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River Phoenix: 20 Facts

Published: 10/31/2013
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River Phoenix (Photo by Nancy R. Schiff / Getty Images)

It hardly seems possible that it's been 20 years since River Phoenix died. On Oct. 31, 1993, Phoenix was a young man –– only 23 –– at the peak of his career. A movie star, a singer and an activist, he had recently completed movies and new projects in the works. His death was a shock to his friends and fans alike.

Phoenix's life was a fascinating one, very different from a typical 23-year-old. In his honor, we present 20 facts about River Phoenix.

1. River Phoenix was born River Jude Bottom in Madras, Ore. on Aug. 23, 1970. His first name was chosen for the "river of life" in Herman Hesse's novel Siddhartha, and his middle name was an homage to the Beatles song "Hey Jude."

2. When River was three years old, his family joined the religious group Children of God and became missionaries in Venezuela. When they became disillusioned with the group after a few years, they returned to the U.S., settling in Florida and changing their last name to Phoenix to symbolize their rebirth.

3. Phoenix never attended school.

4. Phoenix was a vegan since childhood, making the decision when he became upset seeing fisherman near his Venezuela home killing their catch.

5. Phoenix and his sisters Summer, Rain, and Liberty and brother Joaquin often sang on the street for spare change. Talent agent Iris Burton caught the act and was so charmed that she signed the family. Auditions soon followed.

6. It was on the short-lived TV show Seven Brides for Seven Brothers that Phoenix had his first break, playing the youngest brother when he was 12 years old. Phoenix caught the eye of producers by doing an Elvis Presley impression at his audition.

7. Phoenix made his breakthrough to stardom in Rob Reiner's coming-of-age drama Stand by Me in 1986. Fifteen-year-old Phoenix identified strongly with his character, Chris Chambers, commenting "If I hadn't had my family to go back to after the shoot, I'd have probably had to see a psychiatrist."

8. That same year, Phoenix played Harrison Ford's son in Mosquito Coast. He began dating his costar Martha Plimpton, a relationship that would continue for years.

9. In 1989, Phoenix received an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in Running on Empty. He lost to Kevin Kline, but his mother, Arlyn Phoenix, recalled that he was as excited for Kline as he would have been if he himself had won.
 

 

 

10. On an early date with Plimpton –– dinner at a fancy restaurant –– Phoenix became distraught when his girlfriend ordered soft-shell crabs. The meal was so far from his vegan ideals that he left the restaurant in tears, Plimpton later recalled.

11. In interviews, Phoenix said he didn't choose roles he thought would advance his career, but roles he wanted to play. Characters he played included the young Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a Marine in Dogfight, a gay street hustler in My Own Private Idaho, and a country musician in The Thing Called Love, the last film he completed before his death.

12. Phoenix was a dedicated activist for the environment and animal rights. He was a spokesperson for PETA, which honored him with its Humanitarian Award in 1992.

13. When the original House of Blues opened in Cambridge, Mass., Phoenix was an investor.

14. Though Phoenix was best known for acting, he also had a deep passion for music. He formed the band Aleka's Attic with sister Rain. Though they never released a full album, they sold cassette tapes of their music and their songs were included on two PETA benefit compilations.
 

 

 

 

 

15. Among Phoenix's friends were many greats of the 1980s and '90s alternative scene: actor Keanu Reeves, singer Michael Stipe of R.E.M., bassist Michael "Flea" Balzary and other members of Red Hot Chili Peppers, and film director Gus Van Sant.

16. Phoenix's image was of a squeaky-clean young man, thanks to his veganism and devotion to environmental causes. In interviews, he chafed against the one-note stereotype, which he felt didn't fully describe him.

17. Phoenix died on Oct. 31, 1993 outside Hollywood nightclub The Viper Room with his siblings Rain and Joaquin at his side. Toxicology reports showed that the cause of death was a drug overdose.

18. Phoenix's close friend Keanu Reeves was filming Speed with Sandra Bullock, who had recently starred with Phoenix in The Thing Called Love, when they received the news of his death. Filming of the movie nearly stopped in response to the tragedy. When it resumed, the filmmakers were careful to give Reeves the space he needed to grieve for his friend.

19. In the months before his death, Phoenix was filming Dark Blood, which was incomplete when he died. Almost 20 years later, the film was completed, tied together with narration to fill out scenes that hadn't been shot. It debuted at the Netherlands Film Festival in 2012.
 

 

 

AP Photo
River Phoenix from Dark Blood (AP Photo/Miami International Film Festival)

 

 

20. Many of Phoenix's friends and contemporaries remembered him in song after his death, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers with "Transcending" to Natalie Merchant with "River," Stereophonics with "Chris Chambers," and more.

Written by Linnea Crowther. Find her on Google+.

 

 

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