“I don’t want to die in a car accident. When I die it’ll be a glorious day. It’ll probably be a waterfall.”—River Phoenix
Before his untimely death in 1993, River Phoenix was one of the most promising actors in Hollywood. He would eventually pass away of a drug overdose at the terribly young age of 23 but the life of the Academy Award-nominated star was too complex and poignant to be classified as yet another catastrophic side-effect of fame.
Named after the “river of life” from Herman Hesse’s famous philosophical work Siddhartha, River was born in Madras, Oregon in 1970 and was the eldest child in a family of prolific artists. Phoenix never got the chance to attend formal school because, at the age of two, his parents joined a religious cult called “Children of God”. The family moved to Caracas, Venezuela in order to live in communes as missionaries and fruit gatherers. “They wanted to make a good life for their kids that wasn’t the typical ‘white picket fence’ kind of life,” Phoenix’s friend Joshua Greenbaum said in the second-season premiere of People Magazine Investigates: Cults, “Obviously, they were searching for something.” However, in truth, the cult was much more sinister and the effects subsequently traumatised River for life. He rarely spoke about his experience there but, according to a 1994 Esquire article, River’s mother remembers him openly criticising the cult, “They’re disgusting, they’re ruining people’s lives,” he is supposed to have commented. The erstwhile leader of Children of God, David Berg, had been accused of child abuse and River himself stated that he lost his virginity at age four while in the Children of God in a 1991 interview with Details magazine, “but I’ve blocked it out,” he said. These claims were later denied by his brother Joaquin but illegal and questionable sexual activities were a contributing reason why the family decided to leave the cult. River’s mother, Arlyn, said, “The group was being distorted by the leader, David Berg, who was getting powerful and wealthy. He sought to attract rich disciples through sex. No way.”
Despite his traumatic youth, River had started developing his flair for the performing arts from an early age, albeit out of necessity. He told the Chicago Tribune, “I would sing at jails with my sister and stand on street corners, passing out literature containing uplifting messages.” It was River’s idea to perform in the streets, apart from the cult’s activities, to make enough money for his siblings to attend school. After the family sneaked out of the cult, they found themselves poor and homeless in Caracas. There, in search of a new life, they were forced to live in a beach hut for a couple of months before hitching a ride to Florida on a commercial freighter. Back in the States, the family officially changed their surnames to “Phoenix” to mark the beginning of a new chapter in their lives after the tough times they had been subjected to. River and Rain began winning local talent shows and their successes were featured in newspapers—a pivotal moment on their path to eventual success. When Paramount Pictures saw reports of the talented siblings, they contacted the Phoenix family and asked them to drop by. Without a second’s hesitation, their parents packed them into a station wagon and drove to Hollywood.
“We had come out to Los Angeles to make it. At the time, I was nine years old and my sister was seven. We wanted to become recording artists which was a far-fetched concept, I suppose,” River recalled in an interview. Although Arlyn got a job at NBC and their father, John, started working as exteriors architect, the family was still struggling financially. River and Joaquin began performing on the streets for spare change where they caught the eye of talent agent Iris Burton. River started his acting career with appearances in various television commercials. “We got into commercials for financial reasons and acting became an attractive concept so we pursued it,” he once commented. In 1982, he was cast in the short-lived CBS Television series called Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Around this time, the actor also starred in various afterschool specials as his feverish desire for success was given its first taste. Despite the fact that his first feature film was Joe Dante’s sci-fi 1985 work Explorers, his real breakthrough came when he starred in Rob Reiner’s 1986 classic coming-of-age drama Stand By Me. Casting director Jane Jenkins, who put River in Stand by Me remembered her call from River’s agent Iris Burton, “She had this very heavy New York Jewish accent,” Jenkins recalled. “And she says, ‘Honey, they don’t need a fancy-schmancy hotel room. They have a Winnebago. They eat nothing but nuts and berries. And they don’t wear any leather, so no leather belt or shoes. That’s the deal’.”
This signalled the beginning of yet another chapter in River’s life, he became an advocate for animal rights. Dan Mathews, Senior Vice President of PETA recalled, “They asked their parents, ‘What is this? Why are they killing these animals? [Their parents] said, ‘When you eat fish, this is how they do it. You kill the animal.’ The kids were horrified, they never ate fish or meat of any kind.” Phoenix remained a staunch supporter of animals rights and an environmental activist for the rest of his unfortunately short life. The actor even bought acres of rainforest in Costa Rica to help preserve the ecosystem of the area. “I want to buy the last ‘first growth forest’ and turn it into a national park,” he said. “It’s a human tragedy of immense proportions. Many native Indians in that region are losing their homes daily, and it’s going to affect both you and me, because that’s where most of the world’s oxygen comes from. The Amazon rain forests are the world’s lungs and without them we will not be able to breathe. It’s a very scary thought and it’s not too far off.”
After the unprecedented success of Stand By Me, Phoenix garnered critical and commercial success for brilliant performances in films such as Sidney Lumet’s 1988 film Running On Empty, earning Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations. He was equally fantastic as Mike in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991) for which he won Best Actor honours at the Venice Film Festival, the National Society of Film Critics and the Independent Spirit Awards. It was also around this time that River started indulging in recreational drug use with his friends. After his death, his mother told Esquire, “He became more and more uncomfortable being the poster boy for all good things. He often said he wished he could just be anonymous but he never was.” His fame and success also ensured that he could support his family financially. River’s father was suffering from alcoholism and he felt it was his duty to provide for them. He lead the family into vegetarianism and even during his final years, he was only thinking of making films to put his siblings through college. “River said to me in that last year: ‘I just have to make one more movie to put away enough money so my youngest sister can go to college’,” actor Samantha Mathis recalled. “I don’t know if that was true, but I remember him saying that.”
On the night of October 30, 1993, River visited the Viper Room, the L.A. club owned by Johnny Depp with his siblings and his girlfriend, Mathis. According to River’s filmmaker friend William Richert, “John Frusciante (lead guitarist of Red Hot Chilli Peppers) approached their table, offered River a little plastic blue cup and said, ‘drink this, Riv, it’ll make you feel fabulous.’ River drank it down and suffered an immediate reaction. His neck bulged, his back twitched, and he complained, ‘something’s wrong.’ He then vomited at the table.” He was declared dead the next day but the media coverage was horrible. Joaquin’s frantic 911 call was broadcasted everywhere and the family wasn’t given enough space to mourn the beloved young star. His Academy Award winning brother, Joaquin Phoenix, admitted that it was a lot to process and the conditions made it worse, “So during that time in which you’re most vulnerable, there are helicopters flying over. There are people that are trying to sneak onto your land. Certainly, for me, it felt like it impeded on the mourning process, right?” He said that it was River who had asked him to get into acting at the age of 16 and he will always be indebted to his late elder brother for that advice. “I feel like in virtually every movie that I made, there was a connection to River in some way,” Joaquin said. “And I think that we’ve all felt his presence and guidance in our lives in numerous ways.”
“I think he’d make a great poster child for 2020,” Rain said in a recent interview. “If fame lands you on the cover of magazines, why not use it to start conversations about the issues we all face—despair, the climate emergency, racial justice, animal rights, all these issues that need solutions. He was doing that when it was a totally foreign thing back in the ’80s. My mom always says that River was a ‘solutionary,’ he didn’t like to dwell on what was wrong with the world, but instead enjoyed searching for solutions.”
River Phoenix was an outstanding actor whose potential was limitless but more importantly, he was a good human being who did everything he could to keep his family safe.
It is a great shame that we never had the chance to see how River’s career would have evolved but what he was at that young age is still absolutely remarkable. James Cameron had decided to build his entire cast for Titanic around River Phoenix but the role went to Leonardo DiCaprio because River sadly passed away. He was even slated to play iconic roles like Joker from the Batman franchise (a role for which his brother Joaquin won the Academy Award for Best Actor).
Even though he was taken away from us too soon, he will always remain an inspirational figure for aspiring actors as well as environmental activists.