River Phoenix, the older brother of Joaquin Phoenix, died of a drug overdose on Oct. 31, 1993

By Eric Todisco
September 28, 2020 12:00 PM
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Joaquin Phoenix is keeping the legacy of his late brother River Phoenix alive.

The Joker actor, 45, sweetly honored his big brother, who died in 1993, by naming his first child with fiancée Rooney Mara after the late star.

Russian filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky, whom Joaquin worked with on the dialogue-free documentary Gunda, confirmed the name of the couple's baby during an appearance at the 2020 Zurich Film Festival.

“He just got a baby by the way,” Kossakovsky said Sunday while speaking at the festival. “A beautiful son called River."

River was just 23 when he died outside the Viper Room in West Hollywood due to a drug overdose on Oct. 31, 1993. He made his mark on the world after starring in the beloved films Stand By Me (1986), Running on Empty (1988) and My Own Private Idaho (1991). His final film, Dark Blood, was completed in 2012.

As River's legacy now lives on in his nephew, here is everything to know about the actor's quick rise to fame.

River and Joaquin Phoenix

An Unusual Childhood

River was born on August 23, 1970 in Madras, Oregon. His family moved around a bit when River was a child, living in places such as Texas, Mexico, and Venezuela as missionaries for the religious movement, the Children of God.

It was in Venezuela that River and his sister Rain formed a singing duet to help make ends meet. Sometimes they performed in talent shows and sometimes, as River recounted to PEOPLE in 1986, “at airports and in front of hotels—ya know, to eat.”

The family eventually parted ways with Children of God and returned to the United States in 1977.

“We were flower children,” River’s father, John, told PEOPLE in that same profile. “We were full of faith and we loved everybody. I think the kids have learned that. I don’t think there is any prejudice in their bones.”

River Phoenix
| Credit: Nancy R. Schiff/Getty

An Early Rise to Fame

By the time the family reached California, River was beginning to show some acting ability. Some of his first pieces of work included a few commercials and a role on the shorted-lived television series Seven Bridges for Seven Brothersin 1982. River made his film debut in 1985’s Explorers alongside Ethan Hawke but his breakout role came in 1986 with Stand By Me, a film adapted from a Stephen King novel, where he played one of four friends who set out to find the body of a local missing boy.

Rob Reiner, the film’s director, gushed to PEOPLE in 1986 of the actor’s “tremendous warmth.” “He’s obviously been loved quite a bit,” said Reiner. “His parents have somehow managed to maintain what was pure and good about the ’60s morality and make it work. When kids are talented and become successful, you never know if they’re going to make the right judgments. Knowing his family, I give River a good shot.”

An Oscar Nomination and a Blockbuster Role

Two years after his role in Stand By Me, River received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Danny Pope in 1988’s Running on Empty. He continued to make his impact on Hollywood with roles such as a young Indiana Jones in 1989’s box office hit Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and as Carl in 1992’s star-studded feature Sneakers.

River Phoenix in Stand By Me

His Other Passions

In addition to acting, two of River’s biggest passions were activism and music. He was a vegetarian from the age of 8 and also supported various organizations such as Earth Save and Earth Trust. With his sister Rain, he formed and performed in a band called Aleka’s Attic. In 1993’s musical drama The Thing Called Love, he got to combine two of his passions playing an aspiring singer.

His Untimely Death

In the early morning hours on Oct. 31, 1993, tragedy struck when River died of a drug overdose after he collapsed on the sidewalk outside of the Viper Room in Los Angeles. Those present at the scene included Joaquin and his girlfriend at the time, Samantha Mathis.

The disbelief of friends, fans and colleagues was expressed by River’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 told PEOPLE at the time. “I can’t describe what a wonderful kid he is. I can’t understand why—how—it could happen.”

The young actor was apparently as susceptible to the pitfalls of fame as anyone else. Three years before his death, when his Stand by Me costar Corey Feldman was busted for possession of heroin, River said, “It makes you realize drugs aren’t just done by bad guys and sleazebags; it’s a universal disease.”

His role in Interview With a Vampire was ultimately never filmed. It went to Christian Slater in the end.

River Phoenix

Remembrances

On the 20th anniversary of River's death in 2013, a few friends and colleagues reminisced to PEOPLE about some of their favorite memories of the actor.

William Richert, director of 1988’s A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon, called River “a risk-taker, a guy who constantly astonished you.”

Judd Hirsch, the actor’s costar in Running on Empty agonized over his passing, saying, “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.”

His Lasting Impact

Over two decades after his death, River is still is making an impact. In 2012, River's final film, Dark Blood, was finally completed (he filmed about 80 percent before his death). Also, in 2015 the whole River family united at PETA’s 35th anniversary party to present the first ever River Phoenix Humanitarian Award.

During the 2020 Academy Awards, Joaquin paid tribute to River while accepting the Best Actor Oscar for Joker by reciting a lyric written by his late brother.

I’ve been a scoundrel all my life. I’ve been selfish. I’ve been cruel at times, hard to work with, and I’m grateful that so many of you in this room have given me a second chance,” he told the audience. “And I think that’s when we’re at our best, when we support each other. Not when we cancel each other out for past mistakes, but when we help each other grow, when we educate each other, when we guide each other towards redemption. That is the best of humanity.”

"When he was when he was 17, my brother wrote this lyric,” he went on. “He said, ‘Run to the rescue with love and peace will follow.'”