Newsweek, 15/11/1993, P.53

The Sad and Sudden Death of an Innocent

by Jeff Giles with Charles Fleming, L.A.

Actor River Phoenix, an original spirit, dies at 23.

Nobody wanted to be called "The next James Dean". For years Hollywood has tried pinning the label on the back of every handsome young star caught in the act of brooding. The actors themselves groaned under the weight of the comparison, but the movie world couldn t stop hoping for the return of the prodigal son. Be careful what you wish for. At approximately 1 a.m. on oct. 31, River Phoenix went into convulsions on the sidewalk outside a L.A. nightclub called the Viper Room. The actor was rushed to Cedars Sinai and was pronounced dead about an hour later -dead at 23 of noone knows what.

Phoenix's autopsy was inconclusive, and coroner s office is still awaiting toxicology report. Meanwhile, the media have pounced on the panicky call that River s brother Leaf made to 911: "I m thinking he had Valium or something.". Newspaper resorts have suggested that the "or something" may be GHB, a synthetic steroid substitute that dissolves in water, speeds up the body s metabolism, produces feelings of euphoria -and occasionaly triggers seizures. GHB is known to (apparently dyslexic) clubgoers as Grievous Bodily Harm.

Phoenix's hair had been cut short and dyed dark, which rendered him anonymous on the night of his death. Pedestrians reportedly walked past the actor as he convulsed on the pavement and a small circle of his family and friends attempted mouth to mouth resuscitation. Drugs are commonplace at Hollywood s nightclubs -particularly where the patrons are well heeled- and GHB was allegedly making the rounds at the Viper that evening.

Still, many insist the drug connection rings false. Says Laurie Parker, who coproduced "My own private Idaho", "River was notoriously grounded". Phoenix was one of the best actors of his generation; at 18, he was nominated for an Oscar for his moving work in "Running on empty", Sidney Lumet s film about the legacy of the 60s. He also seems to have been a singularly good kid, although that phrase has grown fuzzy with use. "They were all good kids" says a source at the coroner s. "John Belushi was a good kid, Janis Joplin was a good kid, Jimi Hendrix was a good kid..."

Phoenix was named after the river of life in Herman Hesse s "Siddharta". When the Oregon-born actor was 2, his parents became missionaries for a religious sect, the Children of God, and his family lived in Latin America and California. At 15, Phoenix landed a breakthrough role in Rob Reiner s "Stand by me". He made more than a dozen films, including "The Mosquito Coast" with Harrison Ford and "Private Idaho", in which he played a damaged gay hustler searching for his mother. Over the years, as the country at large tried to forget its hippie adolescence, Phoenix held to his parents and their ideals. The actor was a strict vegetarian. He refused to wear leather. He was so dedicated to clean living that he once chastised "Running" co-star Christine Lahti for drinking a diet Coke. As Harrison Ford puts it, "River always stood for something". Phoenix was a natural -on screen and off. "You saw this purity, this incandescence", says Lumet. "He had the face of a fawn, or some magical forest creature."

Cautionary tale: how the Natural wound up convulsing on the Sunset Strip is a question that the coroner s office may answer as early as this week. What is certain is that it was music, not drugs, that brought Phoenix to the Viper Room: his band, Aleka s Attic, was hoping to jam. At the time of his death, the actor was filming the thriller "Dark Blood", which sources say will almost certainly be scrapped. He was also set to appear with Tom Cruise in "Interview with a Vampire"; his role will be recast.

Phoenix's death may well prove drug related, but his death shouldn t be turned into some generic cautionary talk. Let s simply say that a very fine actor -and a truly original spirit- has gone out of the world. "There's something inside River that his parents are responsible for", Rob Reiner said once. "He's obviously been loved quite a bit." There's a pile of candels and flowers at the base of the parking meter in front of the Viper: proof that Phoenix's folks weren t the only ones who knew a good thing when they saw it."

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