Inside the Life of River Phoenix, the Beloved Actor Who Died at 23
Thursday would have been River Phoenix’s 48th birthday -- almost 25 years after his untimely death
Thursday would have been River Phoenix’s 48th birthday — almost 25 years after his untimely death.
The actor was just 23 when he died outside the Viper Room in West Hollywood due to a drug overdose on Oct. 31, 1993, but made his mark on the world after starring in 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.
In Phoenix’s honor, we’re taking a look back at his quick rise to fame and the best work of the gone-but-never-forgotten star.
An Unusual Childhood
Phoenix was born on August 23, 1970 in Madras, Oregon. His family moved around a bit when Phoenix 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,” Phoenix’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.”
An Early Rise to Fame
By the time the family reached California, River was beginning to evince 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 Brothers in 1982. Phoenix 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.”
Phoenix in Stand By Me
An Oscar Nomination and a Blockbuster Role
Two years after his role in Stand By Me, Phoenix 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.
His Other Passions
In addition to acting, two of Phoenix’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 Phoenix 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 his younger brother, Joaquin, and girlfriend, Samantha Mathis.
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 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, Phoenix 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.
On the 20th anniversary of Phoenix’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 Phoenix “a risk-taker, a guy who constantly astonished you.”
Peter Boganovich, his director on 1993’s The Thing Called Love called Phoenix “a very sweet, Huckleberry Finn kind of kid.”
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
Several years after his death, Phoenix still is making an impact. In 2012, Phoenix’s final film, Dark Blood, was finally completed (he filmed about 80 percent before his death). Also, in 2015 the whole Phoenix family united at PETA’s 35th anniversary party to present the first ever River Phoenix Humanitarian Award.