotel to the Viper Room, an exclusive Sunset Strip nightclub owned in part by Johnny Depp. Phoenix had planned to jam onstage along with Flea, Depp and other band members. The reasons were never clear - it was rumored Flea broke news to Phoenix that he could not play with them that night - but at some point, he went to the bathroom to take drugs. A so-called friend offered the actor lines while both were crammed in a stall. After snorting the substance, the reaction was almost immediate. A dazed Phoenix became disoriented and vomited within seconds, not realizing he had snorted a line of extremely pure drugs. As he mumbled "too much.too much," he was handed a Diazepam (Xanax) to calm down, which only worsened the situation. By now, his siblings and girlfriend began wondering where he was. Upon his return to the table, it was obvious that Phoenix was in dire shape, though no one knew what he had taken. Because of his start-stop method of taking drugs - he would be clean for weeks before hitting them hard again - the medical examiner believed his body was not used to either the amount he took or the drug's purity like it might have been were he a daily drug user with built-up tolerance. Instead, he had ingested eight times what was considered lethal levels of cocaine and heroin. The drug combo was quickly shutting down his organs - the heroin slowing his heart rate and the cocaine speeding it up. In the early morning hours of Oct. 31, 1993, Phoenix was escorted outside the club and collapsed on the sidewalk, whereupon he had several violent seizures. As horrified onlookers dressed in costumes looked on, Rain threw herself across her brother's body to stop the spasms while Joaquin raced to a pay phone and made the later notorious 9-11 call. Within four minutes, an ambulance arrived, but the seizures and his heart had stopped. Flea insisted on riding in the ambulance as the lifeless actor was rushed to Cedars Sinai Hospital. Despite the efforts of all involved, Phoenix proved unresponsive. He was officially pronounced at 1:51 a.m. on Halloween 1993, dead from a massive cocaine and heroin overdose - a speedball - the same combo that killed Belushi and would also fell comedian Chris Farley only four years after Phoenix.
Response to Phoenix's death was immediate, with makeshift tributes and shrines erected outside the Viper Room, as well as Depp's decision to close the club for a week, as well as every year on Halloween. The horrific, unexpected and public nature of his death shocked and intrigued young Hollywood as well as fans and critics, as his passing away from an overdose of street drugs - so at odds with his seemingly healthy lifestyle - marked for many, not only the end of a promising talent, but also the innocence of a generation. Although Phoenix's family and friends chose to close ranks and not discuss his life and career in great detail after his death, his impact on popular culture was profound for someone with only 13 (released) film credits. His work and memory inspired a multitude of artistic responses, including tribute songs from Red Hot Chili Peppers, Natalie Merchant, Tom Petty, R.E.M. and many others. Both "The Thing Called Love" and Sam Shepard's metaphysical Western "Silent Tongue" (1993) were released posthumously, with reviewers again touting the actor's unorthodox, wise-beyond his years choices when it came to selecting non-pretty boy projects. At the time of his passing, he had only days of work left on "Dark Blood," but unfortunately, his scenes were key, leading the entire film to be scrapped. The actor had been cast as the interviewer in Neil Jordan's Anne Rice adaptation of "Interview with the Vampire" (1994) and would have started production in New Orleans in only weeks, but was ultimately replaced last minute by friend Christian Slater, who donated his salary to Phoenix's favorite charities. Although the decision later of family and friends to protect Phoenix's memory may have prevented generations from fully appreciating his legacy, their silence also helped keep the spotlight on what mattered most to River - his body of work and his world beliefs - rather than on his tragic demise.
Cast (Feature Film)
Music (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Moved to Colorado where parents became members of evangelical cult Children of God
Traveled throughout southwestern U.S., Mexico and Puerto Rico as missionaries for Children of God
Family moved to South America
Parents left the Children of God; lived in Caracas where River and Rainbow sang religious songs for money and food in the street
Returned to U.S. at age seven; settled in Florida
Family moved to Los Angeles after Rainbow and River won local talent contests
With sister Rainbow, did audience warm-ups for TV show "Real Kids" (date approximate)
Began TV acting career at age 12 on "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" (CBS)
Made film debut in "Explorers"
Co-starred in Rob Reiner's coming-of-age classic "Stand by Me"
Played the eldest son of a fugitive family in Sidney Lumet's "Running on Empty"
Cast as Young Indy in Steven Spielberg's "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade"
Played in band Aleka's Attic with sister Rain; featured on a compilation album <i>Tame Yourself</i>, made to benefit the animal-rights organization PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment for Animals)
Co-starred with Keanu Reeves as young hustlers in Gus Van Sant's "My Own Private Idaho"
Joined ensemble cast including Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd, and Sidney Poitier in "Sneakers"
Cast in George Sluizer's "Dark Blood"; Phoenix died before filming completed
Final screen appearence, "Silent Tongue" (finished filming, 1992)