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
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."
The text on this page © 1993 Newsweek