River Phoenix (born River Jude Bottom) was an American actor, musician, and activist. His parents (John and Arlyn) named him River after the river of life in Hermann Hesse's novel Siddhartha and Jude after the Beatles song Hey, Jude. He was the older brother of Rain, Summer, Liberty and Joaquin Phoenix.
His years of early success
From 1982-83, River broke into the TV world with a role in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers before his feature-film debut in the science fiction adventure Explorers in 1985, starring alongside Ethan Hawke. It would be the 1986 coming-of-age drama Stand By Me that would launch the young actor's appeal into the stratosphere. Starring alongside Kiefer Sutherland, Jerry O’Connell, and Wil Wheaton, the story was based on a novella by Stephen King. River later summed up his time on the film;
"In Stand by Me, I realized that what I was creating was going to live on far longer than anything of me as a person. The characters are more powerful than the person that creates them".
Following on from the success of one of River Phoenix movies Stand By Me, he would go on to star alongside Harrison Ford in The Mosquito Coast in 1986. Incidentally he would go on to play a young Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade, a character which would ultimately be played by Harrison Ford. In The Mosquito Coast, Phoenix played the son of a man concerned about raking his wife and two children back to a primitive life. Based in the tropical forests of the South Atlantic, the film’s plot was similar to that of Phoenix’s upbringing, having been brought up in a log cabin in Oregon. This rising stardom came quickly, and he was reluctant to accept it, but was happy that he could help support his family by bringing home an income.
The change of roles
In 1988 he began his ascent into more adult-orientated films, including Running on Empty, acting opposite Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch. For this role he earned an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, losing out to Kevin Kline for A Fish Called Wanda. In 1991, he played a gay hustler looking for his estranged mother in My Own Private Idaho, earning himself a Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival, along with Best Actor from the National Society of Film Critics. To this date, he and brother Joaquin Phoenix hold the distinction of being the first and only brothers to get nominated for acting Academy Awards.
Out of character of the Hollywood fete set, Phoenix was an introvert, somewhat withdrawn and held a contempt for the spotlight. The Hollywood publicity machine left a bad taste in the actor's mouth resulting in him to once proclaim;
"I've kept my ego and my happiness completely separate from my work. in fact, if I see my face on the cover of a magazine I go into remission. I shut myself out and freak".
A dark turn and alienating Hollywood
Proceeding on from starring in such well-known films as Indiana Jones and Sneakers, friends and colleagues started to witness significant changes in Phoenix's personality.
He was previously known for his innocence and transparency. He was a very devoted vegetarian, declined to wear leather clothes and was so concerned for the now declining rain forests in Costa Rica, he started buying up large areas of it to protect it from intrusive development. Phoenix even once openly condemned drugs like cocaine, heroin, and alcohol. But his characteristic behaviour had started to change, and people wanted to know why.
Numerous people felt that River’s turning point was due to a deep-seated hatred of the hard world of Hollywood and filmmaking. Others thought that it was just his way of striking out against the unconventional manner in which he was brought-up. Still, others prepared to accept themselves to the idea that Phoenix was past the point-of-no-return and would never be the same again.
At the start of 1990, Phoenix had had enough and would renounce from the world of acting and return back to Gainesville, Florida to live with his family. With his sister Rain, he formed the band Aleka’s Attic, where he sang, wrote songs and played the guitar. At this point, he also reinforced his determination as an environmentalist and activist for the rights of animals.
As the mid 1990’s beckoned, Phoenix had returned to Hollywood, shooting on a film called Dark Blood, starring alongside Judy Davis and Jonathan Pryce. Around the same time, he had signed up to star as the opposite Tom Cruise in Interview With the Vampire, the part of which went to his good friend Christian Slater. During working in Hollywood, he would frequent the St. James Club and Hotel on Sunset Blvd. Things were starting to look brighter for Phoenix, and his star was about to launch again.
His tragic death at the Viper Room
However, during the last few hours of October 30th 1993, Phoenix would join some of his friends at Johnny Depp’s club, The Viper Room, at 8852 Sunset Boulevard. As Halloween began at around 1:00 am, Phoenix entered the bathroom to partake in some drug use with a couple of his drug-dealer friends. One of them offered him some pure grade Persian Brown (heroin), which he snorted, before he started violently shaking. Turning to one of his friends, he vomited, and in an effort to calm him down, another friend gave him some Valium.
Staggering back into the bar area, he approached actress Samantha Mathis who was talking to his sister Rain, where he claimed that he had problems breathing. He then passed out. After regaining consciousness, he pleaded to be taken outside of the club, before collapsing onto the sidewalk where he went into seizures. A photographer, Ron Davis was outside and made an emergency 911 call, as did Joaquin, a recording of which you can hear below.
Ron Davis recalled the events, saying;
"He looked like a fish out of water" ..."thrashing spasmodically, his head flopping from side to side, arms flailing wildly."
By this time, Rain Phoenix had also left the club and had thrown herself on top of her brother to try and halt the seizures. But his body would suddenly become lifeless.
Phoenix had gone into full cardiac arrest at 1:14am when paramedics arrived following from his brothers 911 call. Medic Ray Ribar of the L.A. County Fire Department started administering CPR.
Phoenix was instantly rushed to Cedars Sinai Medical Center and arrived at 1:34 am. As they reached the hospital, Phoenix was blue, but his body was still warm. The emergency room doctors tried everything to resuscitate the actor, but he was pronounced dead at 1:51 am on October 31, 1993.
River Phoenix's autopsy (below) showed lethal levels of cocaine and morphine (heroin shows up as morphine, as it's metabolized by the body), Valium, marijuana and ephedrine. Ephedrine is the main ingredient found in crystal meth. Official cause of death was Acute multiple drug ingestion. River Phoenix was just 23 years old.
Preceding River Phoenix's death, his image (one he bemoaned in interviews) had been impeccable, owing in part to his public commitment to his diverse social, political, humanitarian, and dietary interests not always popular in the 1980s. As a result, his death obtained a vast amount of coverage from the media.
On November 4th, Phoenix’s funeral took place. Sixty mourners turned up at Milam Funeral Home for the viewing, where he was placed in a blue coffin. His normal fair hair was black, due to it being dyed for the role he was playing in Dark Blood. The mortician would also cut off his long hair and place it next to him in the coffin, along with a single carnation.
On November 18th 1993, there was a memorial service held on the Paramount Studios Lot. Sidney Poitier, Rob Reiner, Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Benjamin, Christine Lahti, John Boorman and River's mother, Heart, attended it.
On August 23rd 2016 he would have celebrated his 46th birthday.
Gavin Edwards, author of Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind wrote:
In this world of teen idols — where everyone feels polished — he was a beautiful boy and wonderful actor, but there was a degree of eccentricity and sense of being an outsider. People bonded with him. They thought he was trying to make the world a better place and not trying to book his next job.He had this quality, this luminescent beauty. You look at a generation of actors like Jared Leto and Brad Pitt, and River was something of a signpost, of how you can do this with integrity. My Own Private Idaho was a touchstone of him going all the way. It was so intense. His legacy is an inspiration to a lot of actors.
And that's the way I think we should all remember him, as an inspiration.