River Phoenix's death in 1993 was one of the most shocking Hollywood stories of the decade. The promising rising star was only 23 when he overdosed in front of the notorious Viper Room, then the hottest nightclub in Los Angeles.
River Phoenix was a Hollywood heartthrob and one of the most promising young actors. On October 31, 1993, his young life tragically ended after overdosing on cocaine and heroin, known as a speedball.
To the outside world, Phoenix was the epitome of a cool, conscious, and ultra-talented young man. He was vegan, ethically woke well before it became mainstream. But what the world did not know, or at least was unsure of, is that in the last two years of his life, River was struggling with drug abuse.
Despite River Phoenix's death, his legacy continued, and his siblings, including Joaquin Phoenix, continued to dazzle the world of art.
Growing Up In A Cult
Phoenix was born on August 23, 1970, in Madras, Oregon, and was the oldest out of five children.
Though River described his parents as "hippieish," when he was just a toddler, the parents joined Children of God, a cult started by a preacher David Berg that would later become infamous amid accusations of child abuse.
The family was struggling, and River would pick up a guitar while his sister would sing to get some money for necessities. Yet, one thing about River's childhood would shape him and influence the premature death of River Phoenix, an actor whose star shone the brightest in the sea of talented youngsters.
In 1991, River revealed that he lost his virginity when he was only four. He was raped in the cult, claiming he "blocked it out."
A year after the death of River Phoenix, Esquire magazine ran his quote about Children of God:
His brother Joaquim later said that River was joking because he was tired of the press asking the same question.
The family moved a lot and left the cult before 1980.
The mother, Heart Phoenix, said that "it took several years to get over our pain and loneliness" after leaving the group.
River's Rise To Stardom
In the early 80s, a talent agent spotted the Phoenix family and was charmed by River, Joaquin, and their sisters Summer and Rain.
River would soon start appearing in commercials, and with his sister Rain, he started performing in a show Real Kids.
In 1982 River was part of a short-lived TV show, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, then in 1984, he appeared in the movie Celebrity.
Though he never had any formal education, as the Phoenix children did not attend schools, his guitar and acting skills were impressive even before his teen years.
The movie Dyslexia gave young River critical praises, and by 1986, at just 16, the new star was born.
From then on until River Phoenix's death, he would continue a streak of hits earning him a massive fandom.
He started dating Martha Plimpton, and the couple stayed together for four years, ending the relationship in 1989.
Not all of his movies received critical praise, but people loved River's onscreen presence, which would cause him a lot of grief. Learning to distance from a character was more challenging than expected, but River lived every teenager's dream for the outsiders.
During his golden era, River stared in Stand by Me, alongside Richard Dreyfuss, John Cusack, and Corey Feldman.
In Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, his costars were Sean Connery and Harrison Ford.
In 1991, he would film perhaps the most recognized movie of his career, My Private Idaho. This Gus Van Sant's drama also rekindled River's friendship with Keanu Reeves, becoming inseparable.
He got in an Academy Award nomination in a Supporting Role for Running on Empty. For My Private Idaho, River won the Best Actor from the National Society of Film Critics as well as a Volpi Cup for Best Actor.
River Phoenix's Downward Spiral
At 21, River Phoenix had it all. At the same time, he started using drugs, though the director Gus Van Sant claimed that the young actor had a more significant issue with alcohol.
Phoenix tried to hide his addictions, fearing that it might influence his relationship with Suzanne Solgot, with whom he dated until January 1993.
When Suzanne met River, he pretended to be just a regular guy called Rio. The two lived together at Phoenix's ranch in Micanopy.
An animal rights activist and humanitarian never forgot his first love: music. He combined two passions at rallies and charity events, but River was already slipping into the darkness.
His previous girlfriend Martha Plimpton recalled:
"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 "vegan James Dean" drug abuse was not well recorded, as the actor did not show signs of slowing down. When he wasn't filming, he was playing music with his band, Aleka's Attic. The bend fell apart in 1992, but River was determined to continue a solo career.
Days Leading Up To River Phoenix's Death
Ethan Hawke once explained how at 14, while filming with Rivers, Phoenix was already a professional. Wil Wheaton, also his costar, stated that River was hyper-sensitive to everything, even saying that he felt the actor's pain, despite being a teenager on the rise to stardom.
The filming of Dark Blood, his final project, was particularly hard on River. For the first time, he played a villain and broke his rule not to appear on set high.
Days before the death of River Phoenix, the actor would spend hours sitting in his chair while on set, looking distant, and on his final day of filming, the director George Sluizer noticed something was off.
Sluizer described that River was unable to judge distances perfectly, and his walk was different. The director knew that River Phoenix was high, despite being sober for the previous two months of filming.
River was struggling with his addiction. Matt Ebert, his friend, said that he saw him during the filming, and River was in bad shape.
He was in a difficult movie while going through drug hell. It was his 14th film, and little did anyone know that it would be his last. The filming did not end due to River Phoenix's death.
River Phoenix's Death In Front Of The Viper Room
In 1993, Phoenix started dating Samantha Mathis, his costar from The Thing Called Love. She was among many famous people in the Viper Room, then owned by Johnny Depp, on the night of River Phoenix's death.
She also confirmed that Phoenix was a "sensitive" soul, telling TheGuardian that "he felt things on his heart very deeply."
On the night of his overdose, Phoenix's siblings, Joaquin and Rain, were also in LA's famous nightclub. Leonardo DiCaprio also spoke about the faithful night of River Phoenix's death. The star told Esquire in 2019:
"I grew up revering River Phoenix as the great actor of my generation, and all I ever wanted was to have just an opportunity to shake his hand."
DiCaprio was not in the Viper Room but saw River at some party the same evening. He explained that seeing him felt like "he disappeared in front of my very eyes, and the tragedy that I felt afterward of having lost this great influence for me and all of my friends."
Mathis recalled that night in 2018, saying:
"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."
Standing near his siblings, girlfriend, Flea and Johnny Depp, River took speedball, a lethal combination of heroin and cocaine.
The autopsy report found that River's blood contained an unbelievable eight times a lethal overdose.
Just before River Phoenix's death, he got in a fight, and the bouncer escorted him out. River began to have seizures on the pavement, and Joaquin was dialing 911.
His sister Rain tried to resuscitate River, but it was too late. The ambulance arrived, and River Phoenix, 23, was pronounced dead at 1:51 am on October 31, 1993.
The Aftermath Of River Phoenix's Death
Keanu Reeves loved his friend, calling him a "great mind, and great spirit." The two shared not only careers but their love and passion for music.
Depp tried not to say anything, but after decades of allegations that he served a fatal dose to River, he said in 2018:
"Imagine living with that."
The biggest impact of River Phoenix's death is felt in his younger brother's work. Joaquin said numerous times that his brother believed in him, adding:
"I feel like in virtually every movie that I made, there was a connection to River in some way."
Though Joaquin does not like to talk about the death of River Phoenix, as he was his brother, and the Joker actor was only 19 at the time, he did recently say:
"River was a really substantial actor, and we didn't really know it."
The death of River Phoenix shocked the world, but his mom Arlyn explained it perfectly:
"As River grew, he did become 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. When he wasn't a movie star, he was a missionary. There's a beauty in that – the man with the cause, the leader – but there's also deep loneliness."
Two weeks after his passing, River was supposed to star in Interview With The Vampire. His role went to Christian Slater.
River Phoenix's death is not unique, but it was tragic nevertheless. Young and talented, adored by millions, he left his mark and is remembered as a genuine, hard-working, empathetic person who handled fame the only way he knew how.