Sugar, November 1998

Life through a lens: River Phoenix

Five years ago this month, River Phoenix, an actor who'd spoken out about the evils of drugs, collapsed and died of an overdose on an L.A. pavement. What went wrong?

During the early hours of October 31 1993, a young actor collapsed outside a club on Sunset Strip, Los Angeles, having taken a lethal cocktail of drugs. Paramedics did everything they could but within the hour, the man was dead. His name was River Phoenix and he was 23 years old.

River's fans were devastated.

He had been so anti-drugs, many believed he'd had his drink spiked, but that was not the case. River had taken drugs of his own free will and lost his life to them. This is his story...

The early years

On August 23 1970, River Jude's parents, John and Arlyn, invited several friends from the commune where they lived to watch their baby being born.

Soon afterwards, John was made Archbishop of a religious cult and the family set off for the jungles of South America to spread the Word. By the age of five, living in total poverty, River and his sister, Rain Joan of Arc, were forced to beg on the streets of Caracas, Venezuela. At night the family lived on the beach.

"It was disgusting," recalled River. "It was a shack. It had no toilet and was infested with rats." Eventually, River's dad became disillusioned with the cult and the Phoenix family, which by now included sister Liberty and brother Leaf (who later changed his name to Joaquin), returned to America.

Soon after the birth of River's youngest sister, Summer, in 1978, Arlyn moved the family to Hollywood so the children could earn a living as performers.

"We had the vision that our kids could captivate the world," she enthused. River's agent quickly found him work on a number of commercials, but River hated them.

"I felt the constant lying, smiling on cue and the product-naming was going to drive me crazy," he said. Fortunately, he landed a part in the popular TV series, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, then, at 15, he appeared in sci-fi film Explorers with Ethan Hawke. The following year, he won the role that made him famous, Chris Chambers in Stand by Me.

Fame and fortune

Suddenly, River was a Hollywood name and girls everywhere were falling for his cherubic good looks. But the young actor was determined not to let success go to his head.

"People get lost," he said. "They think they have it under control, and their lives are in pieces."

The film offers rolled in. On the set of The Mosquito Coast with Harrison Ford, River started dating the first real love of his life, actress Martha Plimpton. The two had met a year earlier, but didn't get on.

"We couldn't stand each other," said River. But they soon began to feel differently. River and Martha dated for three years - the longest relationship of his short life.

River's Oscar nomination for Running On Empty, came shortly before his role as the young Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade confirmed River's position on the A-list of Hollywood actors. A strict vegan, River used his success to promote the benefits a 'clean' lifestyle and spoke out against the fur trade and the destruction of the rain forests. And he talked about how easy it was for people in the movie business to slip into drug abuse. "You don't even have to seek it out," he said. "It finds you... it's so accessible. I hate all that."

By 1989, River's career was going from strength to strength and roles in I Love You To Death, My Own Private Idaho and Sneakers won him further acclaim. His personal life, however, was a very different story. Sometime, somewhere River had begun dabbling with drugs and had quickly become addicted.

The Hollywood publicity machine kept the news from his fans but, behind the scenes, River's life was spiralling out of control. He tried to escape the Hollywood pressures by forming a band, Aleka's Attic, with his sister, Rain, but it wasn't enough. In 1993, from the set of his last, unfinished movie, Dark Blood, he left a message on a friend's answerphone saying, "I'm having a hard time keeping my head above water in this crazy business."

The last hours

One evening, after filming had finished, River met up with girlfriend Samantha Mathis and his brother, Joaquin, at Johnny Depp's Viper Club in LA. During the night, River became hyperactive, careering around the club. When he began to vomit, his friends took him to the bathroom, where he shuddered violently.

On returning to the table, River's seizures began again and he slipped to the floor. Samantha and Joaquin carried him outside. Rain and actress Christina Applegate followed. River is reported to have called out to Johnny Depp, "I'm gonna die, dude."

On the pavement, he had further seizures. Joaquin rushed to a phone to call the paramedics. In an anguished plea he cried, "You must get here! Please, you must get here! I'm thinking he had some valium or something."

As River's head banged on the paving stones, Rain lay on top of her dying brother to try to still his spasms. Then there was silence. Joaquin told the 911 operator, "He's passed out... he looks like he's sleeping." Rain lay next to her brother, lifted his shirt and began rubbing his stomach, saying, "Can you hear me? Can you hear me?"

Paramedics arrived in minutes. At 1.34am, River arrived at the hospital in full cardiac arrest. Blood samples indicated valium and cocaine in high levels. After 20 minutes in the emergency room, at 1.51 am, on October 31 1993, River was pronounced dead.

A medic at the scene said, "It was the classic cocaine overreaction. It just nails some people and stops the heart."


Since that night, those who loved River have tried to come to terms with his death. On one of the thousands of internet sites dedicated to him, Laura from Birmingham, speaks for fans all over the world when she writes, "River, we miss you. Your talent touched us all in a way you'll never know."

A message from Isabelle in Derbyshire says, "You will stay in my heart forever."

Although the life of River Phoenix was short, it was lived to the full and it was full of love.

The text on this page © 1998 Sugar magazine.

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