River Phoenix was young, idealistic and full of promise when he died at 23
HALLOWEEN HAD BARELY BEGUN, BUT AT 1 A.M. on Oct. 31, costumed revelers were already milling around the entrance to the Viper Room on L.A.’s Sunset Strip. Amid the witches and harlequins, a Louis XIV wannabe and men in bouffant wigs, few paid much attention to the young man who lay on the sidewalk thrashing spasmodically, his head flopping from side to side, arms flailing wildly. Commotions of one sort or another, after all, are common outside the clubs of West Hollywood. “It looked,” says Sean Tuttle, manager of the Whisky a Go-Go, located across the street, “like a normal occurrence.”
Of course, people might have taken more notice if they had realized that the twitching figure was one of the hottest young actors in Hollywood, 23-year-old River Phoenix. But no one seemed to recognize the star of Stand by Me and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and certainly no one knew that those moments he spent on the sidewalk—with his sister Rain, 22, sprawled on top of him in a futile attempt to still the violent seizures that had overtaken his body—would be his last. With his hair dyed dark brown for the movie Dark Blood, which he had been shooting that very day, and dressed in jeans and black Converse sneakers, Phoenix looked like just any other clubgoer who had knocked back a few too many or inhaled a little too much.
By the time he arrived by ambulance at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center at 1:34, the actor was in full cardiac arrest. He had no pulse, no blood pressure. Efforts to revive him proved useless. At 1:51, River Phoenix, who had seemed bound for even greater stardom with his upcoming role opposite Tom Cruise in Interview with a Vampire, was pronounced dead.
The sudden death of someone young, talented and apparently healthy is always shocking; in Phoenix’s case, it seemed doubly so. Given his reputation as a clean-living vegetarian and a passionately serious artist, Phoenix seemed an unlikely candidate for dying young from living fast. The disbelief of friends, fans and colleagues was expressed by Phoenix’s maternal grandmother, Margaret Dunetz, who, two days after her grandson’s death, was still unable to refer to him in the past tense. “I’m in shock,” she said. “I can’t describe what a wonderful kid he is. I can’t understand why—how—it could happen.”
For now, the cause of Phoenix’s death remains officially undetermined. A spokesman for the L.A. coroner’s office said its autopsy was “inconclusive.” A battery of tests, which will indicate whether there were drugs in Phoenix’s system, are being conducted.
In the meantime, evidence mounts that drugs did play the fatal role. The first clue was a panicked phone call to 911 made by River’s brother Joaquin, during which the 19-year-old actor, who has used Leaf as his professional name, told the dispatcher, “I’m thinking he had Valium or something.” Speaking to reporters shortly after Phoenix died, Fire Caplain Ray Ribar, who headed the team of paramedics that treated the actor, described his death as “the classic cocaine overreaction—it just nails some people and stops the heart.” Though denied by the hospital, the TV show Hard Copy reported that blood workups, undertaken while surgeons opened the actor’s chest, trying desperately to restart his heart, indicated River had taken a deadly mix of cocaine and Valium.
Drugs are, by all accounts, still a big part of the L.A. club scene to which Phoenix was, on occasion, drawn, sometimes as a rock guitarist and sometimes as one of the VIPs who got to hang out in the special “inner sanctum” rooms. “Psychedelics, like mushrooms, are becoming pretty popular” with the young L.A. crowd, says a bartender at the Sunset Marquis hotel. “And Ecstasy will always be around.” Then of course, he adds, there is “the heroin thing.” But the illegal substance of the moment in Hollywood is probably GHB, for gamma hydroxybutyric acid—or, as it is known to some party goers who tout its euphoric high, Grievous Bodily Harm. Though his publicist would attribute the incident to “exhaustion,” rocker Billy Idol collapsed in convulsions outside the Beverly Hills club Tatou and had to be taken to a hospital after reportedly using the steroid substitute.
The Viper Room is one of the hippest stops on Hollywood’s funky nighttime tour. Co-owned by actor Johnny Depp, it has a capacity of just 200 and a roster of regulars that includes Shannen Doherty, Tori Spelling, Christina Applegate and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea. Inside the dimly lit club, the hippest of the hip often huddle together in a tiny room that’s hidden behind a two-way mirror. “I’ve heard that back in the back room,” says one woman who was at the Viper on Halloween, “everyone shoots up, smokes up, does lines.” But a Viper steady insists, “It’s not a debaucherous, weird, drug place. The Viper Room is just taking a bad rap because it’s got this name that evokes mystery and it’s run by a reclusive movie star.”
Some are less than surprised at rumors that Phoenix might have been indulging in illegal substances. “He may have been a vegetarian, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t use drugs,” one film-industry source told The Washington Post, claiming Phoenix had been seen using drugs on the set of several recent films. Another source reported, “I saw him in May or June at the USA Film Festival in Dallas. You couldn’t even talk to him he was so stoned.”
Certainly, Phoenix’s behavior on the last night of his life suggested a serious problem. A few minutes before 1:00, the actor was trembling in front of a sink in the Viper Room’s men’s room. Clubgoers threw cold water on his face, hoping to stop his violent shuddering. When those efforts proved fruitless, Phoenix was helped outside the club by his 23-year-old companion, actress Samantha Mathis (Pump Up the Volume), and Joaquin. They eased him to the sidewalk—where his body was racked by seizure after seizure. “He looked like a fish out of water,” said photographer Ron Davis, who was standing outside the club.
That image is startling to friends who knew Phoenix as a dedicated activist and an accomplished musician who performed at events sponsored by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) with his progressive pop band, Aleka’s Attic. “River had a great will to live,” says Dan Mathews, director of International Campaigns for PETA. “The hardest drink I ever saw him drink was carrot juice.” When he wasn’t on location, Phoenix lived in his family’s comfortable, two-story, wood house in Micanopy, Fla. (pop. 612), eight miles south of Gainesville. Says Holly Jensen, a longtime friend who has stood beside River at rallies to save marine mammals and preserve forests: “He was a very idealistic, sensitive, kind, wonderful person.”
On the other hand, the young actor was apparently as susceptible to the pitfalls of fame as anyone else. Three years ago, when his Stand by Me costar Corey Feldman was busted for possession of heroin, Phoenix said, “It makes you realize drugs aren’t just done by bad guys and sleazebags; it’s a universal disease.” And lately he was showing classic symptoms himself. Shooting the romance The Thing Called Love last winter, Phoenix, says a crew member, “acted messed up and confused” and “seemed real thin and unhealthy.”
How could people who knew River Phoenix perceive him so differently? The truth may be that Phoenix could be whatever the moment called for. “I have a lot of chameleon qualities,” he once said. “I get very absorbed in my surroundings.” And if he was determined to strike a particular pose—Hollywood bad boy, for example—he wasn’t above offering a few tall tales, as he did in 1991 when he told a reporter that he’d lost his virginity at age 4. Just 10 days before his death, in an interview he gave to French journalist Jean-Paul Chaillet, Phoenix confessed, “I have lied and changed stories and contradicted myself left and right, so that at the end of the year you could read five different articles and say, ‘This guy is schizophrenic.’ ”
In fact, Phoenix’s life was colorful enough without embellishment. He was born in a log cabin in Madras, Oreg., the son of hippieish parents who named him for the river of life in Herman Hesse’s novel Siddhartha. John and Arlyn Phoenix would give the four children who followed similarly unconventional names—Rain, now 20; Joaquin, 19; Liberty, 17; and Summer, 15—and provide them all with unorthodox upbringings. In 1973 the parents became missionaries for the religious cult Children of God and moved that year to Caracas, Venezuela. Soon, River and Rain were singing on the streets for money and food. By 1977, John and Arlyn were disillusioned with the Children of God (now known as the Family, 68 sect members were arrested in Buenos Aires this September on charges ranging from child abuse to kidnapping) and, leaving the organization, resettled in Florida. When River won a spate of talent contests and earned an audition with a Paramount casting agent, the Phoenixes promptly loaded up their Volkswagen bus and moved west.
By the time he was 11, River was a regular on the TV show Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. In 1986 he won critical raves for his role in director Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me, and at 17, he earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for Running on Empty. His impressive résumé would eventually range from art-house films like My Own Private Idaho to such big-budget hits as Sneakers.
The consensus in the movie industry was that the best was yet to come. Said Sidney Lumet, after directing him in Running on Empty: “He’s one of those people who’s so talented I don’t know where he’s going to go. The world is open to him.” Or so it seemed. Phoenix’s last project, Dark Blood, might never be released, since only two-thirds of the shooting had been completed on the $8 million thriller. His role in Interview with a Vampire, which he hadn’t started filming, will simply be recast.
Less certain is what impact, if any, River Phoenix’s death will have on the crowd that frequents West Hollywood’s hottest clubs. In the days following his death, fans turned the sidewalk where Phoenix collapsed into a shrine. There were heaps of chrysanthemums, tulips, roses and carnations amid a score of glowing candles. Inscribed in blue and gold chalk on the street were the words, “The Eternal River.” Phoenix is gone forever. The Viper Room was temporarily closed.
LORENZO BENET, LYNDON STAMBLER. JOHNNY DODD and JOANNA STONE in Los Angeles and DON SIDER in Cainesville