20th Anniversary: Remembering River Phoenix

He was the ultimate symbol of Gen-X cool: smart, charismatic, sexy and mysterious. For millions of fans who came of age in the ’80s, River Phoenix – who broke out in 1986’s Stand by Me and scored an Oscar nod two years later for Running on Empty – transcended teen heartthrob status to become one of Hollywood’s most promising young actors. Then in the early morning of Oct. 31, 1993, the 23-year-old star died of drug intoxication after collapsing on the sidewalk outside L.A. nightclub the Viper Room. (Among those present at the chaotic scene: his brother, actor Joaquin, and girlfriend, actress Samantha Mathis.) Like James Dean before him and Heath Ledger years later, the death of such a singular talent left a lasting scar on his fans, the industry and especially the people who knew and loved him. Here some of those friends and colleagues look back on a life cut tragically short.

WILLIAM RICHERT (director, 1988’s A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon) River was a risk-taker, a guy who constantly astonished you. One time he brought this girl to my house, and we’re standing on the edge of an [overlook] that … dropped down the mountain. River grabs my hand, grabs her hand and says, “We’re going to jump…. When we jump, all will be right and beautiful.” And we jumped. It was insane. He had this fearlessness.

JOE DANTE (director, 1985’s Explorers) River’s family had been strict vegetarians. He chafed against that. He had that turmoil going, and he used it.

COREY FELDMAN (costar, Stand by Me) He loved his family very much. Basically they were hippies. He would play me music that he’d been working on with his brother and sisters.

PETER BOGDANOVICH (director, 1993’s The Thing Called Love) He [played] this abrasive character, and I thought that was [him]. Then he came back for [postproduction], and I realized he was acting all that time. He was actually a very sweet, Huckleberry Finn kind of kid.

RICHERT This idea that there was a drug decline in his last year is erroneous: River was never a junkie. The only instinct River didn’t have was for survival. He never would believe that someone could give him something that could kill him.

BOGDANOVICH While we were making the movie, one time he took some pill and washed it down with beer. It affected him badly. I told him not to do that. He was clean when he came back to L.A.

FELDMAN I was not aware of his addiction issues until shortly before his death. [Someone] told me she had been working with River on My Own Private Idaho and that he had a heroin addiction. Everyone knew that had been the demon I had battled. I didn’t believe her at first. He seemed like a healthy guy, always doing the right thing. I told him I was sober and that I was to going to AA meetings and could maybe take him to one. He said, “That sounds nice.” I called him back several times, but for whatever reason, we never reconnected.

JUDD HIRSCH (Costar, Running on Empty) The agonizing thing is, I was witness to the greatness of a personality that never fully got to flourish. I will never see him play Hamlet, and he would have been one of the great ones. I wanted to see him do the most emotional work out there, and it still pains me that I never will.

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