Celebrity Then And Now
Publication: . Posted by Lexi Schwartz
Celebrity Then And Now
Posted by Lexi Schwartz
Stand By Me, Running on Empty
Currently Known For:
1985 - 1993
August 23, 1970
Stand By Me, Running on Empty
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There have been many tragic stories in Hollywood, but there are few that are quite as sad as the story of River Phoenix. The promising young actor had gotten off to an amazing start in his career, but had it cut short in his early 20s at one of the most popular clubs in Los Angeles. Though the acting world still has his brother Joaquin performing at a high level, there’s still a sense of loss in the business after River’s death in the early 1990s.
River was the first born of his siblings for parents John Lee Bottom and Arlyn Dunetz. He entered the world on August 23, 1970 in Madras, Oregon, though he grew up in Florida. Phoenix and his siblings were homeschooled and didn’t have much money, which led to them joining a religious community known as the Children of God. It wasn’t an easy time for Phoenix and his family, as the group had been considered by many to be a cult, and Phoenix had even made that claim himself, saying they were ruining lives.
The family was in Venezuela when they decided to leave the group and changed their last name to what we’re familiar with now. Phoenix’s mother got her foot in the door with show business by taking a receptionist position at NBC which allowed Phoenix and his siblings to be introduced to an agent. A lot of potential was seen in the boy, and he got his start in acting.
Phoenix’s debut came in 1982 when he starred in the show “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” at just 12 years old, playing Guthrie McFadden for just over 20 episodes. After the show finished in 1983, Phoenix had appeared on television quite a bit, starring in multiple miniseries and television movies with guest appearances on shows like “Hotel” and “Family Ties”.
1985 marked the first time that Phoenix had been on the big screen, starring in “Explorers”. The big breakout hit came the following year with Phoenix starring in the Stephen King adaptation of “Stand by Me”, as well as “The Mosquito Coast”. The latter film was Phoenix’s favorite, saying he did his best work. “I know it wasn’t such a big hit, but for me it was more meaningful than anything else I’d ever done.”
More success came for Phoenix in the subsequent years, including the 1988 film “Running on Empty” in which Phoenix was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Oscar before wrapping up the decade by playing a young Indiana Jones in the opening scene of “The Last Crusade”.
Phoenix got off to a hot start in the early 1990s with movies like “Dogfight”, “Sneakers” and “My Own Private Idaho”. In 1993 he added the films “Silent Tongue” and “The Thing Called Love” while also filming what would be his final movie with “Dark Blood”. The movie would have to wait for its release, though, taking nearly 20 years to make it to theaters.
Sadly, Phoenix had his life cut far too short in October 1993. The night before Halloween, Phoenix had arrived in Los Angeles with Joaquin and Rain when he went to the Viper Room, a popular nightclub in the city. Phoenix had been partying at the club, and it unfortunately involved using a lot of illegal substances. In the earliest hours of the morning, Phoenix began to overdose in front of his siblings and his girlfriend, Samantha Mathis.
Phoenix had stopped breathing as a result of the overdose and paramedics were called to the scene. It happened just outside of the Viper Room, with many inside not knowing what was going on, including Phoenix’s friend Johnny Depp, who was performing music. The ambulance arrived and rushed Phoenix to the hospital, but they weren’t able to revive him. Phoenix was officially pronounced dead on Halloween morning, and was just 23 years old.
Normally, when a celebrity passes away from an overdose, there are signs that it was likely to happen. For Phoenix, however, there hadn’t been many signals that he could’ve had his life claimed by drugs. Mathis said that Phoenix hadn’t used drugs during their relationship, and those that were close to him said the same. Still, the coroner officially ruled Phoenix’s death as an overdose.
Phoenix was cremated and his ashes were sent to Florida, leaving behind a short yet memorable legacy. There were plenty of reactions to his death, as well, including his publicist Sue Patricola. “This place, Los Angeles, is poison,” she said. “Especially for someone who’s grown up in an isolated part of the world - in an idealistic world - and then comes here. This place is too much. We’re a town of excess.”
Mathis hadn’t talked about the death for many years, but after a quarter century broke her silence. “I knew something was wrong that night, something I didn’t understand,” she said. “I didn’t see anyone doing drugs but he was high in a way that made me feel uncomfortable - I was in way over my head.” As for how life would be with Phoenix still around, she said “I think if River was still here, I think he’d be acting, directing, saving the environment, just living and hanging out. Oh gosh, wouldn’t that be nice?”
As for his brother, Joaquin, he left acting for more than a year following River’s death. “I felt like I was in an altered state,” he said. “Now, more than ever I wish I could talk to him.”