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River Phoenix
River Phoenix.png
Phoenix at the 61st Academy Awards, 1989
River Jude Bottom

(1970-08-23)August 23, 1970
DiedOctober 31, 1993(1993-10-31) (aged 23)
Cause of deathAcute combined drug intoxication
Resting placeCremated; ashes scattered at family ranch in Micanopy, Florida[1]
  • Actor
  • musician
  • activist
Years active1982–1993
Parent(s)Arlyn Phoenix
John Lee Bottom
RelativesRain Phoenix (sister)
Joaquin Phoenix (brother)
Liberty Phoenix (sister)
Summer Phoenix (sister)
Musical career
  • Vocals
  • guitar
Associated actsAleka's Attic

River Jude Phoenix ( Bottom; August 23, 1970 – October 31, 1993) was an American actor, musician, and activist.

Phoenix grew up in an itinerant family, as older brother of Rain Phoenix, Joaquin Phoenix, Liberty Phoenix, and Summer Phoenix. He had no formal schooling, but showed an instinctive talent for the guitar. He began his acting career at age 10 in television commercials.[2] He starred in the science fiction adventure film Explorers (1985) and had his first notable role in 1986's Stand by Me, a coming-of-age film based on the novella The Body by Stephen King. Phoenix made a transition into more adult-oriented roles with Running on Empty (1988), playing Danny Pope, the son of fugitive parents in a well-received performance that earned him a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (at age 18, he became the sixth-youngest nominee in the category), and My Own Private Idaho (1991), playing Michael Waters, a gay hustler in search of his estranged mother. For his performance in the latter, Phoenix garnered enormous praise and won a Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the 1991 Venice Film Festival as well as Independent Spirit Award for Best Male Lead and National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actor, becoming the second-youngest winner of the former.[3]

Phoenix died at the age of 23 from combined drug intoxication in West Hollywood in the early hours of Halloween, 1993, having overdosed on cocaine and heroin (a mixture commonly known as speedball) at The Viper Room.[4] At the time of his death, he was filming Dark Blood, which was released incomplete 19 years later, in 2012.

Early life

Phoenix was born on August 23, 1970 in Madras, Oregon, the first child of Arlyn Dunetz and John Lee Bottom.[5] Phoenix's parents named him after the river of life from the Hermann Hesse novel Siddhartha,[2] and he received his middle name from the Beatles' song "Hey Jude". In an interview with People, Phoenix described his parents as "hippieish".[5] His mother was born in New York to Jewish parents whose families had emigrated from Russia and Hungary.[6][7][8][9][10] His father was a lapsed Catholic from Fontana, California, of English, German, and French ancestry.[8] In 1968, Phoenix's mother travelled across the United States. While hitchhiking in California she met John Lee Bottom. They married on September 13, 1969, less than a year after meeting.

Phoenix's family moved cross country when he was very young. Phoenix has stated that they lived in a "desperate situation." Phoenix often played guitar while he and his sister sang on street corners for money and food to support their ever-growing family.[11] Phoenix never attended formal school. Screenwriter Naomi Foner later commented, "He was totally, totally without education. I mean, he could read and write, and he had an appetite for it, but he had no deep roots into any kind of sense of history or literature."[11] George Sluizer claimed Phoenix was dyslexic.[12]

Children of God

In 1973, the family joined the religious organization known as the Children of God.[13] His family settled in Caracas, Venezuela where the Children of God had stationed them to work as missionaries and fruit gatherers. According to Vanity Fair, Phoenix was raped at the age of four.[14] In an interview with Details magazine in November 1991, Phoenix stated he lost his virginity at age four while in the Children of God, but he'd "blocked it out".[15] Although Phoenix rarely talked about the cult, he was quoted in an article published in Esquire in 1994 as having said, "They're disgusting, they're ruining people's lives."[16] In 2019, his brother Joaquin would claim that River was joking, saying, "It was a complete and total joke. It was just fucking with the press. It was literally a joke, because he was so tired of being asked ridiculous questions by the press."[17] Arlyn and John eventually grew disillusioned with the "Church".

Acting career

1980–1985: Early work and acting background

Back in the United States, Arlyn began working as a secretary for an NBC broadcaster and John as an exteriors architect. Talent agent Iris Burton spotted River, Joaquin, and their sisters Summer and Rain singing for spare change in Westwood, Los Angeles, and was so charmed by the family that she soon represented the four siblings.[18]

Phoenix started doing commercials for Mitsubishi, Ocean Spray, and Saks Fifth Avenue, and soon afterward he and the other children were signed by Paramount Pictures casting director Penny Marshall. River and Rain were assigned immediately to a show called Real Kids as audience warm-up performers. In 1980, Phoenix began to fully pursue his career as an actor, making his first appearance on a TV show called Fantasy singing with his sister Rain.[19] In 1982, Phoenix was cast in the short-lived CBS television series, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, in which he starred as youngest brother Guthrie McFadden. Phoenix arrived at the auditions with his guitar and promptly burst into a convincing Elvis Presley impersonation, charming the show producer.[20] By this age, Phoenix was also an accomplished tap dancer.[11]

Almost a year after Seven Brides ended in 1983, Phoenix found a new role in the 1984 television movie Celebrity, in which he played the part of young Jeffie Crawford. Although only onscreen for about ten minutes, his character was central.[21] Less than a month after Celebrity came the ABC Afterschool Special: Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia. Phoenix starred as a young boy who discovers he has dyslexia. Joaquin starred in a small role alongside his brother. In September, the pilot episode of short-lived TV series It's Your Move aired. Phoenix was cast as Brian and only had one line of dialogue. He also starred as Robert Kennedy's son, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., in the TV movie Robert Kennedy and His Times. After his role in Dyslexia was critically acclaimed, Phoenix was almost immediately cast in a major role in made-for-TV movie Surviving: A Family in Crisis. He starred as Philip Brogan alongside Molly Ringwald and Heather O'Rourke. Halfway through the filming of Surviving, Iris Burton contacted him about a possible role in the film Explorers.[22]

In October 1984, Phoenix secured the role of geeky boy-scientist Wolfgang Müller in Joe Dante's big-budget science-fiction film Explorers alongside Ethan Hawke, and production began soon after. Released in the summer of 1985, this was Phoenix's first major motion picture role. In October 1986, Phoenix co-starred alongside Tuesday Weld and Geraldine Fitzgerald in the acclaimed CBS television movie Circle of Violence: A Family Drama, which told a story of domestic elder abuse. This was Phoenix's last television role before achieving film stardom.

1986–1993: Critical success in Stand by Me, Running on Empty, My Own Private Idaho

Phoenix and Martha Plimpton on the red carpet at the 61st Academy Awards, March 1989
Phoenix and Martha Plimpton on the red carpet at the 61st Academy Awards, March 1989

At 16, Phoenix had a significant role in Rob Reiner's popular coming-of-age film Stand by Me (1986), which made him a household name. Filming started on June 17, 1985, and ended in late August 1985, making River 14 for most (if not all) of the movie. The Washington Post opined that Phoenix gave the film its "centre of gravity".[11] Phoenix commented: "The truth is, I identified so much with the role of Chris Chambers that if I hadn't had my family to go back to after the shoot, I'd have probably had to see a psychiatrist."[23] Later that year Phoenix completed Peter Weir's The Mosquito Coast (1986), playing the son of Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren's characters. "He was obviously going to be a movie star," observed Weir. "It's something apart from acting ability. Laurence Olivier never had what River had."[11] During the five-month shoot in Belize, Phoenix began a romance with co-star Martha Plimpton, a relationship which continued in some form for many years.[11] Phoenix was surprised by the poor reception for the film, feeling more secure about his work in it than he had in Stand by Me.[23] Phoenix was next cast as the lead in the teen comedy-drama A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988), but was disappointed with his performance: "It didn't turn out the way I thought it would, and I put the blame on myself. I wanted to do a comedy, and it was definitely a stretch, but I'm not sure I was even the right person for the role."[23] In 1988, Phoenix starred in Little Nikita (1988) alongside Sidney Poitier. During this time, the Phoenix family continued to move on a regular basis, relocating over forty times by the time Phoenix was 18. Phoenix purchased his family a ranch in Micanopy, Florida, near Gainesville in 1987, in addition to a spread in Costa Rica.[24]

His sixth feature film was Sidney Lumet's Running on Empty (1988), for which 18-year-old River received National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actor and nominations for a Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award, becoming the sixth-youngest Academy Award nominee in the category.[25][26] Phoenix jumped to his feet during the ceremony when Kevin Kline beat him to the Oscar. "I had to stop River from running to hug Kevin," recalled his mother Arlyn. "It never crossed his mind that he hadn't won."[24] That year he also portrayed a young Indiana Jones in the box-office hit Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade directed by Steven Spielberg. In 1990, Phoenix was photographed by Bruce Weber for Vogue and was spokesperson for a campaign for Gap. In 1991, Phoenix filmed an acclaimed independent picture called Dogfight co-starring Lili Taylor and directed by Nancy Savoca. In the romantic coming-of-age drama set in San Francisco, Phoenix portrayed a young U.S. Marine on the night before he is shipped off to Vietnam in November 1963. Taylor remarked that Phoenix suffered because he could not distance himself from his character: "He also hadn't gotten into any [drugs] – he was just drinking then, too. It was different ... That was actually a hard part for him, because it was so radically different from who he was. He was such a hippie, and here he was playing this marine. It actually caused him a lot of discomfort. I don't think he enjoyed that, actually, getting into that psyche."[27]

River Phoenix's critically acclaimed performance as gay hustler Michael Waters in Gus Van Sant's 1991 film My Own Private Idaho helped bring queer cinema to a mainstream audience.
River Phoenix's critically acclaimed performance as gay hustler Michael Waters in Gus Van Sant's 1991 film My Own Private Idaho helped bring queer cinema to a mainstream audience.

Phoenix met actor Keanu Reeves while Reeves was filming Parenthood with Phoenix's brother, Joaquin and girlfriend, Martha Plimpton; however, Phoenix had reportedly auditioned for Bill in Reeves' then-current film Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure before the role was taken by Alex Winter.[28][29] The two starred together for the first time (along with Kevin Kline, Tracey Ullman and Joan Plowright) in 1990's I Love You to Death and again in Gus Van Sant's avant-garde film My Own Private Idaho. In his review for Newsweek, David Ansen praised Phoenix's performance: "The campfire scene in which Mike awkwardly declares his unrequited love for Scott is a marvel of delicacy. In this, and every scene, Phoenix immerses himself so deeply inside his character you almost forget you've seen him before: it's a stunningly sensitive performance, poignant and comic at once".

For his role in My Own Private Idaho, River Phoenix won Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the 1991 Venice Film Festival. In addition, 21-year-old Phoenix received Independent Spirit Award for Best Male Lead and National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actor, becoming the second-youngest winner of the former.[3]

The film and its success solidified Phoenix's image as an actor with edgy, leading man potential. In that period Phoenix was beginning to use marijuana, cocaine and heroin with some friends.[5][30]

In the book Gus Van Sant wrote about Phoenix, Pink, the director said clearly that Phoenix was not a regular drug user but only an occasional one, and that the actor had a more serious problem with alcohol. Phoenix had always tried to hide his addictions because he feared that they might ruin his career as they did his relationship with Martha Plimpton.

Phoenix teamed up with Robert Redford and again with Sidney Poitier for the conspiracy/espionage thriller Sneakers (1992). A month later he began production on Sam Shepard's art-house ghost western Silent Tongue (which was released in 1994); he also was beaten out for the role of Paul by Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It. He made a cameo appearance in Van Sant's Even Cowgirls get the Blues (1993), co-starring his sister Rain. Phoenix then starred in Peter Bogdanovich's country music-themed film, The Thing Called Love (1993), the last completed picture before his death. Phoenix began a relationship with co-star Samantha Mathis on the set.


Phoenix (middle) with Aleka's Attic.
Phoenix (middle) with Aleka's Attic.
Phoenix in 1991 playing with Aleka's Attic at The Cubby Bear.
Phoenix in 1991 playing with Aleka's Attic at The Cubby Bear.

Although Phoenix's movie career was generating most of the income for his family, it has been stated by close friends and relatives that his true passion was music. Phoenix was a singer, songwriter, and accomplished guitarist. He had begun teaching himself guitar at age five and had stated in an interview for E! in 1988 that his family's move to Los Angeles when he was nine was so that he and his sister "could become recording artists. I fell into commercials for financial reasons and acting became an attractive concept". Before securing an acting agent, Phoenix and his siblings tried to forge a career in music by playing cover versions on the streets of the Westwood district of LA, often being moved along by police because gathering crowds would obstruct the sidewalk. From the first fruits of his film success, Phoenix saved $650 to obtain his prized possession: a guitar with which he wrote what he described as "progressive, ethereal folk-rock".[23]

While working on A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon in 1986, Phoenix had written and recorded a song, "Heart to Get", specifically for the end credits of the movie. 20th Century Fox cut it from the completed film, but director William Richert put it back into place for his director's cut some years later. It was during filming that Phoenix met Chris Blackwell of Island Records; this meeting would later secure Phoenix a two-year development deal with the label. Phoenix disliked the idea of being a solo artist and relished collaboration; therefore he focused on putting together a band. Aleka's Attic were formed in 1987 and the lineup included his sister Rain.[31]

Phoenix was committed to gaining credibility by his own merit and maintained that the band would not use his name when securing performances that were not benefits for charitable organizations. Phoenix's first release was "Across the Way", co-written with bandmate Josh McKay, which was released in 1989 on a benefit album for PETA titled Tame Yourself.[32] In 1991, Phoenix wrote and recorded a spoken word piece called "Curi Curi" for Milton Nascimento's album TXAI.[33] Also in 1991, the Aleka's Attic track "Too Many Colors" was used in the film My Own Private Idaho, which included Phoenix in a starring role.

Aleka's Attic disbanded in 1992, but Phoenix continued writing and performing. While working on the film The Thing Called Love in 1993, Phoenix wrote and recorded the song "Lone Star State of Mine", which he performs in the movie. The song was not included on the film's soundtrack album. In 1996, the Aleka's Attic track "Note to a Friend" was released on the 1996 benefit album In Defense of Animals; Volume II and featured Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers on bass. Phoenix had collaborated with friend John Frusciante after his first departure from Red Hot Chili Peppers and the songs "Height Down" and "Well I've Been" were released on Frusciante's second solo album Smile from the Streets You Hold in 1997. Phoenix was an investor in the original House of Blues (founded by his good friend and Sneakers co-star Dan Aykroyd) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which opened its doors to the public after serving a group of homeless people on Thanksgiving Day 1992.[34]

Personal life

During the filming of the 1986 film The Mosquito Coast, Phoenix began a romance with his co-star Martha Plimpton. They dated from February 1986 to June 1989, also co-starring in the 1988 film Running on Empty. The relationship ended due to his drug use. Plimpton stated, "When we split up, a lot of it was that I had learned that screaming, fighting, and begging wasn't going to change him. He had to change himself, and he didn't want to yet." The two however, maintained a close friendship throughout the remainder of his life.[35]

For the last year of his life, in 1993, he dated his The Thing Called Love co-star Samantha Mathis. Mathis was with Phoenix and his siblings Rain and Joaquin at The Viper Room nightclub on the night he overdosed.[36]


Phoenix was a dedicated animal rights, environmental and political activist. He was a prominent spokesperson for PETA and won their Humanitarian Award in 1992 for his fund-raising efforts.[37] In 1990, Phoenix wrote an environmental awareness essay about Earth Day targeted at his young fan base, which was printed in Seventeen magazine. Phoenix was a vegan from the age of seven.[38] His first girlfriend Martha Plimpton recalled: "Once when we were fifteen, River and I went out for a fancy dinner in Manhattan, and I ordered soft-shell crabs. He left the restaurant and walked around on Park Avenue, crying. I went out and he said, 'I love you so much, why? ... ' He had such pain that I was eating an animal, that he hadn't impressed on me what was right."[24] He financially aided a great many environmental and humanitarian organizations, and bought 800 acres (320 ha) of endangered rainforest in Costa Rica.[39] As well as giving speeches at rallies for various groups, Phoenix and his band often played environmental benefits for well-known charities as well as local ones in the Gainesville, Florida area. He campaigned for Bill Clinton in the 1992 US presidential election.[40]


The Viper Room on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, where Phoenix collapsed on the sidewalk and died
The Viper Room on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, where Phoenix collapsed on the sidewalk and died

In late October 1993, Phoenix had returned to Los Angeles, only there for one day, after flying back from one week in New Mexico and before that six to seven weeks in Utah to complete the three weeks of interior shots left on his last project, Dark Blood,[41][a] a film that was finally completed in 2012.[45]

Musician (and future drug counselor) Bob Forrest, a good friend of Phoenix, in his 2013 memoir Running with Monsters, gave one of the more detailed accounts of Phoenix's final days and the moments leading up to his death. On the evening of October 30, 1993, Phoenix was to perform with the band P, which at the time featured his good friends Flea and John Frusciante from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, actor Johnny Depp, Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers, and Al Jourgensen of Ministry at The Viper Room, a Hollywood nightclub partly owned at the time by Depp.[30] Forrest claims that Phoenix and Frusciante arrived at the club together, where they would meet with Phoenix's girlfriend Samantha Mathis, Phoenix's brother Joaquin, and their sister Rain, along with Flea and Depp. After they arrived, cocaine was immediately passed around. Forrest later said that Phoenix was obviously already high and was, as he put it, "unsteady as a boxer who had taken one too many head-shots during a fifteen-round bout."

During the performance by P, Forrest said that Phoenix tapped him on the shoulder to tell him he was not feeling well and that he thought he had overdosed. Forrest said to Phoenix that he did not think that he was overdosing because he could stand and talk. Nonetheless, he offered to take Phoenix home, but Phoenix declined, saying he was feeling better. A few moments later, Forrest said that a commotion erupted in the club and he went outside to find Mathis screaming as her boyfriend was lying on the sidewalk having convulsions. Joaquin called 911, but was unable to determine whether Phoenix was breathing. His sister Rain proceeded to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.[46]

When the ambulance arrived, Phoenix was still alive and Flea went with him to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. When Forrest arrived at the hospital, he saw Mathis standing in the hallway crying.[47] Further attempts to resuscitate Phoenix at the hospital were unsuccessful. He was pronounced dead at 1:51 a.m. PST on the morning of October 31, 1993, at the age of 23. At the time, Phoenix's father was also angry at Frusciante over his son's death and in an interview stated: "If I find him, I'm going to kill him. He's very rich and very young, 23 like River, but he's a terrible addict who's become a pusher..." The family never pressed charges against anyone for their son's death.[48][49]

In 2018, Samantha Mathis said that she and Phoenix had originally only intended to drop off Phoenix's siblings at the Viper Room on the way to her house, but Phoenix decided to stay for a while after he was asked to perform with the band. She insisted that during their time dating she had known him to be sober, but "In the days before he died, though, I knew something was going on...I didn't see anyone doing drugs [that night] but he was high in a way that made me feel uncomfortable."[50] She added that "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." Mathis went to the bathroom, and on her way back to the table, saw Phoenix apparently engaged in a scuffle with another person. The bouncers removed both men from the club. Mathis shouted at the other man, "What have you done? What are you on?", only to be told by another person, "Leave him alone, you're spoiling his high." By that point, according to her account, Phoenix had fallen to the ground and begun to convulse.[51]

According to Gibby Haynes, the band was performing their song "Michael Stipe" while Phoenix was outside the venue having seizures on the sidewalk.[52] When the news filtered through the club, Flea left the stage and rushed outside. By that time, paramedics had arrived on the scene and found Phoenix turning cyanotic, in full cardiac arrest and in asystole. They administered medication in an attempt to restart his heart.

The following day, the club became a makeshift shrine, with fans and mourners leaving flowers, pictures and candles on the sidewalk, as well as graffiti messages on the walls of the venue.[53] A sign was placed in the window that read, "With much respect and love to River and his family, The Viper Room is temporarily closed. Our heartfelt condolences to all his family, friends and loved ones. He will be missed."[54] The club remained closed for a week. Depp continued to close the club every year on October 31 until selling his share in 2004.[55]

Before his death, Phoenix's image—one he bemoaned in interviews—had been squeaky-clean, owing in part to his public dedication to his various social, political, humanitarian, and dietary interests that were not always popular in the 1980s. As a result, his death elicited a vast amount of coverage from the media.[56] Phoenix was described by one writer as "the vegan James Dean," and comparisons were made regarding the youth and sudden deaths of both actors.[57]

The November 15, 1993 autopsy found that "Toxicology studies showed high concentrations of morphine and cocaine in the blood, as well as other substances in smaller concentrations." The cause of death was "acute multiple drug intoxication", including cocaine and morphine.[58]

On November 24, 1993, Arlyn (who later changed her name to Heart) Phoenix published an open letter in the Los Angeles Times on her son's life and death. It read, in part:

His friends, co-workers and the rest of our family know that River was not a regular drug user. He lived at home in Florida with us and was almost never a part of the "club scene" in Los Angeles. He had just arrived in L.A. from the pristine beauty and quietness of Utah where he was filming for six weeks. We feel that the excitement and energy of the Halloween nightclub and party scene were way beyond his usual experience and control. How many other beautiful young souls, who remain anonymous to us, have died by using drugs recreationally? It is my prayer that River's leaving in this way will focus the attention of the world on how painfully the spirits of his generation are being worn down.[59] River made such a big impression during his life on Earth. He found his voice and found his place. And even River, who had the whole world at his fingertips to listen, felt deep frustration that no one heard. What is it going to take? Chernobyl wasn't enough. Exxon Valdez wasn't enough. A bloody war over oil wasn't enough. If River's passing opens our global heart, then I say, thanks dear, beloved son, for yet another gift to all of us.[59]

Phoenix was cremated in Gainesville, Florida, at Milam Funeral Home. Following his death, his sister Rain took over all of River's music recordings and writings.

Unreleased and unfilmed projects

River's sudden death prevented him from playing various roles:


Every year on October 31, fans pay tribute to the life of the actor. His famous quote "Acting is like a Halloween mask that you put on." is frequently mentioned by fans on social media.[71] Other actors who have credited Phoenix as a major influence as well as paving the way for them include Leonardo DiCaprio,[72] Jared Leto,[73] James Franco,[74] and many more.[75]

During his acceptance speech for Best Actor at the 92nd Academy Awards, Joaquin Phoenix honored his brother by stating "When he was 17, my brother [River] wrote this lyric. He said: 'run to the rescue with love and peace will follow.'"[76] Joaquin and partner Rooney Mara named their son, River, after him.[77]

In culture and media

Phoenix's status as a teen idol and promising young actor, and his subsequent premature death, made him a frequent subject in popular culture media. He first gained references in music with Brazilian singer Milton Nascimento writing the song "River Phoenix: Letter to a Young Actor" about him after having seen Phoenix in The Mosquito Coast (1986). The song appears on the 1989 release Miltons.[78]

Phoenix's friends, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, wrote a few lines for him in their hit song "Give It Away" from the 1991 album Blood Sugar Sex Magik: "There's a River born to be a giver, keep you warm won't let you shiver, his heart is never gonna wither ..." Phoenix also appears in the music video for their song, "Breaking the Girl" and following his death, the band paid tribute to him with the song "Transcending" (originally titled "River") on their 1995 album, One Hot Minute. Red Hot Chili Peppers' guitarist, John Frusciante, dedicated the song "Smile From The Streets You Hold" to River Phoenix. Frusciante wrote the first part of the song about their friendship while Phoenix was still alive. After Phoenix's death, Frusciante wrote the second part in his memory.

Phoenix has been the subject of numerous other tributes in song and other media. The band R.E.M. dedicated their album Monster to Phoenix (as Michael Stipe and Phoenix were close friends), and their song "E-Bow the Letter" from 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi is said to have been written from a letter Michael Stipe wrote to Phoenix but never sent because of the actor's death. River Phoenix is referenced in the song "Sacred Life" from the eponymous album by the British band The Cult: "River Phoenix was so young, Don't you know your prince has gone?"

Ex-10000 Maniacs singer Natalie Merchant wrote and recorded a controversial song, simply named "River", featured on her 1995 solo album Tigerlily (Elektra). While she deplores this death of a "Young & strong Hollywood son" who was "one of ours", she criticizes strongly the excesses of the people's "vulture's candor" and the media's greedy attention to the event and adds: "Why don't you let him be ... /Give his father & his mother peace", as well as: "It's only a tragedy", ending with the real question behind it: "How could we save him / From himself?"

Musician Sam Phillips has the dedication "For River" on her album Martinis & Bikinis. Other songs inspired by Phoenix include Dana Lyons' "Song For River Phoenix (If I Had Known)", Grant Lee Buffalo's "Halloween",× Ellis Paul's song "River", found on his 1994 release Stories,[79] Rufus Wainwright's "Matinee Idol", Nada Surf's "River Phoenix", Stereophonics's "Chris Chambers", Jux County's "River Phoenix", and Santa Cruz's "River Phoenix" and "River Phoenix (Part 2)".

In her 1996 album Woman & a Man, Belinda Carlisle referenced River in the song "California". The song opens and closes with the line "I remember I was in a tanning salon, when I heard that River Phoenix was gone." In Jay-Z's album, Kingdom Come, the lyrics of "Hollywood" list him as one of the many fatalities of the pressures of Hollywood. New York band Japanther featured a song on their album Skuffed Up My Huffy (2008) entitled "River Phoenix", which is about certain events in his life and delivers the chorus "River Phoenix didn't mean it". In the song "The Viper Room", Wesley Willis takes an abrupt turn from an otherwise glowing account of the club by noting Phoenix's death, stating that he "...collapsed and died like a Doberman." On his 2013 album Not Thinking Straight, British recording artist Matt Fishel referenced Phoenix in the song "When Boy Meets Boy". Its lyrics portray a bedroom in which the walls are "covered in posters of idols and rock stars who had died too young" and the song's third verse contains the line "I paid tribute with a little wink to River Phoenix hanging on the wall".[80] In the song's accompanying music video, an animated poster of Phoenix hangs on a wall next to Jimi Hendrix, Freddie Mercury and Kurt Cobain.[81]

Gus Van Sant, with whom Phoenix worked in the film My Own Private Idaho, dedicated his 1994 movie Even Cowgirls Get the Blues as well as his 1997 novel Pink to him. Experimental Santa Cruz filmmaker Cam Archer also produced a documentary called Drowning River Phoenix as part of his American Fame series.[82] During performances on November 13[83] and November 15, 1993,[84] and February 12, 1994,[85] and one of Nirvana's last US shows in Seattle on January 7, 1994,[86] frontman Kurt Cobain dedicated the song "Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sunbeam" to Phoenix (among other celebrities who died young), just a few months before Cobain's death. Tom Petty dedicated "Ballad of Easy Rider" to Phoenix when he played in his and Phoenix's hometown of Gainesville, Florida in November 1993.

The British band Manic Street Preachers mentions Phoenix in their song "Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart" (from the album The Holy Bible, 1994) in the following line: "...I'm thinking right now of Hollywood tragedy; Big Mac; smack; Phoenix, R; please smile y'all ..." Phoenix was the subject of a controversial song by Australian group TISM titled "(He'll Never Be An) Ol' Man River" the single originally featured a mock-up of Phoenix's tombstone as its cover art in 1995. The chorus features the line, "I'm on the drug that killed River Phoenix."[87] On the song "Love Me, Hate Me" by rapper Ja Rule, he numerates different ways he could die as a celebrity, and one of the lyrics says "I might OD in a club off drugs like River Phoenix". In the 1997 musical, The Fix, Phoenix is alluded to in the song "Mistress of Deception" in the lines, "Hot young actor died last night at an L.A. club/Ecstasy and booze/And too much NyQuil/Had the sweetest face/Warm and shy and innocent/Sexy in that careless kinda way/The newsman said his heart just stopped like that ..." The Hugh Cornwell song "Rain on the River" from his 2009 album Hooverdam is directly about the death of Phoenix, as his sister Rain sits over her dying brother on the sidewalk outside The Viper Room.[88]

A lesser known reference to River Phoenix was Final Fantasy VIII's main protagonist Squall Leonhart. Tetsuya Nomura, the lead character designer for the game, stated he modeled Squall on River's visage during development, and even gave Squall the same birthdate.[89] The scene of Phoenix's death also merits several mentions in William Gibson's book Spook Country.[90]

The song "River, Run" by the band Suddenly, Tammy! from their record We Get There When We Do was written about him.

Rapper Tyler, the Creator references Phoenix in his 2017's Flower Boy, perceived by some critics as a kind of coming out album,[91][92] as a sex symbol. In the song "I Ain't Got Time", he writes in the first verses "Boy, I need a Kleenex. How I got this far? Boy, I can't believe it. That I got this car, so I take the scenic. Passenger a white boy, look like River Phoenix".

In July 2020, it was reported that Phoenix heavily influenced the forthcoming novel by English novelist Guy Mankowski, Dead Rock Stars, in which a character is named after him.[93]

Honors and rankings

Phoenix has been ranked numerous times on a number of lists recognizing his talent and career. He was listed as one of twelve "Promising New Actors of 1986" in "John Willis' Screen World" (2004). Phoenix was voted at No. 64 on a "Greatest Movie Stars of All Time" poll by Channel 4 television in the UK. The poll was made up wholly of votes from prominent figures of the acting and directing communities. He was ranked No. 86 in Empire magazine's "The Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time" list in 1997.

His life and death has been the subject of an E! True Hollywood Story, an A&E Biography and an episode of Final 24, which contains a dramatic reconstruction of his final hours and death. He was also referred to as "This century's James Dean" in episode 10 ("Mi Casa, Su Casa Loma") of the first season of Being Erica. His death was listed as No. 16 in the top 101 events in E! Television's "101 Most Shocking Moments in Entertainment". In 2010, Phoenix was voted by GQ magazine as one of the "50 Most Stylish Men of the Past Half Century".



Year Title Role Notes
1985 Explorers Wolfgang Müller Nominated – Young Artist Award for Exceptional Performance by a Young Actor – Motion Picture
1986 Stand by Me Chris Chambers Jackie Coogan Award shared with Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman and Jerry O'Connell
The Mosquito Coast Charlie Fox Nominated – Young Artist Award for Best Young Male Superstar in Motion Pictures
1988 A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon Jimmy Reardon
Little Nikita Jeff Grant
Running on Empty Danny Pope National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actor

Nominated – Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor
Nominated – Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor - Motion Picture

1989 Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Young Indiana Jones
1990 I Love You to Death Devo Nod
1991 Dogfight Eddie Birdlace
My Own Private Idaho Michael "Mikey" Waters Independent Spirit Award for Best Male Lead
National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actor
Volpi Cup for Best Actor
Nominated – New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor (2nd place)
1992 Sneakers Carl Arbogast
1993 The Thing Called Love James Wright
1994 Silent Tongue Talbot Roe Posthumous release
2012 Dark Blood Boy Posthumous release, (final film role) - filmed in 1993


Year Title Role Notes
1982–1983 Seven Brides for Seven Brothers Guthrie McFadden 21 episodes
Young Artist Award for Best Young Actor in a Drama Series 1984
Nominated – Young Artist Award for Best Young Actor in a New Television Series 1982
1984 Celebrity Jeffie Crawford (Age 11) Miniseries
ABC Afterschool Special Brian Ellsworth Episode: "Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia"
Nominated – Young Artist Award for Best Young Actor in a Family Film Made for Television shared with Joaquin Phoenix
It's Your Move Brian Episode: "Pilot"
Hotel Kevin Episode: "Transitions"
1985 Robert Kennedy & His Times Robert Kennedy, Jr. (Part 3) Miniseries
Family Ties Eugene Forbes Episode: "My Tutor"
Surviving: A Family in Crisis Philip Brogan Television film
Young Artist Award for Best Young Actor Starring in a Television Special or Mini-Series
1986 Circle of Violence: A Family Drama Chris Benfield Television film

Music videos

Year Title Artist Role
1986 "Stand by Me" Ben E. King Himself
1992 "Breaking the Girl" Red Hot Chili Peppers Himself

See also


  1. ^ Rob Brunner of Entertainment Weekly reported that 11 days of interior shooting in Los Angeles remained on Dark Blood,[42] which producer JoAnne Sellar said would take three weeks.[43] According to director George Sluizer, the cast had two days off while construction work on the interior sets was completed.[44] Sellar said Phoenix died the night of the first day of shooting.[43]


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  • Holmstrom, John. The Moving Picture Boy: An International Encyclopaedia from 1895 to 1995. Norwich, Michael Russell, 1996, p. 380-381.

Further reading

External links

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