The Film Career and Life of River Phoenix

Films and Life of River Phoenix

The old saying goes “only the good die young” and in show business, it’s all too true. Hollywood has swallowed so many young lives over the years due to its adult oriented lifestyle that lures in inexperienced, impressionable eyes. Actor Corey Feldman, goes into detail on his life in the Hollywood limelight as a teenager in his memoir, Coreyography. He recounts the debauchery and antics he went through when he was barely old enough to drive a car.


The Phoenix family were no exception. The well-known clan of talented performers were headed by the eldest sibling, River.

Regretably, River succumed to his addictions and passed away when he was arguably at the height of his career. He was young, good looking, and was loaded with talent. What led to his downfall? Well, for every end, there’s also a beginning.


River Phoenix was born on August 23, 1970 to flower child parents in a log cabin in Madras Oregon, a town a little over 100 miles from Portland. While his parents were still hippies, River himself insisted on a clean way of living. At an early age, his family were devoted to the controversial religion, Children of God, an extremist Christian group led by cult leader, David Berg. The sect was rampant with teachings of sexual abuse and pedophilia which garnered them worldwide infamy. Soon, he would be joined by his siblings. All of which would wind up becoming actors or actresses: Liberty, Summer, Rain, and three-time Academy Award nominee, Joaquin (formerly Leaf).

After thankfully breaking away from Children of God, River originally embarked on a music career, busking on the streets of Los Angeles with his family and friends. He really devoted his time to the craft but then began another profession: acting. He completed various commercials before getting his first big on-screen break in 1985 with the sci-fi picture, Explorers, co-starring Ethan Hawke.


Already a teenager, the very next year, he embarked on his most noteworthy role, as a rebellious, adventure seeking adolescent in Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me. I briefly discussed it previously in the Corey Feldman article but this one of the best coming-of-age films out there. The cast is excellent and Phoenix knocks it right out of the park.


Although his film career had taken off at this point, he eventually returned to music and formed the band, Aleka’s Attic (whose t-shirt River would be wearing during his viewing) and desperately tried to make it as a recording artist.

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As he got older, he tackled more mature roles which resulted in an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for Running On Empty. In the film, River portrays a teenager who tries to break away from his criminal family. At the age of 18, Phoenix is one of the youngest males in history to be nominated for an Academy Award.


He gained further exposure for his role of young Indiana Jones in the series’ third entry, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He teamed with Gus Van Sant in 1991 in My Own Private Idaho, a story about two gay male prostitutes who search for more meaning in their lives while trying to get by. He was able to co-star with his real life good friend, Keanu Reeves which added authenticity to their on-screen relationship and Van Sant’s interesting directing style helped guide the flick in a way that seemed more like an artist rendering hanging at the MET. It received mostly positive reviews. It looked as though River was carving out a nice little niche for himself in young Hollywood.


In addition to acting and music, River was a vehement supporter of PETA and often appeared in ads promoting animal safety. He also was a strict vegan and refused to wear any clothing made from animals. His activism painted him in an even more positive light and his image would never have you believe he was harboring personal demons.

On October 30th in 1993, River was attending a concert at the Viper Room, a Los Angeles club which at the time was co-owned by Johnny Depp. The venue became known for patrons regularly using drugs in the restrooms and unfortunately, this night was no different. Phoenix was using that night and this time, he wouldn’t recover. After complaining about not feeling well, River was taken outside for some air but suddenly began to have seizures. Once he was discovered convulsing on the sidewalk, his brother, Joaquin, called the police. In a heartbreaking phone call, Joaquin cries out about his brother’s unresponsive state to the authorities. Phoenix was immediately rushed to the hospital and was pronounced dead the next morning at the age of 23. His official cause of death was an acute drug intoxication including cocaine and morphine. I actually do remember the news stories reporting River’s death at the time. I was only seven but I recall very vividly a lot of the news channels talking about it even though I wasn’t a heavy film viewer at the time nor did I know who River Phoenix really was. I guess you could say it was the first real celebrity death that I heard about and I’ll always remember that and have a connection to it. The aftermath of his death was equally as disturbing when a horrifying photograph of him lying dead in his casket (Use Google) was disrespectfully sold to various tabloids. I remember seeing the picture in a copy of Star that my mother bought sometime in the late 90s and the image stuck with me for years. The picture was reportedly snapped by a paparazzi who broke into the funeral home the night before his service. River would eventually be cremated.

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At the time of Phoenix’s death, he was working a on a film entitled Dark Blood, a grisly tale of a widowed man who takes a young couple hostage, eventually obsessing over the woman. It was mostly completed before his passing but it would be 19 years before it was released, finally reaching the public in 2012.

He was also set to assume the role of Daniel Malloy in 1994’s Interview with the Vampire. The part eventually went to Christian Slater who graciously donated part of his earnings to River’s favorite charities.

In addition to Leonardo DiCaprio and Keanu Reeves, Phoenix was good friends with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He actually arrived at the Viper Room the night he died with the group’s former guitarist, John Frusciante. Their bassist, Flea was performing that night and ran outside when he heard that Phoenix was overdosing. The song Transcending from their album, One Hot Minute, was written in tribute to him. Frusciante composed his own tribute for his friend with the track Smile With The Streets You Hold.

R.E.M. dedicated their record, Monster, to Phoenix.

Pop-punk act, Fenix TX (most famous for their 2000 single, All My Fault) were originally called Riverfenix. After a court battle with the Phoenix family, they eventually changed their name.


What could have become of River Phoenix? With a career that mirrored the late James Dean, would he have been a larger than life A-lister or an indie darling? Despite the tragedy, the Phoenix name doesn’t look to be dying anytime soon as Joaquin has carried the legacy over the past two decades with numerous memorable performances on-screen.


Written by Matthew Reine

is a New Yorker with a strong passion for film and television. Also the biggest Keanu Reeves fan you know.

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