River Phoenix (August 23, 1970 October 31, 1993) was an American
film actor. He was listed on John Willis's Screen World, Vol. 38 as one of
twelve "promising new actors of 1986", and was hailed as highly talented by
such critics as Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. He was also well known for his
animal rights activism. His career was cut short when he died of a drug
overdose on Halloween morning 1993 at age 23. He was the older brother of
actors and actresses Rain Phoenix, Joaquin Phoenix, Liberty Phoenix, and
River was born River Jude Bottom in Metolius, Oregon, five miles (8 km) south of Madras, Oregon. His mother, Arlyn Sharon (née Dunetz), a.k.a. Heart Phoenix, was born in the Bronx, New York to Jewish parents from Hungary and Russia. His father, John Lee Bottom, was a lapsed Catholic from Fontana, California.
In 1968, Phoenix's mother, "Heart", left her family and moved to California, meeting Phoenix's father while hitch-hiking. They married in 1969 and joined the religious cult the Children of God, working as missionaries and fruit pickers in South America. River had four younger siblings: one brother, Joaquin, and three sisters, Rain, Summer, and Liberty. He also had an older half sister from his father's previous relationship, Jodene (who later changed her name to 'Trust').
In an interview with Details magazine in November 1991, River stated that he lost his virginity at age four while a part of the Children of God. The magazine quotes him as saying "But I've blocked it out... I was completely celibate from 10 to 14". His representatives reportedly pressured him to later recant the comment, claiming it was "a joke". In March 1994, Esquire magazine quoted River as speaking angrily of the cult: "They're disgusting... they're ruining people's lives". After the family left the cult and returned to the United States in 1977, they officially adopted the surname "Phoenix" on April 2, 1979 to reflect their rebirth to a new life, just like the mythical sacred firebird River arising from the ashes.
Upon their return to the U.S.A, River and his family lived for a time with Phoenix's maternal grandparents in Florida before moving to California and eventually settling back in Micanopy near Gainesville, Florida in 1987.
River pursued a career in show business, encouraged by his parents. He had significant juvenile roles in Joe Dante's Explorers (1985); Rob Reiner's coming of age picture Stand By Me (1986) which first brought River to public prominence; Peter Weir's The Mosquito Coast (1986), where River played the son of Harrison Ford; A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988); and Little Nikita (1988) with Sidney Poitier.
In 1989, at the age of 18, River was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (as well as for a Golden Globe) and received the Best Supporting Actor honor from the National Board of Review for his role in Sidney Lumet's Running on Empty (1988).
At the suggestion of Harrison Ford, River portrayed the teenage Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and was offered the role of the young Indiana Jones in the TV series, which he turned down. River met actor Keanu Reeves while Reeves was filming Parenthood with Phoenix's brother, Joaquin. River later went on to star opposite Reeves (along with Kevin Kline and Tracey Ullman) in 1990's I Love You to Death and again in Gus Van Sant's avant-garde film My Own Private Idaho. For his role in My Own Private Idaho, River won Best Actor honors at the Venice Film Festival, the National Society of Film Critics and the Independent Spirit Awards. The film and its success solidified Phoenix's image as an actor with edgy, leading man potential. At a press screening for My Own Private Idaho at the New York Film Festival River correctly predicted a large number of gay-themed films were "on the horizon". (His friendship with Reeves and Van Sant continued until his death). Just prior to My Own Private Idaho, he filmed an acclaimed independent picture called Dogfight co-starring Lili Taylor and directed by Nancy Savoca, in which River portrayed a young U.S. Marine on the night prior to his being shipped off to Vietnam in November 1963.
After losing out on the Brad Pitt role in Robert Redford's film A River Runs Through It, River teamed up with Redford and again with Sidney Poitier for the conspiracy/espionage thriller Sneakers (1992). He then appeared in Peter Bogdanovich's country music-themed film, The Thing Called Love (1993); it was his last completed picture before his death. River and co-star in the film, Samantha Mathis became an item in real life.
After his death in 1993, his last picture, Sam Shepard's art-house, ghost western Silent Tongue (1994), was released; it had been filmed prior to The Thing Called Love. River was still working on George Sluizer's post-apocalyptic Dark Blood which was three weeks from completion at the time of his death. 90% completed, the film was never released, as Phoenix's death made it impossible for the filmmakers to film several key scenes. Director George Sluizer now owns the material and has been reported to be considering releasing some footage material about River embedded in a documentary on River's life.
River was being considered for the role of Jim Carroll, the drug addicted teen in the 1995 drama The Basketball Diaries and Arthur Rimbaud in Total Eclipse. After his death, Leonardo DiCaprio was cast in both roles. Author Anne Rice had originally wanted River cast in the role of Lestat in the film version of Interview with the Vampire and River became attached to the project; however, when the producer wanted a more consistently bankable actor for the part, Tom Cruise was hired (against Rice's initial outrage). River remained with the picture and was to appear as the interviewer, Daniel Molloy, a role that ultimately ended up going to Christian Slater following Phoenix's death. The film was dedicated to him and Slater donated his salary from the film to Phoenix's favorite charities.
Generally regarded by critics at the time as the most promising young actor on the cusp of the '80s and '90s, River and younger brother Joaquin would later go on to become the first brothers in Hollywood history to be nominated for an Oscar in the acting categories.
Although Phoenix's movie career was generating most of the income for his family, it has been stated by close friends and relatives that his true passion was music. River was a singer, song writer and an accomplished guitarist. He had begun teaching himself guitar at the age of five and had stated in an interview for E! in 1988 that his family's move to Los Angeles when he was nine was made so that he and his sister "..could become recording artists. I fell into commercials for financial reasons and acting became an attractive concept..". Prior to securing an acting agent, River and his siblings had attempted to forge a career in music by playing cover songs on the streets of the Westwood district of LA; often being moved along by police because of the gathering crowds who obstructed the pavement.
At 17, he formed his own band Aleka's Attic, with his sister Rain. Whilst working on A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon in 1986 River had written and recorded a song, "Heart to Get", specifically for the end credits of the movie. 20th Century Fox cut it from the completed film, but director William Richert put it back into place for his director's cut some years later. It was during filming that River met Chris Blackwell of Island Records, this meeting would later secure River and his band a 2 year development deal with the label. Due to River having to take numerous breaks to fulfill movie obligations coupled with the refusal to compromise his music to gear it towards a more 'mainstream' audience the deal eventually fell through. River was committed to gaining credibility by his own merit and so he maintained that the band would not use his name when securing performances that were not benefits for charitable organizations.
Phoenix's first release was 'Across the Way', co-written with bandmate Josh McKay, which was released in 1989 on a benefit album for PETA entitled "Tame Yourself". In 1991 River wrote and recorded a spoken word piece called "Curi Curi" for Milton Nascimento's album TXAI. Also in 1991 the Aleka's Attic track "Too Many Colors" was lent to the soundtrack of Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho a film which included River in a starring role.
In 1992, River worked with producer and friend T-Bone Burnett on some songs for his final completed film The Thing Called Love. River performed all his character's songs himself and wrote the song "Lone Star State of Mine" especially for the movie. In 1996, a second Aleka's Attic track was released, "Note to a Friend" was included on a PETA compilation album In Defense of Animals Volume II. The track included close friend Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers on bass. He also worked closely with another good friend, Red Hot Chili Peppers' guitarist John Frusciante, and appeared on his second solo album Smile from the Streets You Hold on the songs "Height Down" and "Well, I've Been".
Phoenix, along with friend Dan Aykroyd and other musically inclined celebrities, was an investor in the original House of Blues in Cambridge, Massachusetts which opened its doors to the public after serving a group of homeless people on Thanksgiving Day 1992. River was also close friends with Michael Stipe of the band R.E.M.. At the time of his death River had been working on an album with Aleka's Attic (then consisting of a different line-up). The album, although close to completion, was shelved after Phoenix's death due to two of the musicians declining to sign artistic release forms.
River was a dedicated animal rights, environmental and political activist. He campaigned for PETA and won their Humanitarian of the Year award in 1990 for his fund-raising efforts. He also supported a slew of various environmental charities and bought 800 acres (3.2 km2) of endangered rainforest in Costa Rica. River was renowned for using his power within the media to voice his beliefs and opinions on issues he felt important. For Earth Day 1990 River wrote an environmental awareness essay, targeted at his young fanbase, entitled "We Are the World" that was printed in Seventeen magazine. He and his band often played environmental benefits for well known charities and also that of local ones around Gainesville, Florida. His brother Joaquin is now a prominent spokesperson for PETA and follows the River family tradition of boycotting all animal products in his film work.
River once said in an interview, "I wish sometimes that I wasn't as conscious as I am."
Prior to his death, River Phoenix's image one he bemoaned in interviews had been squeaky-clean, due in part to the public discussion of his various social, political, humanitarian and dietary interests not always popular in the '80s; as a result, his death was considered one of show-business's most shocking and tragic, and elicited a vast amount of coverage from the media at the time. To this day, most family and friends remain silent on the subject.
Shortly before his 1993 demise, Phoenix, whose drug habits were still unknown to the public, said in an interview, "...drugs aren't just done by bad guys and sleaze-bags; it's a universal disease".
On October 31, 1993, River collapsed from a drug overdose of heroin and cocaine (known as a speedball) outside the Viper Room, a Hollywood night club partially owned by actor Johnny Depp until 2004. River had returned to Los Angeles the previous day from Utah to complete the three weeks of interior shots left on his last (and, uncompleted) project Dark Blood. His younger sister Rain and brother Joaquin had flown out from Florida to join him at his hotel, Phoenix's girlfriend Samantha Mathis had also come to meet him and all would be present at the scene of River's death. On the evening of October 30th, River was to perform onstage with his close friend Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. At some point in the evening River went to the bathroom to take drugs with various friends and dealers. It is reported that an acquaintance offered him some Persian Brown (a powerful form of methamphetamine mixed with opiates, which is then snorted) and soon after consuming the drug he became ill. Upon leaving The Viper Room, he collapsed onto the sidewalk and began convulsing for eight minutes. Joaquin dialed 911; during the call Joaquin was unable to determine whether or not River was breathing. River had, in fact, already stopped breathing. Rain proceeded to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. During the episode Johnny Depp and his band P (featuring Flea and Phoenix's friend Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers) had taken to the stage. According to Haynes the band were in the middle of their song, "Michael Stipe" (which includes the line "but we didnt have a part, not a piece of our heart, not Michael, River Phoenix or Flea or me."), while River was outside the venue having seizures on the sidewalk. When the news filtered through the club, Flea left the stage and rushed outside. Paramedics had arrived on the scene and found River in asystole (flatline), when they administered drugs in an attempt to restart his heart. He was rushed to the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, accompanied by Flea, via an ambulance. Further attempts to resuscitate River (including the insertion of a pacemaker) were unsuccessful. He was pronounced dead at 1:51 a.m. PST on the morning of October 31, 1993. The following day the club became a make-shift shrine with fans and mourners leaving flowers, pictures and candles on the sidewalk and graffiti messages on the walls of the venue. A sign was placed in the window that read, "With much respect and love to River and his family, The Viper Room is temporarily closed. Our heartfelt condolences to all his family, friends and loved ones. He will be missed". The club remained closed for a week. Johnny Depp continued to close the club every year on October 31st until selling his share in 2004.
Despite a local paparazzo choosing not to photograph River dying on the street, the day before his cremation in Florida, a reporter broke into the funeral home and took a picture of River resting in his casket; this picture was later to be sold to the tabloids for $1,000,000. It has now been published by the National Enquirer three times since the initial publishing in 1993.
River Phoenix first gained references in music with Brazilian singer Milton Nascimento writing the song "River Phoenix: Letter to a Young Actor" about him after having seen River in The Mosquito Coast (1986). The song appears on the 1989 release Miltons. Phoenix's friends, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, wrote a few lines for him in the song "Give It Away" from the 1991 album Blood Sugar Sex Magik: "There's a River born to be a giver, keep you warm won't let you shiver, his heart is never gonna wither..."
River has been the subject of numerous tributes in song and other media. The band R.E.M. dedicated their album Monster to Phoenix, and their song "E-Bow the Letter" from 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi is said to have been written from a letter Michael Stipe wrote to River but never sent because of the actor's death. Musician Sam Phillips has the dedication "For River" on her album Martinis & Bikinis. Again, Red Hot Chili Peppers, paid tribute with the song "Transcending" on 1995's One Hot Minute being written about him. Other songs inspired by River include Dana Lyons' "Song For River Phoenix (If I Had Known)," Grant Lee Buffalo's "Halloween," Natalie Merchant's "River" for her 1995 album Tigerlily, Ellis Paul's song "River," found on his 1994 release Stories, Rufus Wainwright's "Matinee Idol", Nada Surf's "River Phoenix" and Stereophonics's "Chris Chambers". In her 1996 album Woman & A Man, Belinda Carlisle referenced River in the song "California". The song opens and closes with the line "I remember I was in a tanning salon, when I heard that River Phoenix was gone". In Jay-Z's album, Kingdom Come, the lyrics of "Hollywood" list him as one of the many fatalities of the pressures of Hollywood. New York band Japanther featured a song on their album Skuffed up my Huffy (2008) entitled "River Phoenix," which is about certain events in his life and delivers the chorus "River Phoenix didn't mean it". The Butthole Surfers' song 'TV Star' from their Electriclarryland album, which discusses singer Gibby Haynes' love for Christina Applegate - who was present at the Viper Room the night of Phoenix's death references someone who may be River in the line "good-looking fella, but he's looking kind've thin." In the song "The Viper Room," Wesley Willis takes an abrupt turn from an otherwise glowing account of the club by noting Phoenix's death, stating that he "...collapsed and died like a Doberman."
Gus Van Sant, with whom River worked in the film My Own Private Idaho, dedicated his 1994 movie Even Cowgirls Get The Blues as well as his 1998 novel Pink to him. The film River was due to start shooting shortly after his death, Interview With The Vampire, features the dedication "In memory of River Phoenix, 1970-1993" at the end of the closing credits. Experimental Santa Cruz filmmaker Cam Archer also produced a documentary called Drowning River Phoenix as part of his USA Fame series.
During performances on November 13 and November 15, 1993 February 12, 1994, and one of Nirvana's last USA shows in Seattle on January 7, 1994, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana dedicated the song "Jesus Don't Want Me For a Sunbeam" to River (among other celebrities who died young), just a few months before Cobain's death. Tom Petty dedicated "Ballad of Easy Rider" to River when he played in his and Phoenix's hometown of Gainesville, Florida in November 1993.
River was the subject of a controversial song by Australian group TISM. Titled "(He'll Never Be An) Ol' Man River" the single originally featured a mock-up of River Phoenix' tombstone as its cover art in 1995. The chorus features the line, "I'm on the drug that killed River Phoenix".
In the 1997 musical, The Fix, River is alluded to in the song "Mistress of Deception" in the lines, "Hot young actor died last night at an L.A. club./ecstasy and booze/and too much nyquil./had the sweetest face,/warm and shy and innocent; sexy in that careless kinda way./the newsman said his heart just stopped like that...."
The scene of River Phoenix's death merits several mentions in William Gibsons book Spook Country.
A lesser known reference to River Phoenix was Final Fantasty VIII's main protagonist Squall Leonhart. Tetsuya Nomura, the lead character designer for the game, stated he modelled Squall on River's visage during development, and even gave Squall the same birthdate.
Phoenix's life and death has been the subject of an E! True Hollywood Story, an A&E Biography and an episode of Final 24, which contains a dramatic reconstruction of his final hours and death.
A recent episode of Family Guy, which was parodying Rob Reiner's Stand By Me ended in a synopsis of what the actors who originally played the characters in the movie went on to do. When he gets to Quagmire, who was parodying character who was originally played by Phoenix, the narrator states, "Quag grew up to become a famous Hollywood actor. Unfortunately, about a week ago, he took an overdose of designer drugs at the Viper Room. He died, on the curb outside. And now we are left with a hair-lipped reminder of what might have been." A picture of Joaquin Phoenix, River's brother, fills the screen, accompanied by a Benny Hill type trumpet sound. After the commercial, Peter's first line is, "Joaquin River if you are still watching, you're a good sport, and a trooper. And you passed our test. And you can be our friend."
This River Phoenix Biography Page is Copyright © 2004 - 2009 Chuck Ayoub