The "It boy" of the 90s was a Hollywood bombshell with an upturned button nose, long blond bowl cut, and sparkling blue eyes. His name was River Phoenix. This teen heartthrob was known for his down-to-earth personality paired with a striking appearance.
The late actor achieved many accomplishments during his lifetime. He was awarded the 1992 Independent Spirit Award for Best Male Lead for his performance in My Own Private Idaho. Phoenix was unlike any actor Hollywood had ever seen. His scattered press interviews allow Generation Z an introduction to his precocious, often unique approach to an emotional acting style.
Phoenix was born River Jude Bottom to hippies, Arlyn and John Lee Bottom, on Aug. 23, 1970. His name is derived from the “river of life” in the novel Siddhartha, written by Herman Hesse and The Beatles’ song “Hey Jude.” He was the eldest of five children, with siblings named Rain, Joaquin, Liberty, and Summer. Phoenix and his family joined the religious cult, Children of God and moved to Venezuela as missionaries. The family decided to leave the cult when tensions arose around encouraging dangerous behavior, like sexual abuse of minors.
After the birth of his youngest sibling, Summer, the family moved to Florida before relocating to Los Angeles. There, they changed their last name to Phoenix. In a 1988 interview, Phoenix described their relocation, “We had come out to Los Angeles to make it.” During this time they experienced extreme poverty, living out of their van and a one-bedroom apartment to survive. The children never attended formal schooling. Phoenix and Rain would sing and play guitar on street corners for money, which is how they were spotted by talent agent, Iris Burton.
His performance as Chris Chambers in the cult classic Stand by Me, directed by Rob Reiner, showcased the beginning of a promising career for the then-15-year-old. The coming of age film was set in the 1950s, following a boy and his three friends, played by Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, and Wil Wheaton in search of a dead body somewhere in rural Oregon. The film is based on Stephen King’s 1982 novel The Body. The movie and cast received rave reviews. The success of Stand By Me allowed Phoenix to star alongside seasoned actors like Harrison Ford and Sidney Portier in Mosquito Coast and Little Nikita. But it was Phoenix's portrayal of Danny Pope in Sidney Limuet’s Running on Empty that put him on Hollywood's radar and earned him his first Academy Award and Golden Globe nomination at 18 years old.
In addition to his love for acting, Phoenix was extremely passionate about the environment. He spent much of his teens and 20s supporting various environmentally conscious organizations such as People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). He was a lifelong vegetarian and purposefully averse to wearing fur, which prompted 14-year-old Phoenix to request his Explorers costume not be made of animal products. He and actress Lisa Bonet were featured on Phil Donahue’s daytime talk show about ecological issues in 1990.
Phoenix had a keen interest in music. He and some friends formed the alternative folk/rock band, Aleka’s Attic, which included his sister, Rain. Phoenix was the lead singer and guitarist. However, his hectic filming schedule and untimely death interfered with the band recording a full-length album. Recently, Rain Phoenix shared some of the band’s unreleased tracks on her creative alliance, LaunchLeft and other streaming platforms.
Oct. 31 has always been bittersweet for his family and friends, but 2021 marked the 28th anniversary of Phoenix’s death at only 23 years old. Phoenix, his girlfriend Samantha Mathis, Rain, and Joaquin Phoenix were at Johnny Depp’s club, The Viper Room, when he ingested a cup of speedball—a combination of heroin and cocaine. He went into cardiac arrest on Sunset Boulevard, and was pronounced dead at Cedars Sinai hospital. His tragic death came as a blow to the film industry. Fans mourned the beloved actor, including Leonardo DiCaprio, who credits Phoenix as a source of inspiration.
His mother Heart Phoenix, formerly Arlyn, founded the non-profit, the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding in 2012. In September 2020 Joaquin Phoenix and actress Rooney Mara honored River by naming their son after him. River has been mentioned in multiple songs, most notably in Beyonce’s “Welcome to Hollywood '' and Tyler the Creator’s “I Ain’t Got Time.” Author Akimi Yoshida, of the popular manga series Banana Fish, referenced River’s appearance for the main character, Ash Lynx. Phoenix was on course to have an illustrious film career. He is remembered as a shining light to the world that only touched the surface of his vast potential.
Feature image from IMDB