River Phoenix biography

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River Phoenix biography

Actor. Born August 23, 1970 in Madras, Oregon. River Phoenix was one of the most promising young actors in Hollywood at the time of his death in 1993, at the age of 23. A member of a "second wave" of so-called Brat Packers, Phoenix's name was often mentioned alongside those of Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, and Martha Plimpton, a group that had been very successful as teenagers and held promise for even better work. River Phoenix is remembered as much for his small but impressive body of work as for his tragic death. Breaking onto the big screen in 1986 with Stand By Me, Phoenix also appeared that year in Mosquito Coast opposite Harrison Ford. In 1988, he starred with Martha Plimpton in the drama Running on Empty. He went on to win audiences with his mature performance as a male prostitute in Gus Van Sant’s gritty drama My Own Private Idaho (1991), costarring Keanu Reeves, and his swashbuckling athleticism in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), costarring Harrison Ford and Sean Connery. Other noteworthy films included I Love You To Death (1990), costarring Kevin Kline, Tracey Ullman, and William Hurt; Dogfight (1991) with Lili Taylor; and Sneakers (1992), with Robert Redford and Sidney Poitier. Phoenix came from a large, deeply religious, activist family. Born in a log cabin in Oregon, young River moved with his parents, John and Arlyn, to South America, where they were to minister for a religion called Church of God. However, John and Arlyn broke with the sect over dogmatic differences and soon the family was just scraping by. At that time River had a sister, Rain, with whom he sang in the streets of Caracas, Venezuela, to earn food money when both were under 10 years old. The other Phoenix siblings are Joaquin (once known as Leaf), who is a successful actor in his own right, Summer, and Liberty.

Over the years, River came to be known for his sensitivity, intensity, and dedication to living without hurting fellow creatures. A devout vegan, he refused to wear leather, eat eggs or dairy products, and once lectured fellow actor Christine Lahti for drinking a Diet Coke. Despite the healthy appearance of his lifestyle, Phoenix was a regular at the Viper Room, a private club owned by actor Johnny Depp. The Viper Room had been created as a place where celebrities could escape autograph-seekers. Rumor had it that it was also a place where celebrities could buy and use drugs in private, in a special back room.

As an electric guitarist, Phoenix played with a band called Aleka's Attic, and was due to play at the Viper Room the evening he died, on October 31, 1993. Phoenix was accompanied by his girlfriend, actress Samantha Mathis, his sister Rain, and his brother Leaf (Joaquin). Reports say that Phoenix was seen shaking and sweating in the men's room earlier in the evening; he was carried outside by Mathis and Leaf at a little after midnight, and laid on the sidewalk. There he suffered seizures for an indeterminate amount of time before he became still. A celebrity photographer (who did not take pictures of these terrible events) said later that Leaf was yelling at the others to leave River alone, that he would recover. Leaf finally relented after 25 minutes and ran to a pay phone; when the paramedics arrived at the hospital at 1:34, they had not succeeded in coaxing a pulse out of him. About 20 minutes later, River Phoenix was pronounced dead. People who knew Phoenix and his strong opinions were surprised into disbelief when he died of a drug overdose. And yet, no one familiar with the pressures of the Los Angeles movie world could be totally shocked. Phoenix's agent, Iris Burton, speculated that Phoenix had probably been using drugs for some time, and felt it was time to face the terrible truth and admit that the system destroys its most promising people, instead of finding excuses or laying blame for his premature death with Phoenix, his friends or family. For many days following his death, the media speculated that he had died of a stroke or had been stricken with an epileptic seizure. They reported that his brother had admitted that Phoenix had taken Valium, but it was more than a week later when the truth became known: Phoenix died of a combination of cocaine and heroin, the same combination that killed comedian John Belushi more than ten years before. Perhaps stress played a part in his drug use: Phoenix had just returned from working 12-hour days in Utah shooting his last film, Dark Blood. Featuring only three actors (the other two were Judy Davis and Jonathan Pryce), the film couldn't be finished due to too many yet unfilmed crucial scenes. He had also been cast in the movie version of Anne Rice's book, Interview with a Vampire, but had not begun work on it. At the time of his death, Phoenix's family asked that any donations made in his name be made over to his favorite charities: Earth Save in Santa Cruz and Earth Trust in Malibu.

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