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We Lost River Phoenix Nearly 30 Years Ago, But His Death Continues to Haunt Hollywood

River Phoenix in a scene from the film 'Sneakers', 1992. (Photo by Universal Pictures/Getty Images)
River Phoenix in a scene from the film 'Sneakers', 1992. (Photo by Universal Pictures/Getty Images)

It has been 29 years since promising actor and musician River Phoenix died, but Hollywood has hardly forgotten the 23-year-old rising star. From family members to co-stars, a continual outpouring of love for the Stand By Me star has helped keep Phoenix’s legacy alive.

Michael J. Fox on River Phoenix

Just recently, Michael J. Fox remembered a moment he shared with Phoenix while filming an episode of Family Ties in 1985. “He really knew how to be an actor but he was struggling on this one scene,” Fox told PEOPLE.

Side by side images of River Phoenix and Michael J Fox
Left: River Phoenix in 1988. (Photo Credit: George Rose / Getty Images), Right: Michael J Fox in Doc Hollywood, 1991. (Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures / Zayne / MovieStillsDB)

“So I went up to him and I said, ‘What’s the problem?’ And he said, ‘I feel like a d—’… And I said, ‘Welcome to the business. That’s it. That’s the highest level of accomplishment you’ll get is to feel like a d—. It’s stupid. It’s a stupid thing to do for a living… But if you stick with it” Fox explained, “you can find a way to tell a story that other people can’t.”

Phoenix later returned the favor while Fox was filming Doc Hollywood in Florida in 1991. “River Phoenix and his brother [Joaquin Phoenix] had a place there, and River would take us out,” Fox shared. “He used to come and scoop us up and take us to his place and have a barbecue. It’s funny because that was an act of kindness that was built on an act of kindness.”

A difficult upbringing led to early success

River Phoenix was born in Oregon in 1970. As the eldest son of “hippyish” parents, River and his three younger siblings moved with their parents to Venezuala as members of the Children of God cult. The cult has been widely denounced for its sexual abuse and exploitation of children, something River himself experienced when he was just four years old.

Childhood photo of Joaquin and River Phoenix
American actors Joaquin and River Phoenix cooking at their home in Los Angeles, 1985. (Photo Credit: Dianna Whitley / Getty Images)

Eventually, the Phoenix family left Children of God and returned to the United States where talent agent Iris Burton scouted River, his brother Joaquin—who is a widely successful actor today—as well as sisters Summer and Rain who were singing for spare change in Los Angeles. Burton began representing all four siblings, landing River small roles in commercials and TV shows.

Still from Stand By Me
(L to R) Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell in Stand By Me. (Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures / GBatistaM / MovieStillsDB)

Phoenix skyrocketed to fame when he starred in the 1986 Rob Reiner film Stand By Me. 16-year-old River garnered glowing reviews for his powerful performance as Chris Chambers in the film, which The Washington Post said gave the film its “center of gravity.” Becoming a celebrated actor overnight was both a blessing and a curse for the teen, who would eventually turn to drugs to cope with the overwhelming experience of fame.

More than just a teen star

He was also far more than an actor. Phoenix was a talented singer, songwriter, and guitarist who taught himself how to play at a young age. He formed his band Aleka’s Attic (which included his sister Rain) in 1987. River also wrote and recorded music for several films he acted in. Besides music, Phoenix was also a passionate environmental activist.

River Phoenix with guitar
Photo of River Phoenix with guitar. (Photo Credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

A strict vegan (a lifestyle he began at the age of seven), River was a spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and donated a large sum of his income to support environmental organizations. He even purchased 800 acres of endangered rainforest in Costa Rica!

Phoenix eventually began abusing drugs and alcohol, though he was so worried that knowledge of his addictions could ruin his career that even his close friends were unaware of the extent of his issues.

Gone too soon

On October 31, 1993, Phoenix was escorted out of the infamous Viper Room nightclub in West Hollywood where he had spent the night partying with his friends and siblings Joaquin and Rain when he dropped to the ground and began convulsing. He was pronounced dead shortly afterward.

The entrance to The Viper Room with flowers after River Phoenix's death
The exterior of The Viper Room with flowers and candles at the spot where River Phoenix collapsed. (Photo Credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

In the days leading up to his death, River was reportedly on a drug binge. Heavily abusing cocaine and heroin, Phoenix and his friend/Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante had not slept in several days. The deadly concoction of the two street drugs ultimately led to his death, triggering an overdose and subsequent cardiac arrest. As Phoenix convulsed on the ground, his loved ones including his brother Joaquin Phoenix watched in horror.

Joaquin Phoenix on loss and his brother’s legacy

Joaquin has rarely given the world a glimpse into the overwhelming loss of his brother and role model, but during an acceptance speech after winning the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his rendition of comic book villain The Joker, Phoenix made a touching tribute to his older brother: “When he was 17, my brother wrote this lyric, ‘Run to the rescue with love, and peace will follow.'”

Joaquin and his partner Rooney Mara also share a son together who they named River. It’s not only River Phoenix’s name, but also his memory that continues to live on through his younger brother. Joaquin revealed how he carries on his brother’s legacy in his own work in a rare and candid interview with 60 Minutes:

“I feel like in virtually every movie that I made, there was a connection to River in some way and I think that we’ve all felt his presence and guidance in our lives in numerous ways.”

Elisabeth Edwards

Elisabeth Edwards is a public historian and history content writer. After completing her Master’s in Public History at Western University in Ontario, Canada Elisabeth has shared her passion for history as a researcher, interpreter, and volunteer at local heritage organizations.

She also helps make history fun and accessible with her podcast The Digital Dust Podcast, which covers topics on everything from art history to grad school.

In her spare time, you can find her camping, hiking, and exploring new places. Elisabeth is especially thrilled to share a love of history with readers who enjoy learning something new every day!

The Digital Dust Podcast