A young, feisty boy aged 10, who was extremely gifted and embodied the perfect blend of intelligence and talent, should have ideally indulged in sport, but was in fact, egged on by his parents to pursue acting; a step that changed his life for the better, or worse. River Phoenix’s debut role in the film ‘Explorers’ not only won him the adulation from audiences, but also caught the attention of the media as a talented and promising newcomer in Hollywood. A plethora of films including ‘Stand by Me’, ‘The Mosquito Coast’ and ‘Running on Empty’ earned him widespread repute, which inspired him to experiment with roles and to take life head on. A firm animal-rights activist and an environmentalist, Phoenix penned the occasional song or two and was also a guitar fanatic. Along with his sister, Rain Phoenix, he wrote a number of songs for his band, ‘Aleka’s Attic’, but could never release them as his life tragically ended due to a drug overdose. This young boy, who had a humble beginning and had modest dreams, would have never believed that he would leave a lasting place in Hollywood with the few films he acted in. Not only did he leave his mark for his choice of roles, but he was also known in the film fraternity as a man with a ‘pure soul’ with extreme emotional vulnerability and attachment. Scroll further for more information on this interesting personality.
Childhood & Early Life
River Phoenix was born as River Jude Bottom, to John Lee Bottom and Arlyn Dunetz, in Madras, Oregon. He and his younger sister, Rain lived a bohemian lifestyle from a very young age, but soon, changed their way of life, when they joined the Children of God movement.
As a result of joining the movement, they travelled around the world to places like Texas, Puerto Rico and Venezuela and around this time, two more siblings were born, Joaquin and Liberty.
From a very young age, he learned to play the guitar and he would often perform on the streets with his sister in Venezuela, to earn some money. Soon, the parents became cynical with their children’s involvement in the religious group and soon left to the United States in 1978.
Once they got back, his parents persuaded him to get into acting and as a result, the family moved to California, where they hoped he would make it big. Both River and Rain signed a contract with NBC and acted in a couple of commercials before he landed his first major role for the sitcom, ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ in 1982.
He then continued to act in guest appearance roles in shows like ‘Hotel’, ‘Surviving’ and ‘Family Ties’.
He debuted with Ethan Hawke in the film ‘Explorers’ in 1985. His next film, ‘Stand By Me’, which released in 1986, became a major success, for which he earned positive reviews from both, the audience and the critics.
The same year, he starred as Harrison Ford’s son in ‘The Mosquito Coast’, which received lukewarm reviews at the box-office. In 1988, he appeared in a number of films including, ‘Little Nikita’, ‘Running on Empty’ and ‘A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon’. Although a couple of films did not fare very well at the box-office, he won his first and only Academy Award nomination for his work in the film.
He returned with another box-office hit in the film, ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’, directed by Steven Spielberg, in 1989. He then tried his hand with comedy in ‘I love you too Death’ in 1990.
In 1991, he became a little pickier with his choice of roles and appeared in ‘My Own Private Idaho’, where he played a male prostitute. He earned strong reviews for his role in the film and he proved to be equally successful with his role in ‘Dogfight’.
The following year, he acted in the thriller, ‘Sneakers’, which proved that he could hold together a strong ensemble cast with his talent. Around this time, he became an ardent environmentalist and supported humanitarian organizations like ‘Earth Trust’ and ‘Earth Save’.
In 1993, his inner passion for singing surfaced and he recorded a few tracks for his album with his sister, which was never released.
In 1993, he was finally able to use his musical and his acting talent with the film, ‘The Thing Called Love’. His last completed film in 1994 was ‘Silent Blood’, in which he starred alongside Alan Bates, Dermot Mulroney and Richard Harris. The same year, he started work on ‘Dark Blood’ with Judy Davis, but his life was sadly cut-short after one ill-fated night at a nightclub.
River Phoenix starred in ‘Stand by Me’, a coming-of-age film, in 1986, which proved to be a major breakthrough in his career. The film went on to become a huge box-office success and earned a number of illustrious honors. The film collected a total of $52, 287, 414.
He starred in ‘Running on Empty’ in 1988 and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for the same. The film was a commercial and critical box-office hit and although was rated as ‘one of the best films’ in the year of its release.
Awards & Achievements
He won the ‘Young Artist Award for Exceptional Performance By a Young Actor’ for ‘Explorers’ in 1985.
He won the ‘Best Actor’ honors at the Venice Film Festival, the National Society of Film Critics and the Independent Spirit Awards ceremonies.
He won the New York Film Critic Award for ‘Best Actor’ for the film, ‘My Own Private Idaho’ in 1991.
In 1992, he won the PETA Humanitarian Award in recognition of his activist services for animal rights.
Personal Life & Legacy
On October 30, 1993, he and his girlfriend, Samantha Mathis had gone to a popular nightclub, ‘The Viper Room’ and the couple were soon joined by his sisters, Rain and Joaquin.
As a cocaine abuser, he withdrew to the bathroom and took in a massive dose of cocaine, after which he collapsed outside the nightclub. When the paramedics arrived at the scene, they tried to resuscitate him. By the time they could take him to the hospital, he was declared dead in the early hours of October 31, 1993. He was only 23 at the time of his death.
The following day, a huge fan club and numerous mourners left flowers, candles, pictures and condolence messages at the scene of his death. He was cremated soon after and his ashes were scattered in Florida.
He left behind a string of unfinished Hollywood projects like, ‘Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles’ and ‘Milk’.
Just weeks before this actor’s death, he expressed his desire to star in the film ‘The Basketball Diaries’. The role was eventually given to Leonardo DiCaprio.