Première (US edition), january 2001

River Remembered

by Peter Bogdanovitch.

The director of River Phoenix's last completed film recalls the troubled, talented actor he worked with and befriended during his final year

Toward the end of 1992, while I was in Manhattan casting a new picture, a long-distance call came to my hotel room from a Paramount executive on the West Coast, saying that River Phoenix wanted to star in our movie. I was astonished. Had we offered it to him? No, the exec said; River's agent had called to say the actor had read it and wanted to play James, the male lead, a country singer trying to make it in Nashville. All of us involved in the project had discussed him for the role - his name already sounded like that of a country star - but we felt certain he was too big to be part of what was essentially an ensemble picture. None of us had even approached him.

By the time I got that first call, River Phoenix had been playing leads in features for about six years, since he was 14. Most recently he had received raves for his intimate portrait of a suicidal narcoleptic hustler in Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991), a major critical and art-house hit. Though River had reportedly fooled around a bit with drugs, My Own Private Idaho was the first time that substance abuse played a large part in a character he portrayed. There was homosexuality in the film, too, and there were rumors that River had experimented with both in preparation for his role.

The legendary actress–acting teacher Stella Adler used to say, "To play dead, darling, you don't have to die!" River had no formal training as an actor, though; he picked up everything on the run. Talent he possessed, boundlessly, but without formal technique, he often fell back on the credo "Live the character" - live it until the job was over.

For his whole professional life, River Phoenix had only one agent, Iris Burton, who adored him and treated him as a son. It turned out that it was she who had sent him our script because she knew River loved to sing and write songs. After a few days, River called her. "This script really isn't ready at all," he told her. She repeated that since I was directing, she knew it would be heavily revised. River told her he had no idea who I was.

She asked him if he had seen The Last Picture Show (1971) and River said no. (Of course, when that movie was originally released, River was about 15 months old.) She advised him to go down to the video store, rent the movie, and then call her. He did, and enthusiastically said yes, he wanted to work with "the guy who directed that picture."

He called me soon after that and started out by heaping lavish praise on The Last Picture Show, especially on the entire cast's performances. When I steered the conversation to the script of the new film, we agreed that the dialogue and construction both needed a great deal of work. Since he was the same general age as the principal characters, I wanted his input throughout. Not only would I welcome it, I said, I would expect it. That excited him.

I told him that while he'd been brilliant in every role I'd ever seen him do, he had never played a character with the strong edge of danger that this James fellow had to have. Yes, River agreed, he'd never done anything like that. How was he going to convey this danger? I asked him. There was quiet for several moments, and then River said, "Silence."

That was extraordinarily perceptive, I thought. Silence from a character can be a form of power, the power of withholding - and power is dangerous. From that single word, I knew he would play the role superbly, and he did. At the time, I sort of grunted and said, "Yeah, that would do it." Then River said, "Look, I want to work with you, man, so I don't have to meet you. Do you have to meet me?" I said no, it wasn't necessary, we both were professionals. "Yeah," he said, "I just want to stay here with my family as long as I can before I gotta come up there and start the picture." Which was soon enough, I answered, saying I certainly understood, and so by the time I met River Phoenix about a month later, he was already playing the charming, talented, but somewhat hard-assed James. It wasn't until after the shoot that I realized I hadn't met the real River Phoenix.

Prior to that, throughout the shoot, I dealt with a kid who seemed alternately sensitive beyond words, overly self-involved, flat-out rude or jokingly abusive, moody, funny, quirky, often very likable, dangerous. It was River's version of James, so entirely convincing that I thought it was what River was really like and that he didn't have to act - which clearly is what River had wanted.

Throughout the working process, however, his creative side was objective, clear, and concerned not only with his own role but with all the characters. During casting, I told him we needed another attractive guy to play his buddy Kyle. He suggested Anthony Clark (later seen to good advantage on TV's Boston Common). We flew him in and ended up using him as a secondary character, expanding the part to suit Anthony's exceptional comic abilities. I told River I liked Anthony but not for the Kyle part (the other male lead). We needed more of a contender, I said. River was undaunted. "Anthony's really good with girls," he said. "He scores a lot!" I countered, "But he's not a leading man."

River stopped and looked at me for a couple of moments and then said, "Well, if you want another leading man, you can't do better than Dermot Mulroney." River knew I had already met with Dermot and a number of other actors, and that Dermot was high on a shortlist of possi bilities. River's comment cinched it, but what I found intriguing then - and even more unusual now - is that River was thinking of the overall work, and if I wanted two leading men, well, that was okay with him. He wasn't threatened; in fact, let the other guy be more conventionally good-looking. That was okay, too.

You're supposed to be a confident old pro to have that kind of self-assurance and wisdom. At the age of 22, River already had it in spades. Which is why I increasingly wanted him involved in all script conferences, all writing sessions, all music discussions - as he was always making superb contributions. River was an instinctive talent of the highest caliber. When I once pointed out to him that all his ideas and remarks relating to the script or characters always kept the full picture in mind and never simply his own role, he said he always thought that way. I said that he would make a good director. He said he had thought about directing. I said, "Well, be sure and cast me, will ya?" He laughed and said he would. It became a small running joke between us. When I asked what it was that had attracted him to show business, he said his mother used to read stories to him as a kid and he always liked stories, so he especially liked being part of a story.

On the first day of shooting - a night scene at a mall on location in Nashville - River gave costar Samantha Mathis a hard time, bringing her to tears. When River's first call had come in to New York, I had been there talking to Samantha about doing the film. She was worried about the script's readiness, but when River signed on, she jumped right in. Now, in Nashville, she was pretty upset and said she didn't have to "take his shit"; he was "just rude." I asked her if he was on something. She said she knew only that he'd had a beer. The assistant director also told me River was acting erratically. I asked him if he thought our star was on drugs. The AD nodded.

It's not a great idea for a director to confront an actor unless he absolutely has to, so I suggested the first thing we do was tell River he would not be driving the truck for the high angle we were preparing as the movie's final shot: the pickup truck (with River, Samantha, and Dermot in the cab) going off into the darkened streets of Nashville. (Shooting the end of a film first is, unfortunately, not an uncommon scheduling practice.) If River asked why he couldn't drive himself, I told the AD to say that I thought it was safer for a stunt driver to do it, since the truck had to merge onto a main drag with moving traffic that we couldn't control; besides, the shot was from a good distance away (the audience would never be able to see who was at the wheel).

I told Samantha I would have a talk with River later, but my hunch was he was perhaps a little too heavily into playing his role. "Well, I'm not going to put up with it," Samantha said and went off, looking hurt but stoic. She and River hadn't fallen for each other yet, but they would soon enough. It would be the last passionate love of the actor's life.

After a while, the AD came back and said River was very upset and didn't see why he couldn't drive the truck himself - he was a very good driver. Had he been told the shot was high and far away and no one could possibly know? "I would know," was River's response. Now I had to go talk with him myself.

Running into Dermot first, I asked him what he thought might be the matter with River. Dermot immediately came to River's defense, saying that he had an eye problem that made him blink a lot sometimes, but this had nothing to do with drugs (all true). Dermot didn't think River was high; he was probably just "into his character" - it was how he worked. "He's a real good guy, really," Dermot said as I moved on.

River was wandering around the parking lot, looking forlorn and agitated. I put my arm around him and we walked to the back of the mall. I asked him if he was on drugs of some kind. He immediately said he'd taken a pain pill, then forgot and had one beer, and the two were not mixing well. He said he felt like he was being punished by not being allowed to drive the truck. I dismissed that as "an insurance thing," and asked what had been the problem with Samantha. He looked sharply at me. Had she complained to me about him? Pretty much, I said. What happened? River shook his head. No, nothing, he said, it had nothing to do with her. It was all his fault - but he didn't mean any of it. He was just trying "to find this character" - an edgy guy. Since the character was supposed to sing for an audition, "he'd be even edgier," River concluded.

I told him Stella Adler's advice about not playing the role all the time. He did that unconsciously, River said, and didn't quite realize what he was doing. I said that neither the studio nor I wanted James to be a druggie. River nodded and said, however, that the character had definitely "been into drugs" - they've "made him edgy," made him "a bit of a bastard." I agreed in principle, but since we didn't have any drug-taking scenes, this would have to be a minor element. River said we didn't need any scenes; he just had to know the kind of person he was dealing with. He himself didn't have "a problem with drugs," River told me lightly - he was just getting into the character. I told him not to focus on that aspect of the guy. River agreed and then said he was sorry. It just shouldn't happen again, I said. He promised it wouldn't. We hugged. To my knowledge, with the exception of one night back in Los Angeles a couple of months later, River kept his promise. He didn't cause me another problem on the entire picture.

However, the word on what had happened immediately got back to Hollywood, and a guilty-till-proven-innocent attitude toward River started to take hold. The irony was that the more brilliantly convincing River was in playing a self-involved, occasionally self-destructive, arrogant, drug-savvy, talented singer-songwriter, the more people believed that that was River. He was acting strange, they would say, he was on something, was being unsympathetic and weird. Of course, he had never played anything remotely like this - dangerous, oddball, brainy, and macho - and some people thought this was what River had become. On the contrary, he was consciously and as organically as possible acting as a man five or six years older than himself - a character who had endured just that many more embittering or aging experiences. On the first night, for a few moments he had acted younger than his age, but most of the time River seemed considerably older than his years. Back in Hollywood, the concern about River increased to such a degree that Iris Burton was dispatched to see about her client. She arrived, stayed a day or two - long enough to see that he was fine and that things were going well - and then left, a touch perplexed as to why there were any worries.

Though administrative changes at the studio had orphaned our project, we were well past the point of no return; staying on top of the script as we went along just became yet another given. The principle actors (River, Samantha, Dermot, and Sandra Bullock) were deeply into it and enjoying the process. We would meet after shooting or during breaks and work on upcoming scenes, altering lines and situations, coming up with good ideas - River more than anyone, and quite often his ideas were for the others. We found that Sandy Bullock was a brilliant comedienne, so we built up her part. The resulting performance helped get her the part in Speed (1994).

Our screenwriter (Carol Heikkinen) was a first-timer; with the studio's blessing, we brought in Allan Moyle, with whom Samantha had worked on Pump Up the Volume (1990). I hadn't seen that film, but Samantha thought he was excellent, so we said to send him on down. And Allan, who couldn't have been more self-effacing and eager only "to help, not to interfere," turned out to be of great assistance in pulling all our ideas together into scenes that could then be rewritten yet again. River took to riding Allan sometimes as a kind of character joke, I guessed, which seemed to me just good-natured kidding around - and Allan always looked amused. "No, Allan, not that line! Jesus!" Allan and I discussed it: River's instincts were infallible as to what would play and what wouldn't.

As each scene approached, it would be revised or refined until all the actors and I were happy with it–-which sometimes wasn't until just before the camera rolled. Certainly the actors had to be on their toes to continue relearning lines, often getting them at the last moment. An added difficulty for them was that I felt a good number of the longish dialogue scenes should be played straight through without cuts, the camera either stationary or moving.

While River and I were alone one afternoon, talking about an upcoming scene, I told him that my preference was to shoot the entire sequence in one shot, with no further angles. "No coverage!?" River became very excited when I said no, if we did the whole scene in one long piece that worked, there would be no reason to "cover" it with other shots. He said he thought that was great. Some of the best actors I've worked with prefer this technique - not just for the challenge of sustaining an entire scene at a go (as onstage, after the curtain goes up) but also for the freshness. A film actor's typical grind is to repeat every line numerous times, never knowing which angle will be used for which moment, trying to be fresh on every take - an impossible task.

River said that Sidney Lumet hadn't shot coverage and did numerous long takes in filming Running on Empty (1988), though they had rehearsed for a while, a luxury we unfortunately never had. River became so fond of "one-ers," as film-crews call this sort of all-encompassing master shot, that he would ask me on every sequence if we could "do it all in one." If I said no, it wasn't appropriate to the scene or technically possible, he would push for it anyway until I laughed and said I was just as sorry, but it wouldn't work here. If I said yes, he was ecstatic.

This kind of movie acting requires discipline and experience. River couldn't have done sequence after sequence in this fashion if he'd been taking drugs. Yes, he was acting differently than anyone had ever seen him act, but it was the first time he was playing an adult romantic lead and a character who'd been around a bit, certainly not a southern hick. In fact, we added a number of intellectual comments from River, ones I suggested or River asked for, which helped to define his character as a reader and thinker, not simply an instinctual artist. Eventually a few of these moments wound up being eliminated, and River's role was thereby diminished - one could not understand the character as well. River loved any kind of arcane information, and when I would mention something of that kind, he would invariably want to somehow fit it into the movie. We often did.

Our story was essentially a triangle in which the two guys, River and Dermot, were both in love with Samantha, and though she's partial to River romantically, she feels more friendship toward Dermot. This particular triangle (two men, one woman) is the most ancient story known. Discussing that with River, we decided to add a scene to show his character's achieved self-awareness and ability to observe his own situation with historical objectivity. It became a reconciliation scene between Dermot and River - they had fought verbally and physically over Samantha - in which River puts their relationship into perspective by describing how "the Green King and the Red King" killed each other yearly for "the affections of the Lady in White," and that this year, for Samantha, they had both "kicked the bucket." It was a scene River particularly liked and one that he and Dermot played with beautiful simplicity and grace.

River's profound understanding of this situation mirrored his own often painful relationships with the women he'd loved and who'd loved him. I didn't know her, the young woman he had been going with just before we began preparing our picture. But the first evening we spent together, he told me of the dismay he felt at having just been told by her that she had been unfaithful. Of course, he said, he had been unfaithful to her, and she had known it - but the other way around really bothered him. He went right on, however, to justify her behavior, to see it from her point of view, how she was protecting herself from the pain of his acts. I didn't say much, and River talked out his ambivalent feelings in a very mature way.

I didn't know just how much River was actually attracted to Sam until we were about to shoot River and Samantha's first kiss in the film. It was a night scene. River was to drive up in his truck with Samantha beside him, stop at her hotel, kiss her good night, and, after she jumps out, drive off.

While the first shot was being lit, River and I were talking about what sort of kiss it should be. River started out by saying he hoped I had a lot of film in the camera because it was going to be a very long kiss. He was grinning mischievously. "Oh, yes!" he said, he had been waiting for this scene. And then he went on - in James's sophisticated country-boy accent - to list what else he would like to do with Samantha. Mostly he kept to all the places he'd like to kiss her.

He was half James, half River as he said Samantha was driving him crazy. She had a boyfriend in New York (actor John Leguizamo), and though River felt Samantha liked him, she was always talking about John, and he didn't feel right imposing himself on her. But he certainly was going to kiss her tonight!

I think we did about seven takes. I can't remember for certain which kiss ended up in the picture, but I have a feeling it was the first or second take. There was intense heat on all seven. Samantha managed a pretty impassive, professional look between takes, while River just loudly asked for "another one–-we need another one, don't you think, Peter?" Samantha laughed.

River and Samantha became closer after that. Not much later, John Leguizamo came to visit but stayed only a day. Samantha ended their relationship, and she and River officially became an item. They were lovely together, and he treated her with utmost respect, tenderness, and humor - and without one fragment of competitiveness. Their closeness in life helped immeasurably to deepen their interactions in their long scenes together.

Our shoot extended over the Christmas–New Year's holidays. Everyone became ill. We had to take four insurance days off because River caught a nasty cold. He called me, worried, saying he'd come in if I wanted. I said, "Are you kidding, I could use a break, too. So could everybody." The studio would send a doctor to check him out, make sure he's really sick, and insurance would cover the costs. River said okay, if I was sure, because even with a fever, he'd come in for me. I said, "For me, stay home." We were shooting nights, which is also especially exhausting, turning everyone's body clock upside down. Worse, one of our primary locations was the Disney Ranch out in the wilds of L.A., where it was particularly cold at night.

River mentioned that he didn't much like L.A., that it was a bad influence on him. A few times, some of his rock musician friends came down to the set to visit and hang around his trailer awhile. On one of those occasions, I noticed that River looked drawn and strangely quiet in his intensity.

It was a difficult scene: At night, outside a hospital, Samantha tells River of her beloved father's death. As an actor, River's preference was never to do any moment in any scene exactly the same way twice. If I would say, "That was terrific, do it again like that." River would reply, "You've got it that way; let me try something different." Most actors tend to stick to one approach on a scene or a line, so it was unusual to see the often wildly different ways River might interpret a moment. This also fueled the drug abuse suspicions: He's erratic, he's weird, he's inconsistent.

Since we were writing this picture as we went along, shooting out of sequence, certain reactions had to be shot a number of ways so we could decide later, once the work was edited, which best suited the character. We wound up using the "straightest" takes, as it turned out, which is what I thought might happen, but both River and I had wanted choices to help refine his character.

Nevertheless, that night outside the hospital, I thought River had probably taken something. He said at the time that he was still using his cold prescriptions, but later, after the shoot had ended, he admitted to having been a little high (he didn't say on what) and having had, as a result, one of his most transcendent moments in acting. Certainly he's pain-filled, intense, empathetic, and riveting in the sequence - but it took longer to finish than it should have, and part of the scene involved two or three lines from a song of River's that he was still composing. The producers on the set (and subsequently some of the studio executives) were very troubled by that night. This became the coup de grâce for them with River: In fact, there were no real problems, and his singing, much of it shot live, came off terrifically. Still, many turned conclusively against him.

Having become somewhat second-class citizens at the studio, there was no wrap party scheduled by the producers, so River and Samantha decided to chip in together and throw one at a funky little Japanese karaoke club out near Culver City. It was a rainy night, and part of the club's roof started to leak, but it couldn't dampen anyone's spirits. The cast and crew all had a good time celebrating the conclusion of a very demanding job.

During some karaoke singing, there was a sudden blast of enthusiasm about my getting up and doing one. River was beside me and wouldn't take no for an answer. I looked at the list of selections and picked Frank Sinatra's "My Way." I tried to personalize the song ruefully as I went along, thinking a couple of times, "What am I doing here?" But then I would look down and see River gazing up at me with the most encouraging, sympathetic expression I've ever seen on a man. At one point, there were tears in his eyes. I'll never forget the entirely focused look of unconditional affection on River's face.

This was the beginning of my introduction to the real River Phoenix. Of course, he had just completed playing James. When he had totally shed the character he'd been portraying, there was a boyish enthusiasm and guileless charm to River. The contrast was especially noticeable a couple of months later: After going down to Florida and then Costa Rica to be with his family, River came back to L.A. to do the required postproduction dubbing of dialogue. Here was the sharp, brooding character onscreen and the barefoot Huck Finn watching from below. River's mother, Heart Phoenix, accompanied him on this trip and to the dubbing sessions, where we met for the first time. She had a remarkably powerful presence - a quiet, warm, sensitive, and loving nature - soft-spoken yet intense. River's genuine deference to Heart and their affection for one another was both palpable and completely un-self-conscious. I think maybe he had invited her to join him in L.A. to help keep away temptations he knew weren't good for him. His time with the family had clearly invigorated and cleansed him.

Redoing some of James's dialogue, therefore, was not so easy. He had let go of most of that guy, and it was a struggle to get him back. Because of a major technical error by the picture's editorial staff, River's original sound recordings inadvertently were not used in early showings of the movie; poorly transferred duplications were heard instead, which badly muddied his readings and made them hard to understand. I knew he hadn't sounded that way when we shot the stuff, but now it was coming out poorly. The edict became: Redo every single line of River's.

Torturously, we went through it, and River kept saying the original had to be better. Whenever we asked that the original be played back, it sounded fine now, having been prepared afresh by the sound effects crew. So why were we redoing it? I told River we had better just complete the ugly deed, but not to worry, because I would use the original lines whenever possible. River begged me to use them all because he didn't think his looping was very good–-clearer, maybe, but not nearly as much in character. As it turned out, although we rerecorded all of River's dialogue, thus alleviating studio fears, we actually used virtually none of this in the final mix. Having finally discovered what the actual problem had been, we just ended up using all the original tracks, though we never told anyone, and nobody ever complained again.

The first time River saw the movie was at a rough-cut screening in the studio theater. He was excited about it - critical of some of the editing of the songs and wanting me to address these more carefully (he was right), but extremely complimentary of the overall work. During the sequence at the Disney Ranch - a full moon line-dance party - on River's urging, I had ridden a horse into an extreme long shot we made. When this appeared in the running, River called out loudly, "That's Peter on the horse!" He was such an exuberant, loving kid.

A day or so later, River and Sam, Dermot and his talented wife, Catherine Keener, and Anthony Clark all came over to my Beverly Hills home to see a tape of John Ford's 1940 film The Grapes of Wrath. River had heard me talking about the picture and Henry Fonda's performance, and was anxious to watch it. He hadn't seen many older pictures, he said, and felt ashamed about his ignorance of film history. River's reactions to the movie were very fresh, and uncomplicated by knowledge of either the John Steinbeck novel or much of anything about John Ford. He was deeply impressed by the darkness of the Okies' true Depression story, by the striking black-and-white photography, and by the transfixing brilliance of Henry Fonda's portrayal of Tom Joad.

Meanwhile, the studio was in conflict as to how to sell our picture and what its final form ought to be. There were a number of screenings, all with wildly conflicting reactions, and none indicating a solid hit. Cuts were requested and argued over and made (or not made). Compromise reigned. The music department was splintered into about three factions, each pulling for different songs to be on the track, over the main or end titles, and on the soundtrack album. The public ity and marketing people had various terrific poster ideas, yet somehow we ended up with the worst one, using neither River nor Dermot's likeness, but Samantha's, in a half-hearted attempt to sell the film as a young women's picture. When River saw this poster, he simply congratulated Samantha. But I knew he was hurt.

The movie that was released wasn't quite the picture we shot; about 90 percent survived, and sometimes 10 percent can make the difference between success or failure, mediocrity or enduring quality. Someday I hope the version of The Thing Called Love that River and I really made can be seen; it was just that much better and more unusual.

The final distribution decision was ultimately disastrous, releasing the film first in the South and West as a country music picture, when it was actually closer to an art-house movie. Indeed, this was the problem: The picture fell between two stools and wound up on the floor. River, Sam, Dermot, Sandy, and I all showed up in Dallas for the publicity junket that preceded the film's opening. River blazed through his numerous press and TV interviews in a kind of intense, James-like state. This was not his favorite job, selling and promoting a movie, but he was a good sport.

The next afternoon, we all went to see River's friend, Harrison Ford, in his newly released film, The Fugitive. It was a lot of fun seeing that picture with River - his audible and physically obvious enjoyment of the work doubled the pleasure. That night, River drank a lot of beer and got a little noisy in the hall. Samantha was upset and went to bed early. Though he wasn't out of control, he clearly was drinking too much - or was hyped up on something.

Later, my wife, Louise, would tell me that River had been very sweet to her friend Carrie, who was there on the junket with us. In those days, Carrie was a bit overweight, but when he first met her, River looked at her for a long moment and then said with great intensity, "You are so beautiful!" Carrie would never forget that. He was terribly funny and charming with them; referring to the Van Sant film as "My Own Private Potato." He raved about his brother Joaquin's acting talent, saying Joaquin was a much better actor than he was. When River went a little over the top with the booze - at one point ordering "47 bottles of beer" through room service, Carrie got angry and told him he was endangering his life and ought to be more respectful of his own great talent. River was quickly calmed by these remarks, and swore he wouldn't touch a thing once he got home again to Florida, where he was heading next. Dallas turned out to be the last place we saw River alive.

A few days later, he and I spoke on the phone. He said he was feeling good, working on an album with his sister Rain. He said I should tell Louise and Carrie he had kept his promise - he was back to a healthy life, he told me. He had to beg off going to the Montreal film festival screening of our movie because he was really into the album, into singing and playing music. He hoped I understood. The picture had also been invited to the Vienna International Film Festival, but he would be shooting his new film, Dark Blood [see box on page 80], by then. After that, he was going to do Interview with the Vampire, and there were two or three other big pictures on which Iris Burton was in negotiation. He sounded very happy to be home. Sam was there, too.

The picture was glowingly received in Montreal - by the public, the press, and some of my peers. Several critics - all of whom were bowled over by River's transformation - said they were holding their rave reviews in anticipation of the film's imminent opening. As it turned out, The Thing Called Love was never released in Montreal, nor in a lot of other places. After its disappointing southwestern tryout, the movie was, for all intents and purposes, shelved.

River and I spoke animatedly for about a half hour over the phone while he was shooting Dark Blood. He sounded crystal clear and completely grounded. He said he had been clean of any kind of substance for three months and was feeling great. The film was heavy, he said, but interesting. One of his costars didn't get on well with the director, which was a drag, but he loved Jonathan Pryce. I told him that my wife and I would be arriving back in L.A. right around Halloween. River noted that he'd be there by then and that we could see each other. We made a date to have dinner on the night of November 1.

The picture was so well received in Vienna that I almost tried to reach River to tell him what a particular hit he had been with critics and audiences. But I knew the odds of tracking him down were poor, and we'd be seeing each other soon enough. We flew back to Los Angeles on Halloween, nonstop from Genoa, accompanied by Robert Towne and his family. While I raved about River, Towne talked excitedly of a young actor he was working with named Johnny Depp.

When we arrived at LAX, Bob and his family got separated from us for a while. Just as we were nearing the exit where greeters wait, we ran into each other again. Bob looked troubled and confused. He said he hated to tell me this, but he'd just heard someone talking and they said, "Wasn't it too bad River Phoenix had been killed." I almost laughed. "But that's impossible," I said, and Louise shrugged it off as a crazy rumor. My mind was racing: Could it be? A car accident? A fight? No, it wasn't anything. But when I saw that my longtime assistant, Iris Chester, was waiting gravely for us with the driver, I realized something had to be wrong: Iris had never before come to meet us at an airport. Iris said she hadn't wanted me to see it on TV, but River had died that night. Seemed to have been some sort of drug overdose. It happened while we were on the plane. He had collapsed on the sidewalk in front of the Viper Room, a club co-owned by Johnny Depp.

By the time I got home, it was getting late, but I called Sam. She sounded numb. It had all happened so fast, she said. She'd suspected River had taken some drugs earlier in the evening but hadn't been sure of it. They hadn't planned to hang out at the Viper Room - only to go by, say hello, drop off Joaquin and Rain, and then go back to her house. But River had brought his guitar, knowing some friends were jamming there, and had really wanted to play with them. Reluctantly, Sam said, she'd yielded.

After a while, she saw River with a pal of his who he had told her was a junkie, and a bouncer was opening a side door for them. She didn't know if they were being pushed out or going out of their own accord. Evidently, the junkie had given River some stuff that didn't mix with what he might have already taken. River complained that he wasn't feeling well, but his friend told him he was just being paranoid. Worried, Sam followed them out to the sidewalk to keep an eye on them, lit a cigarette, and walked ten feet away to give them privacy. When she turned around, River had started going into convulsions, then he dropped to the sidewalk. His friend said he was fine, to just leave him alone. Knowing that couldn't be true, Sam said, and that something was terribly wrong, she tried to get River on his feet, but he seemed to have passed out. She ran into the club to get Joaquin and Rain. Joaquin called 911 while Rain and Sam tried to help River. Then Joaquin and Rain both attempted unsuccessfully to revive River. By the time the paramedics got there, he had gone into cardiac arrest. Though they tried repeatedly to revive him, it was too late. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

Sam said that Joaquin and his sisters were overcome with grief, and that Heart was being incredibly strong, holding everybody together. How she did it, Sam said, she didn't know. We spoke a little while longer, me trying to say something about the indestructibility of the spirit. I promised that first thing in the morning, I would come over to the house where everyone was staying.

When I arrived, some friends were in the kitchen making sandwiches. The kids looked devastated. Heart, as Sam had said, was amazingly in control. We embraced for a long moment. She said her main concern right now was helping the other children through this - they were all devoted to River, worshipful - and it was so terrible for them that she couldn't really show how she felt.

Sam and I spoke for a while, alone. She cried. She and River had been talking a lot, she said, looking forward to seeing each other. He had been totally clean, she said. The minute he got to L.A., the bad influences surfaced, the temptations reached out. Because he had been off everything for more than three months, he was far more vulnerable than if he had never stopped.

Joaquin was having a cigarette in the living room. We hadn't met before, but Joaquin said that River had spoken well of me. As he tried to speak of his brother, Joaquin broke down; recalling the terrible last moments, he began sobbing and couldn't go on. I embraced him. He held on to me and kept crying.

There was a memorial for River a few days later at the Paramount Theatre on the lot. Sidney Poitier was very eloquent and touching, as were Ethan Hawke and numerous others. On a talk show not long afterward, the host asked veteran star Tony Curtis to comment on the death of River Phoenix. I recall Curtis saying cryptically that it was "difficult to comprehend how much envy" there was in Hollywood. The remark resonates.

Samantha had many recriminations about that horrible final night, most particularly against the junkie, but Heart would hear none of it. There was nothing that could bring River's body back to life, Heart seemed to feel, and she focused entirely on the continuing life of River's spirit and on helping her children overcome the tragedy and learn to live with their brother in a different way. Her strength and selflessness were inspirational. Eventually, there were lawsuits against River's estate because his death happened during a picture. Corporate inhumanity knows no bounds. A few years later, River's sister Liberty gave Heart her first grandchild: A boy. They named him Rio - Spanish for river.

Barely a week goes by that I don't think of River Phoenix, usually wishing I could just call him up and tell him what was happening, or hear his enthusiasm as we planned another movie or he wrote another song. He was an old soul, of course, so he'll never really be gone, but that doesn't mean I don't miss him terribly in this life: a lovely boy, a loyal friend, a poet at heart, a true artist.

The text on this page © 2001 Première magazine.

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