People Magazine's Private Lives 1994
To costumed revelers thronging West Hollywood during the early hours of Halloween, the sight of a young man thrashing on the sidewalk was not all that noteworthy. And so it was that Phoenix, at 23 an actor who prided himself on melting into his surroundings, played out his fatal cocaine-and-Valium overdose in full view but relative anonymity.
Born in a log cabin in Oregon to hippie-ish parents and named for the river of life in Herman Hesse's novel Siddharta, he began performing when 3, singing for money and food on the streets of Caracas, Venezuela, where his folks were missionaries for the Children of God. After the disillusioned Phoenixes quit the cult and returned to the U.S., River won a spate of talent contests. The family (other siblings: sisters Rain, Liberty and Summer and brother Joaquin, who acts under the name Leaf) soon moved to L.A. At 11, River was a regular on ABC's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. In the mid'80s, he began making his mark in theatricals like Stand by Me, Running on Empty, My Own Private Idaho and Sneakers; his next big-budget role was to have been opposite Tom Cruise in Interview with the Vampire.
Phoenix was a practicing vegetarian, refused to wear leather and, with his progressive pop band, Aleka's Attic, staged benefit concerts for environmental causes. "I'm in shock," mourned his maternal grandmother, Margaret Dunetz. "I can't understand why - how - it could happen." It was because River Phoenix, though clearly no Brat Packer, shared their taste for drugs, and it killed him.
The text on this page © 1994 People Magazine.