Even after more than 20 years have passed since the moment, the tragedy of River Phoenix’s premature death threatens to eclipse whatever legacy he made for himself while he was alive. It’s hard to remember his impact if you’re not a movie buff, but Phoenix showed all the telltale signs of being a one of Hollywood’s biggest talents, even when he was a child. And acting wasn’t even the full extent of his gifts. Here are 42 tragic facts about River Phoenix.
Phoenix was born on August 23, 1970 in Madras, Oregon. To be more specific, he was actually born in a log cabin. Given that he would describe his parents as being “hippieish,” we’re not that surprised!
Phoenix was born with the name River Jude Bottom. When his family moved back to the United States from Venezuela, they changed the family name to symbolize a new beginning for them. Fittingly, they named themselves after the mythological creature who’s most famous for dying and then coming back to life from its own ashes—just ask any Harry Potter fan.
River was the oldest of John Lee and Arlyn Phoenix’s five children. He had a younger brother (Joaquin), and three sisters (Summer, Liberty, and Rain). It’s safe to say that they would always have the most unique names in any room they were in.
Phoenix’s first feature film was the sci-fi Explorers. Interestingly, it was also the feature film debut of Phoenix’s co-star Ethan Hawke.
Two films released in the wake of Phoenix’s death were dedicated to his memory. One was Interview with a Vampire, which he’d been meant to co-star in before his untimely death. The other film was Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, which was directed by his friend and collaborator Gus Van Sant.
In addition to his dedication to Phoenix, Gus Van Sant also wrote a book about his former friend in 1997. Titled Pink, the book was a loose homage to Phoenix rather than a conventional biography. No doubt Phoenix would have liked that.
During his early childhood, Phoenix and his family lived in abject poverty. He and his sister would play music for money to supplement his family’s income.
Luckily for Phoenix, those gigs were what changed his life forever, for better or worse. Iris Burton, a talent agent, noticed Phoenix and three of his siblings performing music in Los Angeles, and took all four of them onto her roster. Sometimes the Hollywood story really does happen in real life!
Despite all his siblings turning to acting and music along with him, Phoenix only ever acted alongside any of them in the television series Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, back when they were still child actors. Following this collaboration, Phoenix never acted alongside any of his siblings again.
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Like the rest of his family, Phoenix was a passionate vegan. Not only was he a spokesperson for the organization PETA, but in 1992, they presented Phoenix with a Humanitarian Award to commend him for his fundraising on their behalf. Phoenix also wrote about the environment and donated great sums of money to environmental causes during his lifetime.
The great irony of Phoenix’s dedication to veganism and healthy living was the fact that he not only struggled with substance abuse but that he also smoked cigarettes. Filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich once recalled a moment where Phoenix warned him about the dangers of eating meat while smoking a cigarette. To Phoenix’s credit, he was at least self-aware.
According to Bogdanovich, Phoenix noticed him looking at the cigarette and simply said, “I know, man, I know.”
Phoenix reportedly hated flying, preferring to use the train or car to travel. This would occasionally come back to haunt him. When his film My Own Private Idaho premiered in New York City, Phoenix was unable to attend, as he didn’t have enough time to make his way there without flying.
Fans of the British panel show Qi will remember that in an episode from the J-series (they use letters rather than numbers for their seasons), the panelists participated in an activity wherein they shook hands with each other and revealed the names of famous people whose hands they’d shook in the past. When it came time for Qi host Stephen Fry, he revealed that he’d shook the hand of River Phoenix.
This happened more than 20 years after the film Peter’s Friends, where Fry’s character in the film reveals that he has a major crush on Phoenix.
Phoenix and his sister, Rain, would both make their acting debuts together on a television show called Fantasy. They sang together for it.
In 1987, Phoenix and Rain would take their musical collaboration beyond street performing and television appearances by forming a band of their own. Aleka’s Attic never released an official album, but they produced several singles, one of which appeared in the soundtrack of Phoenix’s film My Own Private Idaho.
Aleka’s Attic also performed on behalf of Bill Clinton, who was running for the presidency at the time. The band broke up in 1992, never having finished the album that they’d been working on.
Phoenix’s only Oscar-nominated role was Danny Pope in Running on Empty. Interestingly, at the time of the 1989 Academy Awards, Phoenix was shooting a film with Kevin Kline, who was also nominated in the Supporting Actor category for his role as Otto in A Fish Called Wanda. When Kline won, Phoenix was in attendance to cheer his co-star on.
In 1992, Canadian actor Dan Aykroyd co-founded the House of Blues, a chain of live concert halls and restaurants which began with a single establishment in Massachusetts’s Harvard Square. Phoenix, who had co-starred in Sneakers with Aykroyd, was reportedly a major investor behind the House of Blues, along with James Belushi (whose brother John had been one of the Blues Brothers alongside Aykroyd) and Aerosmith.
At the time of his death, Phoenix was set to play the role of the reporter in Neil Jordan’s Interview with a Vampire. Christian Slater replaced Phoenix and went on to donate his entire salary from that film to Phoenix’s favorite charities, in honor of the deceased film actor.
Phoenix acted in two films (Running on Empty and The Mosquito Coast) where his love interest was played by Martha Plimpton. The two of them had also been dating in real life during the production of those films, and would continue for years, until his substance abuse allegedly caused them to break things off.
Phoenix was very close friends with actor Keanu Reeves. The two co-starred in My Own Private Idaho and Love You to Death. Phoenix nearly missed out on being in the former film when his agent refused to tell him about it. Reeves was so eager to have his friend involved in the film that he drove his motorcycle from Canada down to Florida so he could personally give him the film treatment!
Reeves was busy filming the hit movie Speed when Phoenix died, and he took the loss of his friend very hard.
Incredibly, Phoenix never had any official schooling when he was growing up. In between the poverty of his youth and his career as a child actor, Phoenix never attended any educational institutions. While it was noted that he was able to read and write, screenwriter Naomi Foner described him as being “totally without education.”
Due to his incredible talent for playing emotionally vulnerable characters even as a young man, Phoenix was frequently compared to actor James Dean. According to Gus Van Sant, who directed Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho, several people made the compliment directly to Phoenix himself. For his part, Phoenix was courteous about the intended compliments, but also pointed out that he’d never even seen one of Dean’s films before. To be fair, there’s only three of them out there.
Phoenix was a fervent environmentalist, and he put his money where his mouth was. During his life, Phoenix bought up hundreds of acres of rainforest in Brazil and Costa Rica. He did so purely so that nobody else could touch them, allowing them to exist in peace.
It cannot be stressed enough that Phoenix was a committed vegan. According to actress Martha Plimpton, she only realized just how committed her then-boyfriend was to veganism when they went out together, and she drove him into a tearful depression when she ordered seafood for dinner.
While Gus Van Sant wrote and directed the majority of My Own Private Idaho, he was quick to point out that the iconic campfire scene had been completely rewritten and even partially directed by Phoenix. Van Sant had been open to improvisation, much to Phoenix’s delight, and he stepped back to allow his lead actor some control over how the scene would play out.
It was also the last scene filmed during the production, at Phoenix’s insistence.
As we’ve mentioned already, Phoenix was Oscar-nominated for his 1988 film Running on Empty. His brother Joaquin would later receive his first Oscar nomination for the 2000 film Gladiator. This marked the first time in the history of the Oscars that two brothers would both have acting nominations.
Speaking of Joaquin Phoenix, both he and his brother have been in movies where British thespian Richard Harris was their onscreen father. In River’s case, it was the film Silent Tongue. In Joaquin’s case, it was Gladiator. Given what happens in the latter film, something tells us that Harris might have preferred River as his son!
With Phoenix’s early death, three of his potential film roles went to Leonardo DiCaprio. The first was The Basketball Diaries, to which Phoenix had long been attached as the lead actor. Phoenix had also expressed a great interest in the film project which became Total Eclipse, about the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. Finally, Canadian director James Cameron had hoped to cast Phoenix in his ambitious film project Titanic.
What makes this especially bittersweet was that Phoenix was one of DiCaprio’s early inspirations when he was starting out in Hollywood, and he actually caught a glimpse of Phoenix on the day that he died. DiCaprio later explained that he didn’t get the chance to speak to Phoenix before he left for the Viper Room, and it was one of his regrets in life to have never been able to properly meet his idol.
Two of Phoenix’s sisters named children after their brother. Summer Phoenix named her son Indiana, in reference to the fact that Phoenix had played the young Indiana Jones long before Shia LaBeouf ever showed up. Meanwhile, Liberty Phoenix named her son Rio, which is Spanish for the word “river.”
One story which emerged about Phoenix’s death was the allegation that his last words were a rebuke to a reporter who bore witness to Phoenix’s last minutes alive. Phoenix supposedly declared “No paparazzi, I want anonymity.” However, as poignant as it might to some people, this story has never been authenticated as true.
In the early hours of October 31, 1993, Phoenix was in a Hollywood nightclub known as The Viper Room. Phoenix was in attendance with his sister Rain, his brother Joaquin, and his girlfriend Samantha Mathis. Performing onstage in the Viper Room were three of Phoenix’s friends; actor/musician Johnny Depp, Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers, and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
The revelry in the Viper Room was interrupted by an altercation between Phoenix and another man. Soon after the fight was broken up, Phoenix stumbled outside the club and collapsed on the sidewalk. As his brother Joaquin called 9-1-1, his sister Rain tried to resuscitate him. Inside the club, Flea stopped playing with the band and hurried outside to try and help his friend.
Sadly, all of their efforts were in vain. Phoenix was 23 years old when he died. An autopsy later determined the cause of death to be "acute multiple drug intoxication," which included the presence of cocaine and morphine.
Due to the shocking nature of Phoenix’s death, coupled with his high celebrity status, the media of the time had a field day, much to the outrage of Phoenix’s grieving family. Joaquin Phoenix’s 9-1-1 call was broadcast on several television stations, and when Phoenix’s body lay in its casket, someone broke into the funeral home and took a picture, which was then published in the National Enquirer.
According to director Rob Reiner, Phoenix reached a personal landmark while filming the movie Stand by Me. The teenage actor came to set one day after having spent the night with a friend. In between his big smile, and his shy admission to Reiner that “It finally happened,” it’s safe to guess what he was so cheerful about.
One of Phoenix’s most famous quotes on his line of work was that acting “is like a Halloween mask that you put on.” In a haunting coincidence, Phoenix died on the Halloween 1993. Another famous face in Hollywood also lost his life that same day. Film buffs will recognize the name Federico Fellini, an Italian filmmaker known for films like La Strada, 8½, and La Dolce Vita.
In yet another morbid coincidence, the day that Phoenix died happened to be the 43rd birthday of Canadian actor and comedian John Candy. It would be the last birthday which Candy lived to see, as he would die the following March.
At the time of his death, Phoenix was in the middle of starring in the neo-western film Dark Blood. At the time of his passing, only 80% of the film had been completed, and the unfinished project was shelved. However, the director managed to get his hands on the material again and cobbled together an uncompleted cut to be released.
He inserted himself into the film narrating the missing scenes that were never filmed. Dark Blood finally got a release in 2012, nearly 20 years after its star’s death.
Phoenix not only played the younger version of Harrison Ford’s character in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but he also portrayed the son of Ford’s character in The Mosquito Coast. This has only happened two other times in film history. In case you’re wondering the other two pairs ups are Bruno Kirby and Richard S. Castellano (The Godfather Part II and The Super) and Logan Lerman and Mel Gibson (What Women Want and The Patriot).
If you had to pick one scene from Phoenix’s acting career that stayed with you the most, many would likely pick the scene in Stand by Me where his character finally opens up to his best friend and has an emotional breakdown. When filming the scene, Phoenix was urged by director Rob Reiner to go into his own memories and channel his feelings of betrayal by adults in his life.
Phoenix not only knocked the scene out of the park, but he was unable to stop crying after the scene was cut and needed emotional assistance while on the set.
In 1973, Phoenix’s family moved to Venezuela to join the Christian cult known as Children of God. As with many cults, emphasis was increasingly placed on sex by the cult’s leader, David Berg. Phoenix’s parents eventually saw the writing on the wall and abandoned the Children of God to return to the US. Sadly, before this happened, Phoenix was allegedly sexually assaulted when he was just four years old.
Prior to his death, Phoenix had been without any personal scandals to his name. He was known chiefly as a young thespian, musician, and philanthropist. His struggles with drug addiction were’t known by anyone outside of his inner circle. Phoenix was said to resent his public image, and according to his then-girlfriend Samantha Mathis, he was talking about finishing his acting career with just one more film so that he would be able to put his sister through college.
Phoenix’s last film which was released before his death was a 1993 musical titled The Thing Called Love. Sadly, it was neither a triumph nor a positive experience for Phoenix. He disrupted production due to erratic behavior which he claimed was due to the fact that he’d recently broken up with girlfriend Suzanne Solgot. He then began a new relationship with his co-star Samantha Mathis.
Mathis was with Phoenix the night he died, although she remained mum on the subject for nearly 25 years after his death. In 2018 she broke her silence, saying that "I knew something was wrong that night, something I didn’t understand. I didn’t see anyone doing drugs but he was high in a way that made me feel uncomfortable[...]the heroin that killed him didn’t happen until he was in the Viper Room. I have my suspicions about what was going on, but I didn’t see anything."
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