20 Facts About the Sadly-Missed River Phoenix
River Phoenix was one of the most promising young actors of his generation. He had a genuine talent and was able to own the screen whenever he was on it, putting genuine emotion into his acting and being believable in each role he took on.
Phoenix starred in some very popular and lasting movies, including Stand by Me, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and My Own Private Idaho.
Sadly, Phoenix passed away far too young and so we lost an incredibly promising star. Here are some facts about Phoenix you may not have known.
20. His original surname wasn’t Phoenix
River Phoenix was born in Madras, Oregon, in August 1970 and was named River Jude Bottom.
Phoenix was born in a log cabin the forest, and his early arrival came as quite a surprise to his unsuspecting parents.
He was named after the river of life from the Hermann Hesse novel Siddhartha.
His middle name was inspired by Hey Jude, the classic song by The Beatles.
In 1977, the family moved and changed their surname to Phoenix.
19. All four of his siblings have become actors
River was the eldest of his five siblings, and clearly acting was in the blood.
He was brother to Rain Phoenix, Joaquin Phoenix, Liberty Phoenix and Summer Phoenix, all of whom have had some involvement in the entertainment industry.
Joaquin Phoenix (who began his career under the stage name Leaf, in homage to the nature-oriented names of his siblings) is one of the most prominent actors around at the moment, having recently starred in Joker.
His sister, Summer, is also an actress, as well as a major figure in the fashion industry.
The siblings’ mother, commonly known as Heart Phoenix, is a social activist, and works alongside various charitable causes.
18. He grew up in a cult
Many of us have turbulent childhoods, but it seems the Phoenix family took this to the extreme.
When Phoenix was just three years old, the family joined a controversial Christian new religious movement known as The Children of God.
Many years later, the dark truth behind the cult (in which actress Rose McGowan was also raised) has been revealed, and the group has since gained notoriety.
The group encouraged incest and paedophilia, although Phoenix remained relatively tight-lipped about that period of his life.
He did later reveal that he had been assaulted at the age of just four, and subsequently tried to ‘block out’ the experience.
17. He taught himself how to play guitar when he was five
As well as being a very talented actor, Phoenix had a passion for music.
He learnt to play guitar at an early age, teaching himself when he was just five years old.
As a child, Phoenix would regularly perform on the streets of LA alongside his sister Rain.
From the fruits of his success, he saved up enough money to buy a $650 guitar, which became his most treasured possession.
In his later years Phoenix would play in a number of bands, most notably with Rain in Aleka’s Attic, whose debut album was left unfinished after his death.
16. He was a lifelong vegan
Phoenix was a lifelong vegan, and was also a member of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).
He was a dedicated animal rights activist and environmentalist, passionate about caring for the world around him.
For Earth Day in 1990, Phoenix wrote an essay which was printed in Seventeen, targeting his young fan base.
He gave financial support to many environmental and humanitarian organisations, and bought 800 acres of endangered rainforest in Costa Rica.
Phoenix was firm in his stance on animal welfare, believing that no animal should die for the sake of human tastebuds.
15. He got his TV break alongside Joaquin
River was 12 when he landed his first acting role in 1982 TV series Seven Brides For Seven Brothers.
An adaptation of the famous 1952 musical of the same name, the show was headlined by future MacGyver and Stargate leading man Richard Dean Anderson.
Phoenix would appear in all 22 episodes of the show,
River’s brother Joaquin (then known as Leaf) and sister Liberty would also make their screen debuts in one episode of the series.
This would be one of only two screen credits for Liberty Phoenix, who went on to work in music and midwifery before opening her own eco-friendly store in Florida in 2007.
14. He only made 13 films in his lifetime
As he died so young, it’s sadly unsurprising that Phoenix didn’t leave too long a list of film credits on his CV.
His first film role came in Joe Dante’s 1985 fantasy adventure Explorers, which was also the film debut of Ethan Hawke.
Next came Rob Reiner’s acclaimed Stephen King adaptation Stand by Me, which announced Phoenix as the most gifted and charismatic actor of his generation.
Soon after that he took roles in The Mosquito Coast, A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon, Little Nikita and Running on Empty.
By the the start of the 1990s, Phoenix was firmly established as a Generation X icon.
13. He was supposed to play the Christian Slater role in Interview with the Vampire
Phoenix was poised to appear alongside Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in the big budget movie version of Anne Rice’s novel Interview with the Vampire, playing the role of the interviewer, Daniel Molloy.
Phoenix’s scenes on the film from director Neil Jordan had been scheduled to shoot just two weeks after his death in October 1993.
After this devastating blow, the part was given to Christian Slater, who clearly had some big shoes to fill.
In honour of the late actor, Slater donated his entire $250,000 fee for the film to two of Phoenix’s favourite charities, Earth Save and Earth Trust.
The film also has a dedication to Phoenix at the end of the credits.
12. Harrison Ford personally recommended Phoenix play the young Indiana Jones
After he played Harrison Ford’s son in 1986’s The Mosquito Coast, Ford personally recommended River Phoenix for the role of young Indy in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Ford was adamant that out of all the actors the producers had considered, it was Phoenix who looked most like himself at a young age.
Ford was proven right, as even though he only appears in the first 11 minutes of Last Crusade, Phoenix steals the whole movie with his uncanny impersonation of the elder actor.
This role made Phoenix one of only three actors who had played both the son and the younger version of the same actor in separate films.
The others were Bruno Kirby, who played Richard S. Castellano’s son in The Super and a younger version of Castellano’s character in The Godfather Part II, and Logan Lerman, who played Mel Gibson’s son in The Patriot and his younger self in What Women Want.
11. Nirvana, REM and The Red Hot Chilli Peppers all wrote songs dedicated to Phoenix
Since his untimely death, Phoenix has been recognised by several major rock stars in their work.
The Red Hot Chilli Peppers – whose bassist Flea was a close friend of the actor, and present at the time of his death – dedicated their song Transcending to his memory, and originally entitled it ‘River’.
There is also a reference to Phoenix in the Manic Street Preachers track, ‘Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart’, with the line ‘I’m thinking right now of Hollywood tragedy; Big Mack; smack; Phoenix, R; please smile y’all.
Kurt Cobain of Nirvana also dedicated the song Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam to the late star, as well as other celebrities who had met tragically young demises.
10. River and Joaquin share an on-screen dad
As well as playing both the son and younger incarnation of Harrison Ford, River Phoenix also shared a screen father with his brother Joaquin.
Both the Phoenix brothers starred in films in which they played the son of a character played by Richard Harris.
River played Harris’ son in Silent Tongue, in which his character is driven mad by the death of his wife.
Seven years later, in 2000, Joaquin Phoenix starred as Commodus, son of Harris’ Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, in multi-Oscar winning hit Gladiator.
Coincidentally, this role for the younger Phoenix set another rare accolade for the family…
9. The Phoenix brothers were the first Oscar-nominated siblings
1988’s Running on Empty was a big turning point for River Phoenix, landing him his first – and only – Academy Award nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category, when he was only 17.
Ultimately, he lost out to Kevin Kline for A Fish Called Wanda – with whom Phoenix was working at the time, on I Love You To Death.
Twelve years later, his brother Joaquin would be nominated in the same category for Gladiator, marking the first time two siblings had been nominated for an Oscar.
The younger Phoenix would also miss out on the award, but he’s since had two Best Actor nominations for Walk The Line and The Master – and there’s plenty of buzz surrounding his recent turn in Joker.
Since then, the Afflecks have become the first fraternal Oscar winners, Ben Affleck winning Best Screenplay for Good Will Hunting and Casey Affleck winning Best Actor for Manchester By The Sea.
8. His final film wasn’t finished until 2012
Interview with the Vampire was not the only film affected by Phoenix’s untimely passing, as the actor had been in production on drama Dark Blood at the time of his death.
With filming on the thriller 80% complete, the project was ultimately abandoned, and remained unseen for 19 years.
In 2012, Dark Blood’s director George Sluizer premiered a cut of the film at the Netherlands Film Festival, which was finally released on DVD in 2018.
Dark Blood was ultimately met with a muted response, and had reportedly been a very troubled production even before the death of its young star.
Phoenix’s co-star Jonathan Pryce said in 2013 that he would not watch the film, because “making that movie was one of the most horrendous experiences of my life,” even though he loved working with Phoenix.
7. He missed the My Own Private Idaho premiere because of his fear of flying
Director Gus Van Sant’s 1991 film My Own Private Idaho, which cast Phoenix alongside Keanu Reeves, proved to be one of his definitive roles.
However, Phoenix was not present at the film’s premiere in New York, reportedly due to his fear of flying.
Phoenix preferred to travel by car, but didn’t have enough time to make it across the country that way.
As a result, he sadly missed what would have been a major event in his career.
River’s brother Joaquin has also struggled with a fear of flying, amongst other anxieties.
6. Keanu Reeves was one of his closest friends
After working together on I Love You To Death in 1990, River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves became the best of friends.
Reeves even had a key role to play in getting Phoenix cast in My Own Private Idaho, their second and last collaboration.
Phoenix’s agent had refused to let him know about the project, so Reeves motorcycled from Canada to Florida to give his friend the script in person.
Reeves was in production on Speed when Phoenix passed away, and was devastated at the loss of his friend.
Reeves has avoided directly talking about Phoenix in the press, but this was the first of many personal losses the future John Wick actor has suffered.
5. Leonardo DiCaprio took roles in Titanic and The Basketball Diaries meant for Phoenix
Leonardo DiCaprio was an up-and-coming 18-year-old actor when Phoenix died, and has cited the late actor as a major inspiration.
As well as being similar to Phoenix in looks, DiCaprio wound up starring in a number of films that had originally been developed with Phoenix in mind.
DiCaprio’s roles in The Basketball Diaries, Total Eclipse and most notably Titanic had all been earmarked for Phoenix early on.
DiCaprio has also claimed that he had actually seen Phoenix at a Hollywood party, on what would be the last night of his life.
The future Best Actor Oscar-winner said it was as if Phoenix “disappeared in front of my very eyes,” and DiCaprio was struck by the sense of “tragedy that I felt afterward of having lost this great influence for me and all of my friends.”
4. Phoenix died in Johnny Depp’s Hollywood nightclub
Part of what made Phoenix’s death such a headline-grabbing story was the sensational setting in which he died, with many celebrities present.
The actor died on Halloween night 1993 at The Viper Room, a Hollywood club owned by Phoenix’s fellow Gen-X superstar Johnny Depp.
Depp was performing on stage that night, playing guitar alongside Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, who had co-starred with Phoenix and Reeves in My Own Private Idaho.
Phoenix’s siblings Joaquin and Rain and his girlfriend Samantha Mathis were also there, and did all they could to help when he collapsed outside.
Phoenix died shortly afterwards, the autopsy ruling his death the result of multiple drug intoxication.
3. A photographer broke into the funeral home to get a picture of Phoenix’s body
A media feeding frenzy followed Phoenix’s death, and certain press outlets were cut-throat in their handling of the story.
TV news got hold of a recording of Joaquin Phoenix’s 911 call, which was broadcast on a number of television channels.
Also, a photographer broke into the funeral home where Phoenix’s body was being kept, in order to get a photo.
This photograph wound up being published by the National Enquirer.
It has long been rumoured that Phoenix’s last words were “no paparazzi, I want anonymity,” but this has never been verified.
2. He was planning early retirement when he died
In what may be an even more tragic footnote to an already very sad story, Phoenix – who had always been uncomfortable with his celebrity status – may have been planning to leave Hollywood behind.
As the eldest child in a family with an unreliable father, Phoenix took on a lot of familial responsibility – and that may have been where his future lay.
Samantha Mathis (who co-starred with Phoenix in his last completed film, The Thing Called Love) revealed in 2018 that the actor had been considering walking away.
Mathis says, “River said to me in that last year: ‘I just have to make one more movie to put away enough money so my youngest sister can go to college.’”
The actress notes, “I don’t know if that was true, but I remember him saying that.”
1. His name lives on
Phoenix left behind a legacy, both among strangers and with those who loved him.
So much so that Phoenix’s family members decided to use his name in his honour, naming their children after him.
Two of Phoenix’s nephews have been named after him, the first being his sister Liberty’s son, Rio Everest Phoenix, with Rio being the Spanish translation of River.
Summer Phoenix’s son, Indiana Affleck, is named after his character in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
In total, the late actor has four nephews and one niece, all of whom were born after his death.