Premiere, March 1994 v7 n7 p74(8)

A brief life

By Abramowitz, Rachel; Biskind, Peter; Chambers, Veronica; Clark, John; Connelly, Christopher; Goodman, Joan; Griffin, Nancy; Holland, Charlie; Krause, Eliza Bergman; Richardson, John H.; Schruers, Fred.

The death of young actor River Phoenix surprised the motion picture industry and his fans. Although much has been said about the cause of his death, only the people who were closest to him and who worked with him know the real story behind the life of River Phoenix.

Much has been made of how River Phoenix died. This is how he lived, told by the people who knew him best

An Oral History

Iris Burton, Phoenix's agent: They came to me when they were little children, the whole family. I've had them since River was, like, nine. He was the most beautiful child you've ever seen, like a little Elvis. They've all got different names, who the hell knows. Heart, Liberty, Summer. Every week they're changing. Earth, Wind, and Fire.

They said they wouldn't do commercials, because they were vegans. I said, "What the hell's a vegan?" I thought it was an alien. I said, "So I guess you don't do Kellogg's commercials. I guess you won't do McDonald's."

Waris Hussein, director, Surviving (1985): I worked with River when he was thirteen on a TV film about teenage suicide called Surviving. His father was a very quiet man. In one scene, River wasn't delivering. He was not concentrating. We went into about ten takes. His father took him aside. It was done in a very quiet way, but I could sense that there was a lot of "you'd better get this right" sort of attitude. It's a very subtle form of authority. They were very anxious for him to succeed.

Joe Dante, director, Explorers (1985): River originally came in for the kid from the other side of the tracks. But we wanted River to do the scientist kid. It was kind of a nerd character, and this was the last thing that he would ever want to be. It was a tribute to his acting chops that he said, "Okay." He had to wear glasses and cut his hair short. Whenever there were girls around, he would quickly take the glasses off and try to look as cool as possible.

Rob Reiner, director, Stand By Me (1986): I remember that in the scene where he talks about how the teacher had stolen the milk money, he had to cry. It was not as good as I knew he could do, and I said to him, "River, think about somebody in your life who you looked up to and who disappointed you. You don't have to tell me who it is, just think about it." And the next scene he did was the take that's in the film, where he cries like that. All his emotions came out. After we did that take, he was really shaken. He was crying, and I came up to him and I held him. He didn't have a lot of technique--you just saw this kind of raw naturalism. You just turned the camera on, and he would tell the truth.

William Richert, director, A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988): People don't think about the fact that River's the son of missionaries. That's why they named their kids after semideities--you know, Rain and Summer. These people were revolutionaries. River used to sing with his brothers and sisters, and he'd organize this little band and sing on the streets of Westwood. He kept everyone close to him. He took responsibility for his whole family. When River would come over, his brother would call, his sister would call, sometimes his mother would call: "Is River there yet?" He'd show up, and a half hour later five other kids would show up. It was like this traveling minstrel show.

Sky Sworski, friend and sometime band manager: I fell in love with River when I saw him playing guitar at seven and singing "You Gotta Be a Baby" in every language that you can possibly conceive of. Everything from Latin, Spanish, French, Russian, Swahili . . . at least twenty languages. River was definitely somebody who was a grown-up at seven. You could have a conversation with him like you could with a 30-, 40-year-old person.

Joe Dante: There was always an outsider quality to him. I think he must have felt that way somewhat, because his family was unusual and his name was unusual. On Explorers everything had to be done special for him. He had to have a special lunch; his parents wouldn't let him wear leather and stuff. He had to constantly explain that to people and justify it. River, I think, of all the kids, wanted to grow up fast. He didn't like the idea of being a kid.

Rob Reiner: He was fourteen, and his hormones were raging, and he was always saying, "I want to meet a girl." Apparently he showed up to work one morning and had this big smile on his face; the night before he had lost his virginity. A friend of the family--I think she was about eighteen--took River out into the backyard where they tented out. He said, "She was so patient with me and told me what to do." I thought, This may be the greatest story of lost virginity I've ever heard. Because not only was the experience great, but it was done in this incredible romantic setting during this beautiful summer up in Oregon, and he was making a movie. I did get the sense that he was searching and confused about things and insecure. I saw myself a lot there.

Reid Rosefelt, unit publicist, The Mosquito Coast (1986): But River was not the kind of person that you worried about. His father would be, like, "Hey, man, let's go to Guatemala." And River would say, "Listen, Dad, I know I'm fifteen years old and I should have fun. But I have to do my scene tomorrow and I have to learn my lines and I have a responsibility to be on the set and be rested." He was really tender with his father.

Nancy Ellison, special photographer, The Mosquito Coast: He wanted to be a rock musician like Sting. He was talking about changing his name to Rio, a single name, like Sting; he didn't think River Phoenix was an interesting name. I reminded him he could also be like Charo! He responded immediately to the implications.

In the photo studio he would try to do something unexpected. Sometimes it would be silly dangerous, inconsequential, but I came across a picture where he is lighting his tongue with a cigarette lighter. I don't think he was actually burning himself, but the image looks like he is.

Medith Salenger, costar, Jimmy Reardon: When you're under eighteen you have to have three hours of school every day, so we would tell the social worker on the set that we were going to school, and then we'd go into River's trailer and talk and play, and when she'd come in we'd pick up books and read. I knocked on his door once, and he was reading Siddhartha upside down. But I don't think it was an accident. I think that he was reading it upside down to see if he could read it backward.

Naomi Foner, screenwriter, Running on Empty (1988): Education certainly wasn't, in the conventional sense, important to the family. There was a line in the script--he was talking to Judd Hirsch--in which he said something like, "Who do you think you are, General Patton?" And he turned to us and said, "Who's General Patton?"

Jane Hallaren, costar, Jimmy Reardon: I have this funny memory of catching him in the hallway with a girl--I won't say whom--and he was going with someone else at the time. He said, "Don't tell anybody, okay?" Like, yeah, I'm going to call his girlfriend. But that was River. Whenever you thought you had him pigeonholed, he was someone else.

Naomi Foner: My memory of him is walking down the street in New York with him and Martha Plimpton--and he was leaping and jumping, sort of like a young deer. He would hail taxis leaping like Baryshnikov, and Martha would say, "That taxi's taken, River. See, the light's off." He didn't care. He danced down the street.

Griffin Dunne, producer, Running on Empty: We were looking for River and Martha. We were at a high school, and I saw them way down near an athletic field. As I got closer and closer, I could see by their silhouettes that they were having a really heated conversation. And I just watched in the distance for a moment. They were both gesturing really strongly at each other. And all of a sudden they embraced with such passion, with such love, like they were never going to see each other again. I remember I couldn't tell if they were rehearsing or if this was a real moment. It was exactly the scene, it turned out, that they were going to shoot a week or two later. But were they rehearsing or living it?

The Free Spirit

Iris Burton: We went to Tokyo for the premiere of Stand By Me. . . . He would go to the park outside the Imperial Hotel--guys and girls were playing guitars there--and he'd tell them, "Come up, come up to the room." And that room was filled with kids from the park; he would play guitar for them and give them fruit and juice.

Jane Hallaren: When we worked on Jimmy Reardon, the director William Richert hated me. To make it worse, I really liked him, so it was the kind of awful. I felt like an ugly left shoe the whole time I was on that set. River saw the whole thing and got superprotective of me, although he adored Richert. And one morning, the first thing we do is my close-up. I'm thinking, Just do the close-up and get out of here and get back to the hotel before you fold. River comes in and says, "Where's Ann?" As a courtesy to Hallaren, costar Ann Magnuson would have acted off-camera during her close-up. Bill says, "She had something to do." River said, "At 8 in the morning?" He said, "River, let's just do this." River said, "No, I don't think so, Bill." I said, "What's the matter?" He said, "It's not what's the matter with me; it's what's the matter for you. You're here for everybody. Where's Ann? Wouldn't you rather have her here for your close-up?" I said yeah. He said, "Didn't we do her close-up yesterday?" I said yeah. He said, "What's she doing?" Bill said, "She had some work to do." River said, "It's called sleeping, Bill." And he wouldn't let it alone. I said, "Please, let's just do it, River." He said, "I'll do it, but it's not right." Sixteen years old!

Ed Lachman, director of photography, Dark Blood (1993, unreleased): A week before he died, we were in Gallup, New Mexico, on the road. I had a lot of cases in my room, film equipment. I came out into the hall and said, "Can someone help me with my gear?" Somebody said, "Yeah." I didn't see who it was--I didn't have my glasses on. I went back into my room, brushed my teeth. There's a knock on the door, and it's River. I go, "River, what are you doing here?" He said, "I came to help you." I said, "I didn't mean you!" He said, "Why can't I help ya?"

William Richert: My ex-wife and I started to break up, and she had a little six-year-old. River gave him his first bicycle for Christmas, because he thought he needed a little consolation. While the two of us were figuring out what to do with our lives, this 22-year-old, or however old, was thinking about stuff like that.

Joan Plowright, costar, I Love You to Death (1990): He sent me a very sweet letter and a present after Larry Olivier, her husband died. It was a tuning fork, and his message said, "Tune in to life."

William Richert: One day I went with him to visit his girlfriend, Sue. It was a surprise; it was her birthday. He puts a bag over his head--he's going to sneak in there and then reveal his head. But he wore this bag for maybe three, three-and-a-half hours, until everybody forgot there was a guy sitting there with a bag over his head. And only then did he take it off. The discipline of being able to just be quiet like that. He was, like, this trickster kind of guy.

Carolyn Pfeiffer, producer, Silent Tongue (1994): We didn't have enough trailers to give to everyone, so we gave them to the first four above-the-line people. When River started working with Sheila Tousey, he realized that she was in a honey wagon and he was in a trailer, and she not only had long makeup hours, but a lot of preparation doing vocal exercises. So he came to me and said, "I'd like to give Sheila my trailer and I'll go into the honey wagon." I'd never had an actor say, "May I give up my comfortable space for a smaller one, because one of my fellow performers needs it more than I do?"

Anthony Clark, costar, Dogfight (1991), the Thing Called Love (1993): He had worked twenty-some days in a row, and on his one day off, he felt the need to take me up to the rain forest in the northwest corner of Washington State with his mother and this environmentalist. His mom's going, "Hug a tree, Tony," and I'm, like, "I don't feel good about hugging a tree," but you know something? I've never seen trees like this in my life--they're 30 stories tall and they're swaying in the wind and they're making music, and you hear Rrrrrrrr. And all of a sudden I realized how important these issues are to this family.

William Richert: He was always giving me advice about every aspect of my life--about girlfriends before I was married and then my marriage. He would take a fatherly attitude toward me. I think he did that with a lot of people.

Peter Bogdanovich, director, The Thing Called Love: The studio was not very generous about the wrap party, and so River and Samantha Mathis threw it. There was a karaoke player there. Everybody started saying, "Peter has to sing." River was saying, "Come on, come on." So because of River, I got up and sang, which I would not normally have done. I sang "My Way," of course. I looked over at River a few times while I was doing it, and he was so filled with delight and pride. It was like I was his son or something.

William Richert: Every time he'd come to visit, he'd show up with all different kinds of vegetarian things; he was always trying to get me off animal flesh. He bought up acres and acres of forests. He did not invest in condos; he bought rain forests. He spent thousands and thousands of dollars, just so they wouldn't be cut down. That's what he was doing with his money.

Sky Sworski: He was a strict vegetarian, a vegan--but it wasn't about health, it was about not killing. . . . That's a real important point. He wanted to be free; he didn't want to be chained to anything. He wasn't scared of anything. He had no fear.

Bobby Bukowski, director of photography, Dogfight: When I first met River, he had very long hair and he struck me--as he came out of an elevator--as an angel, some kind of supernatural being. An angel could be Gabriel, but an angel could be Lucifer too. He would as readily delve into the deep, dark recesses as he would fly up to the lofty, illuminated places.

Alan Bates, costar, Silent Tongue: He was hugely fond of my son. My other son and my wife died, and River was wonderful to my surviving son. River talked to him for hours over the phone when his mother died. I think River was like my late son. He was years ahead of his time, actually. He was ahead of his age. I think people like that are very vulnerable to . . . well, to other people. They are prey for the not-so-good.

The Wild Cat

William Richert: He came up to the house I had in Malibu. Keanu Reeves came up on his motorcycle going 90, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers would come up, and they would play their guitars. They would play me one of their songs, "We Have Big Cocks."

Sky Sworski: He definitely changed. When you're around Hollywood people and the money and everything, you change. But it took a long time. I guess by the time he turned nineteen, he had a band and he wanted to be a little bit of a kid. And he was. They used to play upstairs in this huge attic above the band room. Sometimes we went out on tour, and he had a good time. The only time we'd use his name was if we did a benefit concert for, like, the rain forest or indigenous people or cancer or Bill Clinton. He wanted to hang out with his peers, because he was usually hanging out with all these movie set people who were older. He was always hanging out with older people.

Nancy Savoca, director, Dogfight: The thing I thought was interesting was that his character in Dogfight was so against type. He was the peace-loving conservationist, and then he's playing a marine who's dying to go to Vietnam and shoot off some rounds.

Anthony Clark: When we first got to Seattle, we were all these meek and mild actors ready to work together and give each other back rubs. Then they put us through marine boot camp. They're in your face, yelling about stuff constantly--the fact that River had this exotic, hippie name, that he ate bark and weeds, and how was anyone going to be able to kick ass on that kind of hippie fruitcake diet. And on the first night we're out of boot camp, we went to this party, and it ended up that the police were called. All of us were onstage making rude gestures, and some of the guys were projectile vomiting off the stage. River was the head of that whole thing. (Laughs) I hate to talk bad about him, but he had a mean streak. He wanted to get into a fight. That night he was a marine.

Peter Weir, director, The Mosquito Coast: You started to hear in the media, "Well, he was experimenting with drugs." Then I began to think that maybe River so carefully identified with his parts that he'd thrown himself into that (for My Own Private Idaho).

Gus Van Sant, director, My Own Private Idaho (1991): He arrived in Oregon a couple weeks early so he could do research. He sort of assumes the character. He seemed to be changing into this character.

Eric Alan Edwards, director of photography, My Own Private Idaho: He looked like a street kid. In a very raw way he wore that role. I've never seen anybody so intent on living his role.

Michael Parker, inspiration for Phoenix's character in Idaho: We went to a park here in Portland that overlooks the entire city. We sat there on the grass talking. Then we went down to where the bars are, the corners where the kids hang out. We talked the entire day. I grabbed a piece of my gut and gave it to him. One of the reasons I opened up to him is that I felt he did understand and felt how I did--not the same way, but the pain.

Gus Van Sant: River made the character gay. The character wasn't really gay in the first place. Because he was a hustler, he didn't really have a sexual identity. He added all the stuff where he was in love with Keanu Reeves's character. He didn't discuss it, he was just sort of doing it. He was using two really close friends of his as models to forge the character. Michael Parker: We lived in a house in Portland during most of the shoot--Keanu, Rodney Harvey, another actor named Shaun Jordan, Flea, and some of the production crew. We were working so hard that music would only happen a couple times a week, but when we did it was jam city. I played drums; Flea played bass or guitar or whatever was close. River would go into these trances; he'd just get this tribal rhythm going and he wouldn't stop.

Eric Alan Edwards: I think he always looked up to Gus. It's odd to have him looking up to Gus. Laughs I grew up with Gus. He was sort of humble in Gus's presence, or at least he was looking to him for some approval.

William Richert: I heard a lot of rumors--he's doing this controversial stuff, mixed up with real junkies. River had this kind of out-of-it personality. I have the same kind. When I start talking, people think, What the fuck is he on? So what he was on in Idaho, I don't know. I remember he was in almost every scene. Richert acted in Idaho. We were shooting from, like, 6 in the morning till 11 at night because there was no money. I can't imagine he could have been doing very much and playing that part; I just can't understand how physically one could do that. There may have been other people on that picture who were doing stuff: Certain people were in the movie because they were junkies.

The Fragile Rebel

Phil Alden Robinson, director, Sneakers (1992): We were shooting here on the (Universal) lot, and he came over to me and said, "I almost got arrested." He was outside the stage throwing a Frisbee with some friends, and the Universal police came over and told him to stop. And he said, "I flipped them off." Somebody at (studio headquarters) had to talk to the cops and say, "Please don't arrest him. He's in our movie."

Dan Aykroyd, costar, Sneakers: We called each other Mr. Woach and Mrs. Woach. The catering truck we used to call the Roach Coach. And that somehow evolved into the Woach. And he'd do things like pinch the fat around my waist !or^ come up and blow on my bald spot. Just complete, absolute, total irreverence. And he could get away with it.

Dermot Mulroney, costar, The Thing Called Love and Silent Tongue: Imagine me having to be the one to educate River on what Sam Shepard has written. He had no concept of Sam as a playwright or a screenwriter or a director or anything other than a sort of actor or well-known something or other. I had to explain to him what a Pulitzer prize was and what Sam won it for and why: "Here's another play, River. I know you're not going to read the whole play, but please read these three pages before you have to jump up and do something else." He was undereducated and overintelligent. Sam was, in my opinion, completely and utterly perplexed by River. He was truly taken with him but couldn't figure him out. Sam would always have that crooked smile, watching, trying to figure out how much of this was River preparing to play an uncultured mad dog, and how much of it was really River.

Carolyn Pfeiffer: He bonded very, very strongly with Richard Harris. River would come and drive Richard to the set, bypassing the film's drivers. He always wanted to make sure that Richard was fine, that Richard wasn't lonely. I mean, he was like a mother hen, River.

Richard Harris, costar, Silent Tongue: He looked upon me as a kind of father figure. He'd knock at my door and ask if he could come in and sleep. . . . He'd sleep on the couch. I could hear him rehearsing his lines--at 4 in the morning. I said, "Fuckin' go to sleep." He'd be in the bathroom, taking a crap, doing his lines.

Anthony Clark: He took everything to heart, like on The Thing Called Love. It's one thing to be the star and carry a motion picture, but he wanted to write the music, perform the music, and be in on the decision making.

Peter Bogdanovich: When I met him, he was already in the role. He was already kind of playing James. But I didn't realize that, because I'd never met him. So I thought, My God, he's really kind of like this part--moody, a little scary sometimes. I can't really say I met River, minus James, until three or four weeks after we wrapped the picture, when he came back to do some looping. By then he'd gotten rid of the part. He was this totally different person, kind of puppy dog-like, very adorable and very sweet and not threatening in any way. Samantha agreed to do the movie because River was in it. She'd met him a couple of times, but she didn't know him. He was crazy about her right away. He was anxious to have a lot of kissing scenes. He was saying, "In the lovemaking scene, can we really do it? Can you just put us in there and close the door and let us go?" He was only half-kidding.

I think he was influenced by his idea of what method acting was. One day on the set he was very moody, kind of removed. Sam was upset. I took him aside and said, "Are you on something?" He said no. I said, "Well, you're acting kind of strange, and Sam's upset." He said, "Oh Jesus, I'm just--this is a difficult character. I'm into this part and I'm just trying to deal with where he's at this point. Jeez, I'm sorry, I don't mean to upset Sam." I said, "I don't want any getting into drugs. We don't need that." And he said, "No, no, man." He said, "I took a decongestant and had half a beer and maybe that was a mistake. But I'm fine, I'm okay now. I'm okay. I'm cool."

I did have another conversation with him about drugs, where I alluded to rumors I'd heard. I wanted to see what he'd say. There were some rumors that he was on drugs on our picture, which angered me, because it was impossible. I know how the rumor got started. We were kind of rewriting the script as we went along, and it was difficult to know how far to take the weirdness of the character. So we might do twelve takes or more of a given scene, and each one would be different. Unlike most actors, River never gave it to you the same way twice. I'd say to him, "Why don't you do it the way you just did it?" He'd say, "You already have that. What's the point? Let me do it differently." Then I'd say, "I think that's a bit too weird, River. Let's ease up on it." He'd say okay, and he'd play it more normal. He had complete control over it. If he was on drugs, he wouldn't have been able to control it. But some of the people at the studio, seeing some of the footage, said, "Oh, he must be on drugs."

Sky Sworski: I know one thing: River did not want to die. That's pretty much all I can say. He had too much going on. He wasn't an addict, that's for sure. He dabbled. He kept it from me. Because there would have been trouble. He was pretty secretive about it--the people in his world were very loving and nurturing and would never have let him get involved with anybody who did things like that. But I guess that's part of what happens. When it becomes such a mystical thing, it becomes more intriguing to do it. Plus, it's a release. People find different ways of escaping. He had a lot of stress, not only on the set.

Anthony Clark: I feel really bad, because I felt like he was there for everybody, and nobody was there for him. I knew maybe there were problems with . . . I didn't really know what . . . I was scared to even ask, because a few times I did talk to him about his intense situations with alcohol. I brought it up, but he was such a great actor that he would just totally calm my nerves. I mean, he would make you feel crazy for even asking him, "Is everything all right?" And I wish to God that I could have stepped in and intervened, but he just seemed so incredibly together.

Bobby Bukowski: I was starting to realize that there was this kind of adolescent rite of passage that he completely skipped over. He was a little boy and then he was a man. Maybe he was looking for that rite of passage.

"Dark Blood": The Final Film

Judy Davis, costar: He was having troubles with the character. In my opinion, that was made more difficult by the director constantly telling him how he should play it. Whether he should be angrier, loonier, whatever. He confused River. It was a difficult part, because it could so easily be absurd. He had most of the dialogue in the film, huge speeches; he kept trying to cut the lines down. Any change freaked this director out. River said to me one day, "Maybe I should give up acting."

George Sluizer, director: He did not use anything during the period we were in Utah. I would put my hand in the fire and swear to it.

Judy Davis: I thought he was doing something when I first got there. There was one day when he came in so out of it. River said he'd had too much sodium the night before. Okay. I've never had a sodium overdose. Maybe that's exactly what they're like.

Jonathan Pryce, costar: When things were going wrong on the film--we were physically in a dangerous position with mud sliding on the edge of a cliff in the desert--River said, "Somebody's going to die on this film." We were on this kind of inexorable journey to some disaster. Every day there was some kind of difficulty. It just seemed as if something had to give. But I could never have thought it was this.

William Richert: The last time I heard from him, on the answering machine, he said, "I'm out here in Utah and I'm having kind of a hard time keeping my head above water in this crazy business." So when he came back to L.A. he was on R and R. And a very pure person got into a situation that was bigger than him.

Judy Davis: The scene that we were doing on Saturday--we were both supposed to be on peyote. I had a conversation with him a few weeks before, saying that I wouldn't take peyote just to see what it's like in order to play the scene. I recall River agreeing with me about that.

We didn't work on Friday. We had just come back to L.A. I think he'd driven out with all his friends, and they'd let their hair down. Because he had to work the next day, he took, I think, Valium to bring himself down for work, and that's where the problems started. . . .

George Sluizer: On Saturday--well, this is my own personal feeling--he had taken something. The last day, I had the feeling that he was a little, let's say, nebulous. He was a bit like someone who had slept two hours instead of seven.

An actress at the Viper Room the night Phoenix died: It was really a fun evening--the music, the people. It was crowded, hard to get around. We went down to check out the VIP lounge, but it was real hard to get in. Samantha was there. Samantha was . . . now I understand why she looked so worried. I didn't realize all this shit was going down. There were all these people around the guys' bathroom, a lot of commotion--I just figured some guys were having a brawl or somebody was getting sick. I kept seeing Samantha running back and forth and back and forth, and she looked really worried. I grabbed hold of her and said, "Hey, Sam, what's up? What's wrong?" She couldn't talk to me. We tried to calm her down. She was just freaking out.

Outside there was a crowd of people, and I saw him--lying flat, totally ghostly white. It didn't really look like him. He had, like, this dark hair, this totally pasty complexion, and he was panting and sweating. He was convulsing. People were trying to splash water on his face and move his head and get his tongue out of his mouth. He was kind of changing colors, and his eyes were all dilated and open, and it was really scary. I kept hearing from people, "Wow, it's River, it's River." You don't think it's going to happen. One minute you're on top of the world and the next minute you're gone--you're gone and nobody can help you.

Judy Davis: I think it has to be remembered that he was 23 and he made the choice. There's something about stardom and the way it empowers people--he thought he was immune.

Jonathan Pryce: What was so painful about it was the future relationship that I looked forward to. I felt it was a relationship that would go on for a long time. I wanted my children to know him and him to know them.

The day of his funeral in Florida, my wife Kate and I couldn't be there. I told Heart (Phoenix's mother) what we were going to do. So we went to a chapel in London to be in church at the same time--and just to sit. They were setting up for a concert. Afterward we went to the Caprice. We walked in, and they have these extraordinary flower arrangements, like sculptural arrangements. And Kate said, "Look at the flowers." In Utah, everywhere we went--in my house and in River's house--were these Indian things called dreamcatchers. It's like a spider's web, and you hang it in your window and it catches the dreams. Pointing to the flower arrangement, Kate said, "It's a dreamcatcher." Then I looked straight ahead, and Alan Bates was sitting at the next table. River had worked with very few British actors, but Alan and I were two of them. I wanted to go and say something to him and then I thought, I don't know what emotional state he's in. So we smiled and nodded. Then Kate got up and went to the bathroom, and Alan came over and said, "I can't believe you're here." And I said, "I'm so glad you're talking to me." And then we talked about River. I don't know why there was the symbol in the restaurant. I don't know why Alan was sitting next to me on this night.

Peter Weir: It's just the expectation that you were going to work with him again. I recently thought of an upcoming project: Oh, there's . . . No, there isn't River. It's his uniqueness that is gone. I think it was Billy Wilder who said when Ernst Lubitsch died, "Ach, no more Ernst Lubitsch films." They were just his films. Now it's no more River Phoenix characters.


Dan Aykroyd: He slept in my office here at the farm. That was his first and only visit. In fact, he went down to my wine cellar and he grabbed a bottle, a 1970 Petrus--like, an $800 bottle of wine--and I went, "Oh, you opened that!" I was a little shocked, and he felt so bad and I felt so bad because I called him on it. A couple of weeks before he died, he sent me a bottle that he went to the trouble of finding. And that bottle is sitting down in my wine cellar. Someone moved it the other day from where I'd put it, and I went crazy. I don't think I'm ever going to drink that. That just sits there forever, until I go.

Ed Lachman: We did ten takes of the soliloquy, the last day we shot with him on Dark Blood. It was in this cave, could have been a church. It was all lit by candles. After the last take, I didn't turn off the camera. When I realized it was running, I turned it off. When we saw dailies, for ten seconds River was in front of the camera, just a silhouette lit by ambient light. It was . . . eerie. For me as a cameraman, I find that strange, the last take. Why I didn't turn the camera off, why there was just enough light in the room to make him a silhouette, why he stood in front of the camera for ten seconds. People were crying. We knew that was the last we would see of River.

Bobby Bukowski: River never knew when he was going to fall asleep, because he always tried to extend the day much further than a day should be extended. He always felt that he had to fit a lot into the day. At the time when people normally like to sleep, River would like to get up and say, "Here are 25 songs that I wrote since the last time I saw you." He would be playing them and he would kind of fall asleep, and the next morning he would wake up in his clothes, his guitar just out of hand's reach.

William Richert: One time we were up in the mountains with this Polynesian girl, and the clouds came right up to the top of the mountain. River grabbed each of our arms and said, "We're going to run and jump into these clouds, and our whole past lives will dissolve, and everything will be new from then on. Hold on." And we did that. And I'm thinking, Here I am, at my age, jumping off this cliff with this kid. But it was incredible, and we landed on this soft iceberg kind of ground covering. But we jumped through the clouds, literally.

River in...

1. His TV debut, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1982-83)
2. Explorers (1985)
3. Stand By Me (1986)
4. The Mosquito Coast (1986)
5. Little Nikita (1988)
6. A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988)
7. Running on Empty (1988, Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination)
8. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
9. I Love You to Death (1990)
10. My Own Private Idaho (1991)
11. Dogfight (1991)
12. Sneakers (1992)
13. The Thing Called Love (1993)
14. Silent Tongue (1994)

River's Last Movie

In Dark Blood, Phoenix plays a survivalist awaiting the apocalypse. He falls in love with a tourist (Judy Davis) and is accidentally killed by her husband (Jonathan Pryce) with an ax. It was a tense set: The locations were dangerous, and Davis and director George Sluizer were at loggerheads. Missing key scenes, the film was abandoned after Phoenix died; the negative now becomes the property of the insurance company.

River Calling...

Hello, Bill. If you're sleeping, please, by all means, ignore this message. But infact if you are awake, then you'd better not ignore me.... I had the most amazing day. It was just beautiful, the things I learned, through pain and through misunderstanding, and through being displaced, discombobulated. I come out on my last day of work (on I Love You to Death) as a triumphant failure. I stand here; need not I die nor need I drink, for I know that my soul will keep. And who's to say he or she it is the one, for I only know from where it has begun.... Doctor Bill ... where I am coming from? Who cares? Do I need to know where they're coming from to get along with them? No. I accept them. But I come from a place that is foreign, a place where no other eyes see.... The stuff is so vague.... In case. And did you know that. Ther is. And. Wait. Not. No. Sure. But maybe. That doesn't matter. All those words. All those broken phrases. They don't mean anything. But where was the point? ... And then through the speaker they hear a little voice crackling, saying, "You have missed the point." But don't take it upon yourself. Don't carry that weight. It's not your fault.... I would say that it's safe to guess that people simply don't understand. Beep.

The text on this page © 1994 K-III Magazine Corporation

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