Life, Aug 1987 v10 p46(3)

One big hippy family: River Phoenix and company move into Hollywood.

By Susan Peters

They are not your average show biz folk. Just four months ago, after collecting paychecks for four roles in three summer movies, the Phoenix family rented a vacant school near Los Angeles for $1,500 a month. They set out Havahart traps (releasing the rodents in the desert), bought six water beds and took up residence in their 40th home in 20 years.

Yet no matter how antic their lifestyle, John and Arlyn Phoenix (who took their surname from the mythic bird) are raising a brat pack of successful actors. Son River, at 16 the eldest of the five children (and best known since his roles in Stand By Me and The Mosquito Coast), appears this month in Jimmy Reardon. Rainbow, 14, makes her feature film debut in July's Maid to Order. Leaf, 12, is a Key West child who discovers a shipwrecked Soviet sailor in Russ kies, an August release. Leaf's sister in that movie is played by his sibling Summer, 9, who beat out Liberty, 11, for the role. ''They are talented kids,'' says Richard Benjamin, who met the gang while he was directing River's forthcoming Little Nikita. ''And their parents have instilled in them a sense of morality.''

The glitzy on-camera life contrasts sharply with the scene played out in the industrial kitchen of the Phoenix home. There Arlyn, 42, pages through The Cookbook for People Who Love Animals. ''Tofu cheesecake, please,'' squeals Liberty. ''I get to lick the bowl,'' shouts Summer. Leaf and Rainbow imitate chef Julia Child. River juices wheat grass. The family mutts, Justice and Sundance, wait for leftovers. They and their owners are ''vegans,'' who do not eat animal products. ''Peace doesn't apply just to human beings,'' explains Arlyn.

Later, the clan sits down to whole wheat spaghetti and salad. New Age stage father John, 40, declares, ''We are very thankful.'' River adds a coda to grace: ''Bless the cook.'' The family's faith is admittedly amorphous. ''I don't know if the superior being is in the form of a man, woman or jellyfish,'' says River. ''But when I think of my parents and their different worlds and how they met and had kids -- there has to be something up there.''

Arlyn Dunetz was a Manhattan secretary married to a computer operator when, in 1968, she tired of her life. ''I quit my job, left my husband and went to California,'' she says. John (who refuses to divulge his surname because he doesn't like it) was a high school dropout refinishing furniture for a living when he picked Arlyn up hitchhiking in Los Angeles. Both ''seekers,'' they decided to travel together. River was born in Madras, Oreg., at home, naturally, with family friends at the delivery. ''He came out to this roar of applause,'' says Arlyn. After moving around the West, they joined a Christian commune based in Pikes Peak, Colo., gave up psychedelic drugs and traveled as Children of God missionaries to, among other places, Crockett, Tex., where Rain was born.

Rainbow (she decided at 11 that ''Rain was kind of dreary'') remembers debuting as a performer in South American plazas: ''We used to sing and hand out pamphlets.'' But after two years in Venezuela, the family wanted out of the cult group. ''The guy running it got crazy. He sought to attract rich disciples through sex,'' says Arlyn. ''No way.'' A priest arranged their passage to Florida on a freighter.

By that time there were more children. Li bertad Mariposa, who had been born in Caracas on the fifth of July, was translated into Liberty Butterfly. At four, Puerto Rico-born Joaquin asked, ''Can I change my name to one like everyone else?'' Arlyn said, ''Ask your father.'' John, who was raking leaves, said, ''Pick another name.'' The boy picked Leaf.

When Arlyn was nursing three-month-old Summer, John injured his back. He had been working as a gardener, and the couple didn't know how to make ends meet. ''We'd had the vision that our kids could captivate the world,'' says Arlyn. They chose the name Phoenix to symbolize new hope. The two oldest (then nine and seven) began to sing in talent contests. A friend mailed an article about the children to Penny Marshall, then on the TV series Laverne & Shirley. A Paramount employee wrote that the family should drop by if they were ever in Los Angeles. They left Florida and drove cross-country in a nine-year-old station wagon with a nonfunctional back window. ''I said to myself, 'What a crazy person you are,' '' remembers John. ''But the stars were so bright. I just felt that it was right.''

''I figured I'd play guitar and sing with my sister, and we would be on television the next day,'' says River. ''We were really naive.'' Arlyn worked as a secretary at NBC, where a coworker recommended an agent. At 11, River was cast in CBS's Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. ''It seems like repetitive crap now, but then a series was big,'' says River, who nowadays makes $350,000 a role. The others went with the flow. Liberty and Summer did the TV movie Kate's Secret, Rainbow a guest spot on Family Ties, Leaf got SpaceCamp.

''We know that people think stage parents are bummers,'' says John, who tries to keep his charges prompt and professional. ''The kids started growing so much that the biggest thing I can do now is to help them do whatever they want. I'm learning to butt out.'' But the children still stick close. As River puts it, ''I've got a good battery charger here -- I get back into the family and plug in. I'll always want to spend a lot of time at Camp Phoenix.''

The text on this page © 1987 Time Inc.

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