River Phoenix (August 23, 1970 — October 31, 1993)
was a talented musician, artist and Oscar
-nominated screen actor. Well known as an outspoken environmentalist
, lifelong vegan and human rights activist, he rose to stardom in Hollywood
as a child actor who had spent much of his early childhood as a street performer. Once one of America's hottest teen idols, River developed a strong cult following
during his lifetime that continues to this day.
Born as River Jude Bottom in an Oregon farm commune to hippy parents John Bottom and Arlyn Dunetz, River's early life involved extensive travel. His parents were nomadic, and by 1974 had joined a radical Christian cult, The Children of God. Their association with this group would take them and their family across the western United States, through Mexico, Puerto Rico and finally to Venezuela, where River spent his seventh birthday. River and his sister Rain would sing songs on the street corners of Caracas to provide food for the family and recruit new followers to the cult.
But the cult provided no support for their far-flung missionaries. Disillusioned and resentful due to the poverty that they found themselves in, River's parents (with the help of some local priests) arranged for themselves and their now four children to be smuggled back to the United States in 1977 aboard a freighter carrying a cargo of Tonka toys to Florida. They made the journey safely, and as a symbolic gesture of their rebirth from The Children of God, changed the family name to Phoenix. A fifth child was born into the family soon thereafter.
River's father returned to his one-time occupation as a gardener until he aggravated an old back injury which left him nearly disabled. By 1979 the family was destitute once again, and River and Rain began entering talent contests around Florida as a source of income. Following one such event in Hernando County, the family received a letter from Paramount Pictures inviting the children for an interview, so they all packed up their belongings and headed out to Burbank.
When the family reached California, it turned out that Paramount wasn't really interested in seeing the children perform after all, but this did not deter them from trying to break into show business. Settling in Los Angeles, Arlyn found work as a secretary for NBC's casting department and John did odd jobs to make ends meet. The children soon landed an agent, which got them gigs doing warm-up acts for studio audiences and small parts performing on children's TV shows. River also got some work doing commericals, but eventually decided that playing the huckster didn't agree with his strong sense of ethics.
River's talents were finally spotted during an audition for a 1982 television remake of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. He landed the part, but the show was cancelled after the first season. This role led to other minor TV roles, including an episode of the popular NBC series Family Ties. His most important TV appearance during this period was a major role in Surviving: A Family Crisis, where he gave an exceptional performance as the younger brother of a boy who enters a suicide pact with his girlfriend. During the making of this TV movie, River got a call from his agent to return to L.A. for a feature film audition.
The film was 1985's Explorers, a Joe Dante space adventure that would be River's first major motion picture. River played a geeky boy scientist along side actors James Cromwell and a then-unknown Ethan Hawke. This film would serve mainly as a foot in the door to Hollywood for River, whose next role in the 1986 Rob Reiner classic Stand By Me would propel him to stardom. Cast in the "tough kid" role beside actors Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman and Jerry O'Connell, Reiner's adaptation of a Stephen King short story was a major box office hit, and earned critical acclaim for River as well as his young co-stars.
Potential scripts began to pour in after Stand By Me, and River and his parents could now be more selective about his future projects. Following another TV movie role, River's next film was with actor Harrison Ford in The Mosquito Coast, a drama shot in Belize that echoed River's own life to a great extent. Seeing that it was time for him to depart from child actor roles, River's agent began seeking out more mature parts for the sixteen year old. The title role in 1988's Little Nikita was River's next project, where he forged a close off-screen bond with co-star Sidney Poitier. A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon was River's first top-billing role, followed by Running on Empty which reunited him on screen with his girlfriend and co-star from The Mosquito Coast, Martha Plimpton.
Concerned that his family was slowing being corrupted by Hollywood, River's father decided to move the family back to Florida around this time, and settled in Micanopy (just south of Gainesville) where River finally began to experience a "normal" life in relative anonymity. Parting ways with Martha Plimpton, River's abiding interest in music took root, and encouraged by a development deal set up by Chris Blackwell of Island Records, he and his sister Rain formed a rock band named Aleka's Attic with some local friends. Though the band was just a hobby for River, it gave him an artistic outlet apart from his acting, and was perhaps the one thing that brought him the most pleasure in life.
River's next film project was a small role in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, after which he began touring with his band. He was nominated in 1989 for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Running on Empty, and that summer began working on I Love You to Death with Kevin Kline and Keanu Reeves. This role found River playing a drug-taking teen assassin for hire (of sorts), and there is speculation that his "character research" for the film may have been his first real life journey into the world of recreational drug use.
The 90s brought more film projects that River hoped would distance him from his teen idol status. The first, Dogfight, took him into the world of the US Marines, complete with training for the role by actual drill instructors. This was followed in 1991 by Gus Van Sant's dark drama of street life, My Own Private Idaho, where River reunited with Keanu Reeves to spend extensive time doing character research on the streets of Portland observing street hustling. After the film wrapped production in Italy for the scenes shot in Rome, River returned to Florida to embark on the biggest tour that his band had ever done, playing gigs in New York, Chicago and Miami.
By now River was twenty-one years old and was one of Hollywood's leading young men, commanding several million dollars per movie. His agent negotiated a lucrative contract for his appearance in the 1992 big budget thriller Sneakers along side Hollywood heavyweights Robert Redford, Ben Kingsley and his old friend Sidney Poitier. River's relationship with then-girlfriend Sue Solgot hit the skids by the summer of 1992, and he fell in love with co-star Samantha Mathis on the set of the movie The Thing Called Love, a relationship that would last for the rest of his life.
In between the time spent shooting films, River continued to develop his music with Aleka's Attic. He rented studio time in Gainesville and recorded a large number of songs with the group, most of which would be left in a rough, unfinished state. River's next film project was to be Interview With The Vampire, but when Tom Cruise was given the role of Lestat that author Anne Rice wanted River to play, the whole project was put on hold for several months. In the mean time, River began work on the film Dark Blood, and spent several weeks in the desert of Utah filming scenes with director George Sluzier.
River flew back to Los Angeles on Tuesday, October 26, 1993 following the completion of the desert scenes for Dark Blood. The next few days were spent on a sound stage shooting interior scenes for the film. On Saturday night, October 30, River, his girlfriend Samanatha Mathis and his sister Rain and brother Joaquin set out for a night on the town to see several musician friends perform at Johnny Depp's nightclub, The Viper Room, on Sunset Boulevard.
Few details of that night are public knowledge, as those who were with River at the nightclub have never revealed the complete timeline of events leading up to his cardiac arrest shortly after midnight. According to published reports, River began to have seizures and started vomiting, later complaining that he couldn't breathe. His girlfriend and brother helped him outside for some fresh air, where he collapsed on the sidewalk. An ambulance took River to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center where surgeons fought for twenty minutes to resuscitate him, but they gave up the battle at 1:51AM. The heroin (four times the lethal dose) and cocaine (eight times the lethal dose) in River's system were at levels beyond which medical assistance could compensate.
River Phoenix's life, cut short at the age of 23, is to many just another example of a young Hollywood star who succumbed to drug addiction before his considerable talents could be fully developed and shared with the world. Most people were shocked when the news of his death came, as River had been such a vocal advocate of living a healthy lifestyle. His vegan diet and support for animal rights groups like PETA did not give any indication of his apparent recreational drug habit. He was cremated and his ashes remain in the care of his family.
Canceled Lives: Letters from the Inside (1993) (voice of himself)
Flea: Adventures in Spontaneous Jamming and Techniques (1993) (documentary host)
Silent Tongue (1993)
The Thing Called Love (1993)
Dark Blood (1993)
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993) (uncredited)
Teen Vid II (1991)
My Own Private Idaho (1991)
I Love You to Death (1990)
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Little Nikita (aka The Sleepers) (1988)
A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988)
Running on Empty (1988)
Circle of Violence: A Family Drama (1986) (TV)
The Mosquito Coast (1986)
Stand by Me (1986)
Surviving: A Family Crisis (1985) (TV)
Robert Kennedy & His Times (1985) (TV mini series)
Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia (1984) (TV)
Celebrity (1984) (TV mini series)
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1982) (TV)
Most biographical information was gleaned from http://www.river-phoenix.org/
Some information related to River's death comes from http://members.tripod.com/eternalRiver/bio.html
Filmography comes from the usual source.
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