This charismatic actor survived a bizarre childhood (was raised in a flaky cult, sent out to panhandle in the streets at age five) only to succumb to dark additions he fought to keep secret.
In the summer of 1968, a twenty-three-year-old secretary named Arlyn Sharon Dunetz decided to drop out of her workaday life to pursue a hippie dream. She returned from her Manhattan office one day and told her husband that she was leaving him to find a more meaningful life. Stuffing some clothes into a backpack, Arlyn took a few dollars of savings and left the Bronx to hitchhike to California. She met John Bottom when he picked her up in his battered VW bus on Santa Monica Boulevard.
“We talked and talked till early morning,” said Arlyn. “We just knew we had similar desires.”
Similar desires included an alternative to the materialistic world in which neither of them felt comfortable. Soon after, they fell in love and began wandering the West Coast, drifting from commune to commune.
John and Arlyn were eventually married in a hippie ceremony in 1969. One year later, on Sunday, August 23, 1970, River Jude Bottom came into the world. His parents named him River after the river of life in Hermann Hesse’s novel Siddhartha, and Jude, after their favorite Beatles song, “Hey Jude.”
In 1972, Arlyn and John turned from psychedelic drugs to the radical cult Children of God–which survives in Los Angeles under the new name, The Family. John and Arlyn and River were then given their new name of Phoenix.
As River reached his formative years, he accompanied his parents when they toured communes to recruit new members. He was a thoughtful little boy but already seemed guarded and withdrawn, not as animated as his playmates.
At four, in line with the teachings of Children of God founder, David Berg, River began to experience sex regularly with the other young people of the group in the nurseries at night. Years later, he would acknowledge losing his virginity as a young child.
“I’m glad I did it when I was young,” he said. “But I didn’t want those young different body parts that were in my face to make me perverse when I was older, so I blocked it all out. I was completely celibate from ten to fourteen. You’re just born into that reality, and you accept it.”
Former member Dr. Sam Ajamian, who now actively campaigns against the cult, says, “David Berg even encouraged his disciples to molest their own children. He believed that one of the best ways for kids to learn about sex was by having it with their own parents. There was a memorandum about this sent out. People were supposed to read it and burn it.”
In 1974, the Phoenixes were ordered to South America to work as traveling missionaries for the cult. The family moved to Caracas, Venezuela. River, then five, and his sister Rain, three, were coached by their parents to sing songs so they could panhandle on street corners to feed the family.
The children’s street performances were about the only positive aspect of the Phoenixes’ lives at that time. Poverty-stricken, they were living in deplorable conditions in Caracas, never knowing where their next meal would come from. “It was disgusting,” recalled River. “It was a shack. It had no toilet and was rat-infested.”
Arlyn and John were becoming disillusioned with the Children of God. The final straw was seeing pictures of a grinning Berg, in black robes and long beard, surrounded by beautiful nubile girls. Desperate and penniless, the Phoenixes moved into a hut on the beach outside Caracas. They were so poor that John and Arlyn often went without food so the children could eat.
On August 23, 1977, River spent his seventh birthday sitting in the filthy hut eating coconuts and mangoes that had fallen from the trees. “I was never frightened,” said River. “When you’re raised on the road, you don’t fear these things; you don’t question them.”
Help finally came in the form of a priest who arranged for the family to escape back to the United States on a freighter taking a shipment of Tonka toys to Florida. “We were stowaways,” said River. “The crew discovered us halfway home. My mom was pregnant.” The Phoenix family landed in Florida without personal possessions; there had been no time to pack them.
When the family arrived in the United States, at the end of 1978, they found themselves totally out of step with the world around them. River had never received any formal education or normal social conditioning. “When we arrived, we were very naïve and sheltered in many ways,” River would say. “And then suddenly we were exposed to all this information. It was like a brainstorm.”
The family moved in with Arlyn’s parents, who had recently retired to Winter Park, Florida. John Phoenix hated living on the goodwill of his in-laws and tried to get his family back on its feet by starting a landscaping business.
At his grandparents’ insistence, River was sent to a local school but had a difficult time being accepted by his new schoolmates; he was so different from everyone else. “When I was in first grade everyone made fun of my name, of course,” he said. “I think it’s kind of a big name to hold up when you’re nine years old. It seemed goofy. I used to tell people I wanted to change the world, and they used to think, ‘This kid’s really weird’.”
In 1979, John Phoenix was forced to give up physical work when an old back injury recurred and left him a semi-invalid. It was at this low point in their lives that Arlyn was forced to take control.
“We had the vision that our kids could captivate the world,” said Arlyn as she set out on a campaign to transform River and Rain into musical entertainers.
After the Phoenix family performed locally at the Hernando Fiesta, reviewer Gayle Guthman of the St. Petersburg Times wrote a profile of the hippie family of musical child prodigies. Arlyn was thrilled with it and sent a copy to her old Bronx school friend actress Penny Marshall. Although Marshall says she has no recollection of Arlyn, the letter did find its way to the casting department at Paramount Pictures.
A few weeks later, Arlyn received a form letter from Paramount, inviting the children for an interview if ever they happened to be in Hollywood. John and Arlyn loaded up their station wagon and headed to Hollywood.
When the Phoenix family arrived at Paramount for their audition, the studio seemed unimpressed and sent them on their way. “We were really naive,” said River. “I figured I’d play guitar and sing with my sister and we would be on television the next day.”
Arlyn took control of the situation by finding a secretarial job in the casting department of NBC-TV. The job turned out to be a perfect position for a would-be stage mother to find out where and when auditions were being held for TV commercials. Soon River was a regular at auditions.
Arlyn’s ambitious plans for her children took a giant step forward when she made an appointment to see Hollywood’s leading children’s agent, Iris Burton. Burton offered to sign River immediately. “River was the most beautiful child you’ve ever seen, like a little Elvis,” she said.
Burton quickly established River as one of the hottest young stars in the ad business. Then, abruptly, River suddenly announced he did not want to have anything more to do with commercials. They were “phony,” River explained. He didn’t believe in the products. And Burton, who had never encountered anything like the Phoenix family and their hippie idealism, was stunned by River’s decision, one which his parents fully supported.
In early 1982, River was called in to audition for a new CBS-TV series, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The show’s executive producer was so impressed by River’s talent as a singer and guitarist that he gave him the part of the youngest brother on the spot.
Delighted that River was to be a TV star, the Phoenix family moved to the northern California town of Murphy to be with River on location, but from the first day the family’s strict vegetarianism caused trouble on the set.
“There were conflicts around his family’s ideology.” recalled cast member Terri Treas. “His parents didn’t want River to wear leather, and when you’re doing a western, you have to wear cowboy boots made of leather. That wasn’t ideologically acceptable to them. It put River in a very uncomfortable position as a kid, but what could he do except obey his parents?”
CBS canceled Seven Brides for Seven Brothers after just twenty-two episodes. Yet again, the Phoenixes were flat broke. For the next few months, River and his father were back in the auditioning line. John Phoenix, relegated to a role of caretaker, increasingly turned to alcohol and marijuana to relieve his frustrations. With little money coming in, the pressures were mounting on River at each audition to get the part and keep the family afloat.
River’s hard work finally paid off when he was cast in Explorers, a big-budget science-fiction feature film about three young friends with very different personalities who build a spaceship out of junk. River played Wolfgang, who invented the spaceship. Ethan Hawke, in his first film role, played the dreamer Ben Crandall, and Jason Presson was the streetwise mechanic, Darren Woods.
Once on the set, River became fast friends with his costars and for the first time began socializing with other kids his own age outside the Phoenix clan. But from the beginning, River stood out on the set because of special meals brought in daily by his ever-watchful parents, who were always lurking in the background to monitor his work. John Phoenix agreed, however, to relax his restrictions on River wearing leather to make things easier for the wardrobe department.
Director Joe Dante says that although fourteen-year-old River was extremely bright, his lack of education and inexperience with life soon became apparent on the set. “There would be a lot of times when reference would be made to things River didn’t understand or know about,” said Dante. “Things that other kids might take for granted: commonly used words, historical events and figures, past presidents, famous writers, famous actors or singers. River didn’t have a lot of material knowledge of the world because of the way he had been brought up. The meaning of things often had to be explained to him, and it put him in a difficult position.”
For the first time in his life, River was challenged about his beliefs and would go on the defensive when he was forced into justifying them. “Ethan, who was a far more worldly boy, would often challenge River, and I don’t think he was used to that,” Dante explained. “He was suddenly confronted with a whole lifetime of thinking one way and finding out that it wasn’t the way the mainstream of the world thought.”
After the end of filming, River was upset to have to say good-bye to his costars. “River was weeping and crying when Ethan got on the bus to leave to go home to New Jersey,” remembers Dante. “He was brokenhearted. River was from a very tight-knit family, and I don’t think it was that simple for him to transfer his affections from one place to another. I think he genuinely felt liked in this group, and now it was all ending.”
Back home in Los Angeles, in the spring of 1985, Iris Burton wanted him to test for Stand by Me. River was one of three hundred young people director Rob Reiner had tested and the first actor to be cast.
Reiner says that he deliberately chose River to play the pivotal role of Chris Chambers, the boys’ leader and peacemaker, because he was so similar to the character in real life.
The two months of shooting Stand by Me would be special for River. The fourteen-year-old would not only catch up on some of the childhood fun he had missed out on during his years as a missionary but also start drinking beer and smoking cigarettes.
River smoked marijuana for the first time during the making of the film. Costar Corey Feldman remembers finding River getting high in his dressing room. “I went into his room, and I saw a joint, and he said, ‘Oh, it was someone else’s…’ I had been doing it too, but it was one of those things where we really didn’t want to let each other know what we were doing,” says Feldman.
The four boys, adolescent hormones raging, were also obsessed with sex and talked about little else. During the making of the film, River was smitten by an eighteen-year-old friend of his parents who offered to initiate him. He was delighted, but insisted that they first ask his parents for their blessing. John and Arlyn consented and decided to transform the event into a sort of family celebration and decorated a love tent in their backyard for the act to take place. “It was a beautiful experience,” remembered Arlyn many years later.
“A very strange experience” was how River would later describe the episode. “I got through that, thank goodness.”
The next day, River turned up on the set with a big grin, recounting his exploits to the other boys and anyone else who would listen.
The success of Stand by Me would change the Phoenix family’s lives forever, launching River into stardom and giving the family financial security for the first time. But coping with his newfound celebrity wasn’t easy. River had become recognizable wherever he went. His face turned up on the covers of teen magazines, and each day brought thousands of fan letters and requests for autographs. It was scary stuff for the shy, introverted fifteen-year-old.
“After Stand by Me came out, people were telling me, ‘You’re so good,’ ‘You’re going to be a star,’ and things like that,” recalled River. “You can’t think about it. If you take the wrong way you can get really high on yourself. People get so lost when that happens to them. They may think they have everything under control, but everything is really out of control. Their lives are totally in pieces.”
Arlyn used River’s earnings to establish a new stability for the family. On the advice of Iris Burton, the family incorporated as Phoenix in Flight Productions. Arlyn also hired Larry McHale as a housekeeper with special responsibilities to look after River and be his friend. Given the affectionate title of NANNY (New Age Non-Nuclear Youth), Larry handled everything from logistics to laundry. Arlyn also hired a young man, Ed Squires, to tutor the children at home. Since River had such difficulty reading and was so far behind other children his age, Squires decided that he was suffering from dyslexia. But Arlyn and John refused to believe anything was wrong and did not seek help.
Arlyn’s main priority was finding River’s next movie role, which would be the vital next rung in his career. There was no shortage of offers. It seemed that every producer in Hollywood was now beating a path to Iris Burton’s door with movie projects. But on Rob Reiner’s advice, they were holding back for the right opportunity.
While River’s mother carefully plotted his career, growing ever closer to Iris Burton, his father was withdrawing. River felt torn by Arlyn’s ambition for the future and John’s desire to keep his family dream intact by turning his back on worldly success. River had no real friends to confide in during this confusing period; he very much wanted to have companions his own age outside of the family. He started hanging out with his nanny, Larry, who began introducing him to his own friends around Los Angeles, many of whom were involved in drugs.
River was concealing his alcohol and drug experimentation from his parents. Since his earliest days in the Children of God, he had become something of an expert dissembler. It was during this time that River first developed a moral stand in interviews in which he spoke out against drugs, playing down any of his own involvement. “I’ve tried marijuana a few times, but I don’t like it,” he told People magazine just after his sixteenth birthday. “I get really boring on marijuana. It makes me dull.”
At the end of 1986, River Phoenix and his father traveled to the Central American jungle of Belize to make The Mosquito Coast.
During the long, grueling hours on the set, River became close to Harrison Ford, who took him under his wing and taught him lessons in acting technique that would prove invaluable in his later movies.
As River gravitated toward Harrison Ford as a strong father figure, John Phoenix was blaming himself for ever allowing River to go to Hollywood. He sensed that his son was slipping away from him. Living with River in a village near Belize City, John was always looking for ways to escape the set. He kept trying to persuade River to take a trip to Guatemala. The boy would patiently explain to his father that he could not be irresponsible.
According to set publicist Reid Rosefelt: “River would say, ‘Listen, Dad, I know I’m fifteen years old and I should have fun. But I have to do my scene tomorrow, and I have to learn my lines, and I have a responsibility to be on set and be rested.'”
While making the film, River started dating his fifteen-year-old costar, Martha Plimpton. They continued to see each other once the film was completed. From the beginning, River tried to convert his new girlfriend to his vegetarian way of life with his usual but charming flair for the dramatic.
Remembers Plimpton, “Once when we were fifteen, River and I went out for this 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 a pain that I was eating an animal, that he hadn’t impressed on me what was right. I loved him for that, for his dramatic desire that we share every belief, that I be with him all the way.”
At sixteen, River Phoenix faced a difficult professional transition. In just two years, he had grown four inches and dropped twenty pounds to become a bona fide teen movie idol with a rockstar following of young girls. Although he good-naturedly posed for beefcake shots and suffered through interviews, he only wanted to be accepted as a serious adult actor.
His roles in A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon and starring alongside Sidney Poitier in Little Nikita, River was tagged Hollywood’s hottest teenage property. He was also the breadwinner of the family, who were now living on a rented ranch outside San Diego. He felt tremendous pressure to continue working. “His parents saw him as their savior,” Plimpton says, “and treated him like their father.”
And John Phoenix’s crisis deepened as River became more popular. He felt that the family’s idealistic principles could not survive in the hard-nosed movie business. John urged River to leave Hollywood and use his money to start a new life. “My father is worried that we could be ruined by this business,” said River at the time. “It’s got a lot of pitfalls and temptations, and he doesn’t want us to become materialistic and lose all the values we were brought up believing in.”
Although he had once shied away from interviews, River began welcoming them as an opportunity for airing his family’s views and beliefs. His somewhat simplistic worldview branded River an environmental poster child. His clean-living eco-conscious image would become difficult to live up to and sustain.
In an interview with the Boston Globe, “The Utopian View of River Phoenix,” the seventeen-year-old actor sounded like a New Age politician:
“I’m quite in love with the human race and this planet that we live on,” River began. “I see life as very fresh and beautiful. People say to me, ‘Oh, you have the world in your hands,’ or ‘You’re young, and you have all these opportunities.’ But that’s not why I feel the way I do… I get very frustrated with the pace of my life–I want so badly for people just to understand each other and communicate better.”
River tried to balance his mission as family prophet with the temptations of Hollywood, but this conflict would eventually tear him apart. He became fearless in his pursuit of pleasure–it was against his nature ever to play it safe. River secretly began using cocaine regularly and experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs, such as peyote and psychedelic mushrooms.
“Achieving success gets complicated,” said River. “You find yourself hanging around with a different crowd. I probably would have shied away from it, but after a while you can’t help but get sucked in … all those parties and premieres and limos picking you up. And after a while, if you hang in with this little group, you lose your sense of reality completely.”
After finishing Running on Empty in August 1987, River decided to focus on finding a new family base away from Hollywood where he could melt into a community and live a “normal” life. In the fall, the Phoenix family moved to Gainesville, Florida, a college town with a strong music scene.
River immediately felt at home in Gainesville. At last he could lay down roots, find friends, and belong. Determined to be anonymous, River grew his hair into a long combed it over his face whenever he went out.
Once he settled in, River immediately persuaded L.A. friend Josh Greenbaum to move into his Gainesville house to help set up a band using the money from a development deal he had negotiated with Island Records. The deal provided funds for River to rehearse and record some demos with the goal of releasing an album on the Island label if the music was good enough. Rain offered to play keyboards and sing harmony. They decided to call the band Aleka’s Attic.
By June of 1988, the, expanded Phoenix tribe moved to a twenty-acre spread in Micanopy, twelve miles outside Gainesville. Known as “Camp Phoenix” to the locals, the house soon looked like a sixties commune. The house was ecologically correct–to save energy they turned on the hot-water heater only ten minutes a day before showers, declined to have a dryer, used only recycled paper products, and never threw anything away that could be reused.
In Micanopy, John Phoenix could devote himself full-time to cultivating an organic garden to help make the family self-sufficient. But he was far from content. He would get drunk and speak out about how Hollywood was corrupting his cherished dream. When Martha Plimpton came to stay that summer, she was shocked by the disharmony in the family. River was drinking heavily, as well as smoking marijuana, snorting cocaine, and tripping on psychedelic mushrooms. Troubled father and son had started drinking together in an attempt to strengthen their crumbling bond.
Several months later, Martha Plimpton decided to end her four-year relationship with River because, as she told Esquire magazine, she could no longer cope with his drugs and drinking. “When we split up, a lot of it was that I had learned that screaming, fighting, and begging weren’t going to change him. He had to change himself, and he didn’t want to yet.” The breakup with Plimpton was a huge shock to River. Without Martha, there was no one to rein him in.
Over the next few months, River drowned his sorrows in his music. Aleka’s Attic began playing every weekend around Gainesville and got a residency at the Hardback, a small no-frills punk-rock club with a never-ending supply of warm Guinness on tap. River seemed to like the dark recesses of the club, where he could hide with his friends and not be bothered by strangers.
In the fall of 1989, a Gainesville band named Mutley Chix hired a new singer/ saxophonist named Sue Solgot. The blonde, twenty-five-year-old had come to Gainesville to study fine-arts photography. Moving as she was in local musical circles, it was only a matter of time before Sue met River Phoenix. River introduced himself as “Rio” at a party, then denied being River Phoenix after a friend of Sue tried to unmask him.
“I’m not that guy,” claimed Phoenix. “I’m nothing like him.”
River and Sue found they had a lot in common, and soon they began dating. When River asked Sue to live with him, she readily agreed. He found a huge one-bedroom apartment in Gainesville’s most prestigious area. Their new home took up the entire first floor of a restored two-story house and was only a twenty-minute drive from the Phoenix family home in Micanopy.
Although River mostly stayed in town, he found himself supporting-members of the ever-growing Phoenix tribe. There were now more than a dozen people sheltered on the Micanopy spread. The actor’s self-sufficient friends resented these hangers-on and called them Klingons. They justified their existence by helping out as gardeners, secretaries, security personnel, and shoppers.
John Phoenix, now seeing his longtime fears for his family proved right, became so unhappy with life in Micanopy that River bought him a ranch in Costa Rica. From then on, John spent nearly all his time in the village of Montezuma running a bed-and-breakfast operation. From time to time, River, Rain, and Leaf would fly out with friends to spend time with their father. “The pressure was there to keep going, make more,” said John Phoenix. “Iris Burton said ten years ago that young actors were like pieces of meat and River was a filet mignon. It might sound harsh, but she was only telling the truth. As he got famous, the scripts poured in. Everyone wanted a piece of him. He was constantly under pressure to make more films, make more money.”
Arlyn Phoenix, who had changed her name to “Heart,” now divided her time between managing her children’s movie careers and attending environmental workshops. Ultimately, it was River who had to earn the money to pay for everything. He cheerfully bought a house for his grandparents in West Palm Beach, helping to support them in their retirement, and would always assist hard-up members of his father’s family when they were down on their luck. Increasingly, River Phoenix became a benefactor who gave but never asked for anything in return.
Keanu Reeves convinced River to take the part of Mike Waters in My Own Private Idaho. River was excited about doing Idaho, since he felt it could establish him as a serious actor and finally bury the teenage heartthrob image he so detested.
Five months before the cameras were set to roll, River and Keanu actually flew to Portland. “I think he pulled out all the stops to get into his role for Idaho. He found it so challenging that it took over his whole being. Maybe he just went a little too far.”
By November 1990, fresh-faced River Phoenix had all but disappeared. In his place was a pasty, sad-eyed, boy dressed in thrift-store clothes.
Once filming began, the cast and crew split into different social groups. Phoenix was the enthusiastic ringleader for the inner circle that liked partying and playing music. They were all living at Van Sant’s ten-room Tudor-style house on a hill overlooking Portland. At night, they would often get drunk and stoned in the garage and jam late into the night next to Van Sant’s collection of BMWs before falling asleep on the futons scattered throughout the house.
Even after everyone else had put down their instruments to go to sleep, River would carry on alone, playing in his favorite alcove until his fingertips bled.
When River Phoenix resurfaced after My Own Private Idaho, it became painfully obvious to his friends that something had gone wrong with the gifted actor. After living and breathing his character for six months, he couldn’t quite shake his new persona. River became increasingly temperamental and moody. He was veering out of control, fueled by the combination of cocaine and alcohol.
Since Phoenix had left Gainesville to do Idaho six months earlier, Aleka’s Attic had been put on hold. For the next four months, Phoenix mainly stayed on the West Coast, alternating between Los Angeles and Portland and leaving Sue Solgot behind in their Gainesville apartment.
The couple were now more often apart than together. Sue claimed that the separation was actually good for their relationship. “It sucks and it doesn’t suck,” she said at the time, “because it gives us space.”
Sue Solgot was concerned about River’s drug use. But when she would point out the conflict between his healthy public persona and his drinking and drugging, River would lose his temper. He thought he was invincible and often referred to his body as a horse. But in his more lucid moments, he would ask his girlfriend, “What would those twelve-year-old girls with a picture of me above their beds think if they knew?”
Sue Solgot saw River change dramatically during their relationship: “When we first met, he seemed really sweet and gentle. There was a lot of pressure on him. His childhood had been so different from other people’s that he had to catch up. He was always very responsible and serious as a child, and then when he got older, he started having more fun, partying more. It’s really complex, but he became more hassled, more worldly.”
In October 1991, River moved to Los Angeles to start preparing for Sneakers, a big-budget film starring Robert Redford. He braced himself for life in the fast lane, and to escape the mounting pressures of his career, he started using heroin.
The one person River would listen to was Sneakers costar Dan Aykroyd, who realized the young actor had a problem and took him in hand. After having seen his partner, John Belushi, overdose on a lethal speedball combination of heroin and cocaine, Aykroyd warned about the dangers, and River agreed to lay off heroin.
River found an instant rapport with Aykroyd, and they kept the rest of the cast entertained with their antics. One of River’s favorite tricks was to creep up behind Aykroyd and blow on his bald spot or playfully pinch the “love handles” around his waist.
“Just complete, absolute, total irreverence,” says Aykroyd. “And he could get away with it.”
By the summer of 1992, River’s relationship with Sue Solgot deteriorated as his escalating drug use came between them. Throughout their last year together, Sue constantly tried to get River to clean himself up, but he refused to admit that he had a problem. He alternated between going on drink-and-drug binges and being clean for days. In the middle of the night, when he felt lonely and depressed, River would frequently call Martha Plimpton to pour his heart out.
“He’d often be high when he called,” remembers Plimpton. “And I’d listen for twenty minutes to his jumbled, made-up words, his own logic, and not know what he was talking about. His language had become at times totally incoherent. He’d say, ‘You’re just not listening carefully enough.'”
Although he was battling alcoholism and cocaine addiction, River was always ready to help and support his friends when they were having substance problems. When he started regularly calling Bob Timmins, a drug counselor, it was never to ask for help for himself.
“He called me twice in the last couple of years to ask me to intervene with friends,” says Timmins. “And he made it passionately clear that he was committed with his time and money to making sure these people didn’t die. In one case he drove [a famous rock star] to a clinic in Arizona.”
When River arrived on set to start work on his next movie, The Thing Called Love, the effects of his drug use were unmistakable. His complexion was chalky, and his dirty brown hair fell limply over his dark-ringed eyes. River-who was being paid $1.5 million for the film-brought a chilling new intensity to his role of up-and-coming country singer James Wright. But for the first time, heavy drug use was making him lose his creative objectivity. Throughout the nine-week shoot outside Los Angeles, he fought Paramount Pictures executives for a say in every aspect of production.
Phoenix’s love interest in The Thing Called Love was young actress Samantha Mathis. “Samantha agreed to do the movie because River was in it,” says director Peter Bogdanovich. “She’d met him a couple of times, but she didn’t know him. He was crazy about her right away. He was anxious to have a lot of kissing scenes. He was saying, ‘In the lovemaking scene, can we really do it? Can you just put us in there and close the door and let us go?’ He was only half-kidding.”
To the amusement of the other actors and crew, a visibly shy and nervous Phoenix started to woo Mathis with a boyish clumsiness. Finally, the intense love scenes they were playing accelerated the real-life romantic drama. Phoenix made his move while they were doing a photo shoot together, and they soon became inseparable.
“Samantha was a leveling influence on River,” said Alan Moyle, who had been called in to rework the script. “She could be nothing but a good influence on anybody.”
But even if everyone else tried to ignore the telling signs that River was floundering, he could never fool the movie camera. When Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert saw River’s shambling performance the following year he called it “a painful experience for anyone who remembers him in good health.”
River spent Christmas of 1992 in Los Angeles and embarked on a drug binge, buying heroin and cocaine from his group of drug friends. Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea was so alarmed by River’s behavior that he urged his friend to get help. One morning, River staggered around to friend Bobby Bukowski’s Los Angeles home, stoned on a speedball cocktail of heroin and cocaine, and collapsed into unconsciousness. When he eventually awoke and tried to cleanse his system with one of his patented garlic-and-raw-veggies-and-serial-glasses-of-water meals, Bukowski staged an emotional intervention: “I’d rather you just point a gun at your head and pull the trigger. I want to see you become an old man, so we can be old friends together.”
Phoenix broke down in tears, swearing never to touch drugs again. “That’s the end of drugs,” he promised Bukowski. “I don’t want to go down to the place that’s so dark it’ll annihilate me.”
River was now in the grip of a serious depression, which was intensified by the drugs he was taking. It was becoming more difficult for him to break out of his moody spells. River’s truly happy moments took place only when he was acting. “That’s the only time I have security,” he said. “My self is a bum! My self is nothing! I’m a peon. I’m an idiot. I’m totally removed. I’m in the closet. I’m out of sight. You can’t touch me.”
On September 6, 1993, River Phoenix and Samantha Mathis flew to the remote village of Torrey, deep in the Utah desert, to start rehearsals for Dark Blood. Now almost unrecognizable with his newly shorn hair dyed black, River was delighted to be working with the English actor Jonathan Pryce, who had starred in his all-time favorite movie, Brazil. River had stayed completely sober since his birthday, two weeks earlier. Physically, he was feeling better than he had for years as he started work on the film.
From the first day of shooting, River’s rapport with costar Judy Davis was acrimonious at best. Then a chain of strange events took place that Phoenix saw as bad omens. Unseasonably heavy rains turned the set into a mud slide, with vehicles skidding out of control. Once director George Sluizer narrowly escaped with his life when his director’s chair slid off the edge of a high cliff only minutes after he had stood up.
“River said, ‘Somebody’s going to die on this film,'” recalls Jonathan Pryce. “We were on this kind of inexorable journey to some disaster. Every day there was some kind of difficulty. It just seemed as if something had to give.”
On Saturday, October 23, the production moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico. River strained his voice doing a scene in which he had to scream, and since he was not needed for the rest of the day, Sluizer let him fly back to Los Angeles early on Tuesday, one day ahead of the rest of the cast and crew. The production was to resume in Los Angeles on Saturday. Before he left, River went to say good-bye to his director.
“River told me, ‘I’m going back to the bad, bad town,'” remembers Sluizer. “There was something childlike about the way he said the word bad. I didn’t realize at that moment what he meant. I guess he felt he was going to dark places and that L.A. was a bad influence on him. Maybe he disliked the town for things that had happened to him there in the past and was afraid of it.”
River Phoenix and Samantha Mathis flew back to Los Angeles on Tuesday. After seven weeks cooped up in the desert with nothing to do, River was anxious to unwind. The heavy tension on the set had taken its toll: For the next three days, River numbed his pain with drugs.
On Saturday morning, River took Valium to put him in a fit condition to work. But when he reported to the studio, he looked worn out, as if he’d hardly slept.
The day’s shooting went off without a hitch. After leaving the Dark Blood set at about 7:00 p.m., River took the studio limousine back to his hotel suite, where Samantha Mathis was waiting for him. When he arrived at Room 328, there was a family reunion. Rain and Leaf had just flown in from Florida to audition for parts in John Boorman’s upcoming film Safe Passage, in which River had been cast.
An impromptu party began in the suite as the actor had a couple of drinks, smoked some marijuana, and snorted cocaine. It was Saturday night, Halloween Eve, and River planned to see his friends, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who were going to play an unannounced set at Johnny Depp’s new club, the Viper Room.
By the time the Phoenixes and Mathis arrived at the Viper Room just after midnight, the Halloween party was in full swing. The tiny room was packed with people in Halloween costumes. River and his party were given a table toward the back of the club. The actor was approached by drug dealers who offered him a taste of their wares. He disappeared into the men’s room with them. At 12:45 a.m., a musician friend offered River some high-grade heroin. “Try this, it’ll make you feel fabulous.”
As soon as River snorted it he started trembling and shaking in front of the sink. He screamed at his friend, “What did you give me? What the f** is in it?” After he vomited, someone tried to help him by splashing cold water over his face and giving him some Valium. As he staggered back to the long bar across from the stage, where Samantha and Rain were waiting for him, a loud stage jam had started with Johnny Depp, Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers, Flea, and Al Jourgensen of Ministry.
River complained that he couldn’t breathe and briefly passed out. When he came to, he asked Samantha to take him outside.
Samantha and Leaf helped River past the stage to the back door of the Viper Room, which opens directly onto Sunset Boulevard. As soon as they got him outside, he collapsed on the sidewalk. Just after 1:00 a.m., Phoenix went into a seizure under the canopy of the Viper Room, just four traffic lights down the road from the Chateau Marmont, where comedian John Belushi had overdosed from a heroin-and-cocaine speedball more than a decade earlier.
Celebrity photographer Ron Davis and his colleague, Miranda, were just finishing their regular late-night round of clubs when they saw River Phoenix collapsed on the sidewalk. They walked up to help and were standing directly over him trying to identify him.
As River came out of the first seizure, he saw Davis and Miranda towering over him, their four cameras hanging down from their shoulders. He looked up, appearing trapped and terrified that he would be captured on film for the whole world to see. He turned to Samantha and Leaf and gasped his last words: “No paparazzi. I want anonymity.” And sank back into unconsciousness.
As River went into a second seizure, his sister Rain suddenly came out of the club. When she saw him shaking uncontrollably, she threw herself on top of him. She tried to give her brother mouth-to-mouth resuscitation as he flailed on the ground. At the third seizure, Ron Davis, who never attempted to take a photograph, ran into Turner’s liquor store on the corner of Larabie and Sunset Boulevard and dialed 911. When he came out, he discovered that Leaf had also dialed for an ambulance at 1:10 a.m.
“My brother’s having seizures!” Leaf screamed into the phone, as his sister still lay over their brother and hysterical Samantha Mathis paced up and down the sidewalk where River was lying. “You must get over here, please. You must get over here, please,” he pleaded. When the dispatcher attempted to calm him down, telling him to “take it easy,” Leaf said, “Now I’m thinking he’s had Valium or something. You must get here, please, because he’s dying.”
After making his 911 call, Leaf put his arm around River and desperately started to try to reassure his elder brother that he was going to be all right.
“It was almost like his body was possessed,” said Ron Davis. “His legs and arms were all over the place, while his knuckles and the back of his head kept hitting the sidewalk hard.”
The seizures lasted fifteen to twenty seconds each, and after each one there would be a terrible silence. Davis found himself praying for the next seizure, because at least it would show that River was still alive. Finally, after eight minutes of seizures, which seemed an eternity, River lay still. Terrified that his brother had died, Leaf shouted, “He’s not breathing.”
By the time the paramedics arrived, at 1:14 A.M., River had gone into cardiac arrest with no signs of a pulse or blood pressure. Paramedics began to administer CPR and were told by someone at the scene that the actor had been “speed-balling.” Samantha, Rain, and Leaf would later deny any knowledge of River’s using drugs. Samantha claimed only that someone had given him Valium in the club to calm him down because he had been acting strangely.
By the time he arrived at Cedars-Sinai, River’s skin was dark blue, but his body was still warm. Emergency-room physicians battled for forty minutes to revive him, even inserting a pacemaker to stimulate his heart. But it was too late. At 1:51 on the morning of Halloween, River Phoenix was pronounced dead.