River Phoenix: We Can't Believe It's Been 20 Years

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Even for those of us who didn't come of age until after River Phoenix's reign, it's obvious that the actor had a big impact on Hollywood. Whether it was his young, promising talent, his camera-ready looks, or just his exotic upbringing, he's still fascinating movie fans even twenty years after his death. Here at R29, we're still reeling from his tragic passing, so we're taking today, the anniversary of his death, to reflect on the actor's life and legacy.

A new book, out this month, is doing the same. Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind is a gutting, in-depth look at the young actor's short life, particularly the night that changed everything. Journalist Gavin Edwards interviewed Phoenix's friends and peers to build a picture of the man behind the camera lens, and the result is an upsetting yet fascinating story. Read an exclusive excerpt below, and afterwards, we won't blame you if you get the sudden urge to pop in Stand By Me.



1Photo: Rex USA.
It ends outside a nightclub called the Viper Room, on a Hollywood sidewalk. The young man convulsing on the pavement is named River Phoenix. His brother is on a nearby pay phone, pleading with a 911 operator. His sister is lying on top of his body, trying to stop him from injuring himself as his muscles twitch and his limbs flail against the concrete. River Phoenix has overdosed on a speedball of heroin and cocaine, and has only minutes to live.

It begins twenty-three years earlier, on a peppermint farm. A young woman from New York City had quit her secretarial job, become a hippie, and wandered all the way to Oregon. Now, in a small house with an upside-down horseshoe over the front door, she is in labor, trying to push another life into the world. She declines medical professionals, drugs, a drive to the nearest hospita l— but she is surrounded by friends. And when, at last, her first child is born, the infant’s arrival on planet Earth is greeted with the sound of applause.

Between applause and agony, between the farm and the Viper Room, between peppermint and heroin, there hangs a life: the twenty-three years of River Phoenix. Documenting River’s time on earth are fourteen feature films, one season of a TV show, and a handful of commercials, including spots for cars and cranberry juice. The movies range from excellent to unwatchable; one of them (Running on Empty) yielded an Oscar nomination for River and two others (Stand by Me, My Own Private Idaho) are generally considered classics.

As an IMDb page, it’s not a huge ledger: a legacy of steady work over a decade as River grew from an adorable tyke with a bowl haircut into a strikingly handsome young man. But River had impact that far exceeded the number of films he made; he seemed like he had the chance to be the brightest light of his generation. Not long after his death, Brad Pitt mused, "I think he was the best. Is. Was. Is the best of the young guys. I’m not just saying that now — I said that before he died. He had something I don’t understand."
1Photo: REX USA/Everett Collection.
Even considering that he was an actor, River had a remarkable number of identities in his short life: Child star. Pinup. Proselytizing Christian. Icon to gay men. Street performer. Drug user. Vegan. Singer/songwriter. Rain forest activist. Hollywood scenester. Oscar nominee. These were skins he lived in, or masks he wore for a while. Depending on your point of view, the number of them meant that he had a life full of lies and contradictions, or that he compartmentalized the different aspects of his existence with remarkable success—or that, like many twenty-three-year-olds, he was still discovering who he was, trying on different identities and figuring out how they connected to his fundamental self.

The people who knew him, in whatever context, agreed on one thing, even if they fumbled for the vocabulary to describe it—River had a special quality, they said. Some called it a spark, some called it a light, some called it a soul.

He was the kind of guy, said one friend, “that if you walked outside and it was snowing, you knew the first thing on his mind was making a snowball.” River loved to embrace friends in massive bear hugs, sometimes surprising them by lunging at them from behind. But if somebody hugged him, he’d quickly squirm away. He wanted any embraces to be on his terms.

The Viper Room was a small club: a black box with a stage in the corner. It could hold a couple of hundred people comfortably—more if the fire marshal didn’t pay a visit. But it had the highest celebrity quotient this side of a red carpet, because Johnny Depp was an owner. In the Viper Room on the night of October 30, 1993 (and the early morning of the next day), people in attendance included River; his girlfriend, Samantha Mathis; his sister, Rain; his brother, Joaquin; John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers; Christina Applegate of Married...with Children; and Depp himself, who was playing with his band P, which also included Flea of the Chili Peppers, Al Jourgensen of Ministry, Benmont Tench of Tom Petty’s band, and Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers. One of their songs that night was about going to parties in the Hollywood Hills — it name-checked Michael Stipe, Sofia Coppola, and River Phoenix. River had never heard it, and never would.

When Depp walked off the Viper Room stage, a bouncer told him that a friend of Flea’s was having a medical situation on the sidewalk. Depp stepped out of the club’s back door and surveyed the scene: paramedics treating a young man he didn’t recognize, surrounded by a cluster of onlookers in Halloween costumes. Late that night, Depp found out that the young man had been River, and that he had died.

Depp reflected, “The guy was having a good time but he made a big mistake and now he’s not here. He doesn’t breathe anymore and his mom doesn’t get to see him anymore.” Depp struggled for words. “The thing is, he came with his guitar to the club. You could cut me open and vomit in my chest because that kid...what a beautiful thing that he shows up with his girl on one arm and his guitar on the other. He came to play and he didn’t think he was going to die—nobody thinks they’re going to die. He wanted to have a good time. It’s dangerous. But that’s the thing that breaks my heart, first that he died, but also that he showed up with his guitar, you know? That’s not an unhappy kid.”

Years later, actress Samantha Mathis (“his girl”) said, “It was completely shattering. It was hard to conceive of your mortality at that age. It’s really strange now, to think that I’m not twenty-three, and he’ll always be twenty-three.”

Excerpted from Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind, by Gavin Edwards, published with permission from IT Books/HarperCollins Publishers.