The Stand By Me actor died at 23 years old in 1993 outside The Viper Room

River Pheonix, Leonardo DiCaprio
Credit: George Rose/Getty Images; Tony Barson/FilmMagic

Leonardo DiCaprio was one of the last people in Hollywood to see River Phoenix alive.

Speaking about his new movie with Brad Pitt and Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, the star shared one of the “most ominous and sad” experiences he’s had in the entertainment industry.

“I grew up revering River Phoenix as the great actor of my generation, and all I ever wanted was to have just an opportunity to shake his hand,” DiCaprio told Esquire magazine.

“And one night, at a party in Silver Lake, I saw him walk up a flight of stairs. It was almost like something you would see in Vertigo, because I saw there was something in his face, and I’d never met him — always wanted to meet him, always wanted to just have an encounter with him — and he was walking toward me and I kind of froze. And then the crowd got in my way, and I looked back and he was gone.”

After Phoenix vanished in the crowd, DiCaprio didn’t give up on trying to meet the beloved actor.

“I walked back up the stairs and back down, and I was like, ‘Where did he go?’ And he was . . . on his way to The Viper Room,” DiCaprio explained. The Stand By Me actor died from a drug overdose at 23 years old in October of 1993 outside of the iconic Los Angeles landmark.

Realizing that he had seen his acting hero so close to his death shook DiCaprio.

River Phoenix
River Phoenix

“It was almost as if — I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s this existential thing where I felt like . . . he disappeared in front of my very eyes, and the tragedy that I felt afterward of having lost this great influence for me and all of my friends,” the Revenant star continued. “The actor we all talked about. Just to be able to have that, always wanting to just—and I remember extending my hand out, and then . . . Two people came in front and then I looked back, and then he wasn’t there.”

To make the story even more full circle, DiCaprio said that he ended up flying to New Orleans “to meet about Interview with the Vampire to play the part Christian Slater ended up playing.” Phoenix had originally been cast in the role.

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Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood has already garnered critical praise since its premiere at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival this month. One critic called the movie “shocking, gripping, dazzlingly shot.” Another called it the “sweetest and most nostalgic film of Quentin Tarantino’s career.” It marks Tarantino’s ninth movie.

The film takes place in Los Angeles in 1969, and director Tarantino called it a “love letter” to the city in the interview with Esquire.

Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood hits theaters July 26.