Phoenix at the 61st Academy Awards, 1989
River Jude Bottom
August 23, 1970
Madras, Oregon, U.S.
|Died||October 31, 1993 (aged 23)|
|Cause of death||Combined drug intoxication|
|Resting place||Cremated, remains scattered in Micanopy, Florida, U.S.|
John Lee Bottom
|Relatives||Rain Phoenix (sister)|
Joaquin Phoenix (brother)
Liberty Phoenix (sister)
Summer Phoenix (sister)
|Associated acts||Aleka's Attic|
River Jude Phoenix (né Bottom; August 23, 1970 – October 31, 1993) was an American actor, musician, and animal activist.
Phoenix grew up in an itinerant family, as older brother of Rain Phoenix, Joaquin Phoenix, Liberty Phoenix, and Summer Phoenix. He had no formal schooling, but showed an instinctive talent for the guitar. He began his acting career at age 10 in television commercials. He starred in the science fiction adventure film Explorers (1985) and had his first notable role in 1986's Stand by Me, a coming-of-age film based on the novella The Body by Stephen King. Phoenix made a transition into more adult-oriented roles with Running on Empty (1988), playing Danny Pope, the son of fugitive parents in a well-received performance that earned him a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and My Own Private Idaho (1991), playing a gay hustler Michael Waters in search of his estranged mother. For his performance in the latter, Phoenix garnered enormous praise and won a Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival, along with Best Actor from the National Society of Film Critics.
Phoenix died of a drug overdose in West Hollywood in the early hours of October 31, 1993 at age 23. At the time of his death, he was filming Dark Blood, which was released incomplete 19 years later, in 2012.
Phoenix was born on August 23, 1970 in Madras, Oregon, the first child of Arlyn Dunetz and John Lee Bottom. Phoenix's parents named him after the river of life from the Hermann Hesse novel Siddhartha, and he received his middle name from the Beatles' song "Hey Jude". In an interview with People, Phoenix described his parents as "hippieish". His mother was born in New York to Jewish parents whose families had emigrated from Russia and Hungary. His father was a lapsed Catholic from Fontana, California, of English, German, and French ancestry. In 1968, Phoenix's mother travelled across the United States. While hitchhiking in California she met John Lee Bottom. They married on September 13, 1969, less than a year after meeting.
Phoenix's family moved cross country when he was very young. Phoenix was raised in Micanopy, Florida, a small town outside Gainesville, where they lived in poverty. Phoenix has stated that they lived in a "desperate situation." Phoenix often played guitar while he and his sister sang on street corners for money and food to support their ever-growing family. Phoenix never attended formal school. Screenwriter Naomi Foner later commented, "He was totally, totally without education. I mean, he could read and write, and he had an appetite for it, but he had no deep roots into any kind of sense of history or literature." George Sluizer claimed Phoenix was dyslexic.
Children of God
In 1973, the family joined a religious cult named the Children of God. The family had settled in Caracas, Venezuela, where the Children of God had stationed them to work as missionaries and fruit gatherers. Although Phoenix rarely talked about the cult, he was quoted by Arlyn Phoenix in a 1994 Esquire article as having said "They're disgusting, they're ruining people's lives." According to Vanity Fair magazine, Phoenix was raped at the age of four. In an interview with Details magazine in November 1991, Phoenix stated he lost his virginity at age four while in the Children of God, "but I've blocked it out." Years later his brother Joaquin would claim that River was joking saying "It was a complete and total joke. It was just fucking with the press. It was literally a joke, because he was so tired of being asked ridiculous questions by the press."
Arlyn and John eventually grew disillusioned with the Children of God; Arlyn would later tell a journalist that she and her husband were opposed to the group's practice of "Flirty Fishing", stating: "The group was being distorted by the leader, David Berg, who was getting powerful and wealthy. He sought to attract rich disciples through sex. No way." In the late 1970s, River's family moved in with Arlyn's parents in Florida. The family officially changed their name to Phoenix, after the mythical bird that rises from its own ashes, symbolizing a new beginning.
1980–1985: Early work
Back in the United States, Arlyn began working as a secretary for an NBC broadcaster and John as an exteriors architect. Talent agent Iris Burton spotted River, Joaquin, and their sisters Summer and Rain singing for spare change in Westwood, Los Angeles, and was so charmed by the family that she soon represented the four siblings.
River started doing commercials for Mitsubishi, Ocean Spray, and Saks Fifth Avenue, and soon afterward he and the other children were signed by casting director Penny Marshall from Paramount Pictures. River and Rain were assigned immediately to a show called Real Kids as warm up performers for the audience. In 1980, Phoenix began to fully pursue his work as an actor, making his first appearance on a TV show called Fantasy singing with his sister Rain. In 1982, River was cast in the short-lived CBS television series, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, in which he starred as the youngest brother, Guthrie McFadden. River arrived at the auditions with his guitar and promptly burst into a convincing Elvis Presley impersonation, charming the show producer. By this age, Phoenix was also an accomplished tap dancer.
Almost a year after Seven Brides ended in 1983, Phoenix found a new role in the 1984 television movie Celebrity, where he played the part of young Jeffie Crawford. Although he was only onscreen for about ten minutes, his character was central. Less than a month after Celebrity came the ABC Afterschool Special: Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia. River starred as a young boy who discovers he has dyslexia. Joaquin starred in a small role alongside his brother. In September, the pilot episode of the short-lived TV series It's Your Move aired. Phoenix was cast as Brian and only had one line of dialogue. He also starred as Robert Kennedy's son, Robert Kennedy, Jr., in the TV movie Robert Kennedy and His Times. After his role in Dyslexia was critically acclaimed, Phoenix was almost immediately cast as a major role in his next made-for-TV movie, Surviving: A Family in Crisis. He starred as Philip Brogan alongside Molly Ringwald and Heather O'Rourke. Halfway during the filming of Surviving, Iris Burton contacted him about a possible role in the film Explorers.
In October 1984, Phoenix secured the role of geeky boy-scientist Wolfgang Müller in Joe Dante's large-budget science-fiction film Explorers alongside Ethan Hawke, and production began soon after. Released in the summer of 1985, this was Phoenix's first major motion picture role. In October 1986, Phoenix co-starred alongside Tuesday Weld and Geraldine Fitzgerald in the acclaimed CBS television movie Circle of Violence: A Family Drama, which told a story of domestic elder abuse. This was Phoenix's last television role before achieving film stardom.
1986–1993: Critical success in Stand by Me, Running on Empty, My Own Private Idaho
At 15, Phoenix had a significant role in Rob Reiner's popular coming-of-age film Stand by Me (1986), which made him a household name. The Washington Post opined that Phoenix gave the film its "centre of gravity". Phoenix commented: "The truth is, I identified so much with the role of Chris Chambers that if I hadn't had my family to go back to after the shoot, I'd have probably had to see a psychiatrist." Later that year Phoenix completed Peter Weir's The Mosquito Coast (1986), playing the son of Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren's characters. "He was obviously going to be a movie star," observed Weir. "It's something apart from acting ability. Laurence Olivier never had what River had." During the five-month shoot in Belize, Phoenix began a romance with his co-star Martha Plimpton, a relationship which continued in some form for many years. Phoenix was surprised by the poor reception for the film, feeling more secure about his work in it than he had in Stand by Me. Phoenix was next cast as the lead in the teen comedy-drama A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988), but was disappointed with his performance: "It didn't turn out the way I thought it would, and I put the blame on myself. I wanted to do a comedy, and it was definitely a stretch, but I'm not sure I was even the right person for the role." In 1988, Phoenix starred in Little Nikita (1988) alongside Sidney Poitier. During this time, the Phoenix family continued to move on a regular basis, moving over forty times by the time Phoenix was 18. Phoenix purchased his family a ranch in Micanopy, Florida, near Gainesville in 1987, in addition to a spread in Costa Rica.
His sixth feature film was Sidney Lumet's Running on Empty (1988), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (as well as for a Golden Globe), and received the Best Supporting Actor honor from the National Board of Review. Phoenix jumped to his feet during the ceremony when Kevin Kline beat him to the Oscar. "I had to stop River from running to hug Kevin," recalled his mother Arlyn. "It never crossed his mind that he hadn't won." That year he also portrayed a young Indiana Jones in the box-office hit Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade directed by Steven Spielberg. In 1990, Phoenix was photographed by Bruce Weber for Vogue and was spokesperson for a campaign for Gap. In 1991, Phoenix filmed an acclaimed independent picture called Dogfight co-starring Lili Taylor and directed by Nancy Savoca. In the romantic coming-of-age drama set in San Francisco, Phoenix portrayed a young U.S. Marine on the night before he was shipped off to Vietnam in November 1963. Taylor remarked that Phoenix suffered because he could not distance himself from his character: "He also hadn't gotten into any [drugs] – he was just drinking then, too. It was different ... That was actually a hard part for him, because it was so radically different from who he was. He was such a hippie, and here he was playing this marine. It actually caused him a lot of discomfort. I don't think he enjoyed that, actually, getting into that psyche."
Phoenix met actor Keanu Reeves while Reeves was filming Parenthood with Phoenix's brother, Joaquin; however, Phoenix had reportedly auditioned for Bill in Reeves' then-current film Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure before the role was taken by Alex Winter. The two starred together for the first time (along with Kevin Kline, Tracey Ullman and Joan Plowright) in 1990's I Love You to Death and again in Gus Van Sant's avant-garde film My Own Private Idaho. In his review for Newsweek, David Ansen praised Phoenix's performance: "The campfire scene in which Mike awkwardly declares his unrequited love for Scott is a marvel of delicacy. In this, and every scene, Phoenix immerses himself so deeply inside his character you almost forget you've seen him before: it's a stunningly sensitive performance, poignant and comic at once".
For his role in My Own Private Idaho, Phoenix won Best Actor honors at the Venice Film Festival, the National Society of Film Critics and the Independent Spirit Awards. The film and its success solidified Phoenix's image as an actor with edgy, leading man potential. In that period Phoenix was beginning to use marijuana, cocaine and heroin with some friends.
In the book Gus Van Sant wrote about Phoenix, Pink, the director said clearly that Phoenix was not a regular drug user but only an occasional one, and that the actor had a more serious problem with alcohol. Phoenix had always tried to hide his addictions because he feared that they might ruin his career as they did his relationship with Martha Plimpton.
Phoenix teamed up with Robert Redford and again with Sidney Poitier for the conspiracy/espionage thriller Sneakers (1992). A month later he began production on Sam Shepard's art-house ghost western Silent Tongue (which was released in 1994); he also was beaten out for the role of Paul by Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It. He made a cameo appearance in Van Sant's Even Cowgirls get the Blues (1993), co-starring his sister Rain. Phoenix then starred in Peter Bogdanovich's country music-themed film, The Thing Called Love (1993), the last completed picture before his death. Phoenix began a relationship with co-star Samantha Mathis on the set.
Although Phoenix's movie career was generating most of the income for his family, it has been stated by close friends and relatives that his true passion was music. Phoenix was a singer, songwriter, and an accomplished guitarist. He had begun teaching himself guitar at the age of five and had stated in an interview for E! in 1988 that his family's move to Los Angeles when he was nine was made so that he and his sister "could become recording artists. I fell into commercials for financial reasons and acting became an attractive concept". Prior to securing an acting agent, Phoenix and his siblings tried to forge a career in music by playing cover versions on the streets of the Westwood district of LA, often being moved along by police because gathering crowds would obstruct the pavement. From the first fruits of his film success, Phoenix saved $650 to obtain his prized possession, a guitar with which he wrote what he described as "progressive, ethereal folk-rock".
While working on A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon in 1986, Phoenix had written and recorded a song, "Heart to Get", specifically for the end credits of the movie. 20th Century Fox cut it from the completed film, but director William Richert put it back into place for his director's cut some years later. It was during filming that Phoenix met Chris Blackwell of Island Records; this meeting would later secure Phoenix a two-year development deal with the label. Phoenix disliked the idea of being a solo artist and relished collaboration; therefore he focused on putting together a band. Aleka's Attic were formed in 1987 and the lineup included his sister Rain.
Phoenix was committed to gaining credibility by his own merit and maintained that the band would not use his name when securing performances that were not benefits for charitable organizations. Phoenix's first release was "Across the Way", co-written with bandmate Josh McKay, which was released in 1989 on a benefit album for PETA titled Tame Yourself. In 1991, Phoenix wrote and recorded a spoken word piece called "Curi Curi" for Milton Nascimento's album TXAI. Also in 1991 the Aleka's Attic track "Too Many Colors" was used in the film My Own Private Idaho, which included Phoenix in a starring role.
Aleka's Attic disbanded in 1992, but Phoenix continued writing and performing. While working on the film The Thing Called Love in 1993, Phoenix wrote and recorded the song "Lone Star State of Mine", which he performs in the movie. The song was not included on the film's soundtrack album. In 1996, the Aleka's Attic track "Note to a Friend" was released on the 1996 benefit album In Defense of Animals; Volume II and featured Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers on bass. Phoenix had collaborated with friend John Frusciante after his first departure from Red Hot Chili Peppers and the songs "Height Down" and "Well I've Been" were released on Frusciante's second solo album Smile from the Streets You Hold in 1997. Phoenix was an investor in the original House of Blues (founded by his good friend and Sneakers co-star Dan Aykroyd) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which opened its doors to the public after serving a group of homeless people on Thanksgiving Day 1992.
Phoenix was a dedicated animal rights, environmental and political activist. He was a prominent spokesperson for PETA and won their Humanitarian Award in 1992 for his fund-raising efforts. In 1990, Phoenix wrote an environmental awareness essay about Earth Day targeted at his young fanbase, which was printed in Seventeen magazine. Phoenix was a vegan from the age of seven. His first girlfriend Martha Plimpton recalled: "Once when we were fifteen, River and I went out for a fancy dinner in Manhattan, and I ordered soft-shell crabs. He left the restaurant and walked around on Park Avenue, crying. I went out and he said, 'I love you so much, why? ... ' He had such pain that I was eating an animal, that he hadn't impressed on me what was right." He financially aided a great many environmental and humanitarian organizations, and bought 800 acres (320 ha) of endangered rainforest in Costa Rica. As well as giving speeches at rallies for various groups, Phoenix and his band often played environmental benefits for well-known charities as well as local ones in the Gainesville, Florida area. He campaigned for Bill Clinton in the 1992 US presidential election.
In late October 1993, Phoenix had returned to Los Angeles from Utah to complete the three weeks of interior shots left on his last project, Dark Blood,[a] a film that was finally completed in 2012.
Musician (and future drug counselor) Bob Forrest, a good friend of Phoenix, in his 2013 memoir Running With Monsters, gave one of the most detailed accounts of Phoenix's final days and the moments leading up to his death. Forrest said that in the days leading up to his death, Phoenix was staying with Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante. The two would do large amounts of drugs together, embarking on huge binges, and barely if ever slept. He said the drug routine was consistent for all of them, as he was there doing drugs with them. First they would smoke crack or inject cocaine intravenously, then inject heroin.
On the evening of October 30, 1993, Phoenix was to perform with the band P which featured his good friends Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, actor Johnny Depp, Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers along with Al Jourgensen of Ministry at The Viper Room, a Hollywood nightclub partly owned at the time by Depp. Forrest claims that Phoenix and Frusciante arrived at the club together, where they would meet up with Phoenix's girlfriend Samantha Mathis, Phoenix's brother Joaquin, and their sister Rain, along with Flea and Depp. After arriving, cocaine was immediately passed around. Forrest later said that Phoenix was obviously already high and was, as he put it, "unsteady as a boxer who had taken one too many head-shots during a fifteen-round bout."
During the performance by P, Forrest said that Phoenix tapped him on the shoulder to tell him he was not feeling well, and that he thought he had overdosed. Forrest said to Phoenix that he didn't think that he was overdosing because he could stand and talk. Nonetheless, he offered to take Phoenix home, but Phoenix declined, saying he was feeling better. A few moments later, Forrest said that a commotion erupted in the club and he went outside to find Mathis screaming as her boyfriend was lying on the sidewalk having convulsions. Joaquin called 9-1-1, but was unable to determine whether Phoenix was breathing. His sister Rain proceeded to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
When the ambulance arrived, Phoenix was still alive and Flea went with him to Cedars-Sinai Hospital. When Forrest arrived at the hospital he saw Mathis standing in the hallway crying. Further attempts to resuscitate Phoenix at the hospital were unsuccessful. He was pronounced dead at 1:51 a.m. PST on the morning of October 31, 1993 at the age of 23.
In the 2013 book, Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind, Gavin Edwards blames Frusciante for being the one who gave Phoenix the drugs that took his life. In an interview with director William Richert, Edwards discusses Phoenix's death, stating that Samantha Mathis also accused Frusciante.
River didn't want to go that night. She (Mathis) offered to take Joaquin (Leaf back then) and Rain for him since Joaquin was still underage. River changed his mind at the last minute and ran to meet them at the elevator. So River arrived with Samantha, Joaquin, and Rain, they got a booth in the back and he waited to be invited up to play. He stayed sober because he was planning on getting onstage with Flea. After he found out that there is not enough room onstage for him, he was going to take his guitar back to his table and play." According to Richert, after reaching the club, Mathis said John Frusciante approached their table, offered River a little plastic blue cup and said, "drink this, Riv, it'll make you feel fabulous." River drank it down and suffered an immediate reaction. His neck bulged, his back twitched, and he complained, "something’s wrong." He then vomited at the table.
Richert said that Mathis would later change her story, no longer mentioning Frusciante by name. Richert also mentioned that following the death of Phoenix, Frusciante became paranoid, and threatened to kill himself because he feared that he would be arrested. He claimed that Frusciante locked himself away for a few days in the mansion where the Red Hot Chili Peppers recorded their 1991 album Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Richert said that Johnny Depp had to console Frusciante, and assure him that nobody was going to jail. At the time, Phoenix's father was also angry with Frusciante over his son's death, and in an interview stated: "Tell him if I find him I'm going to kill him. He's very rich and very young, 23 like River, but he's a terrible addict who has become a pusher..." The family never pressed charges against anyone for their son's death.
In 2018, Samantha Mathis opened up about Phoenix's death. Mathis said that she and Phoenix had originally only intended to drop off Phoenix's siblings at the Viper Room on the way to her house, but Phoenix decided to stay for a while after he was asked to perform with the band. She insisted that during their time dating she had known him to be sober, but "In the days before he died, though, I knew something was going on ... I didn't see anyone doing drugs [that night] but he was high in a way that made me feel uncomfortable." She added that "the heroin that killed him didn't happen until he was in the Viper Room. I have my suspicions about what was going on, but I didn't see anything." Mathis went to the bathroom, and on her way back to the table saw Phoenix apparently engaged in a scuffle with another person. The bouncers removed both men from the club. Mathis shouted at the other man "What have you done? What are you on?", only to be told by another person "Leave him alone, you're spoiling his high." By that point, according to her account, Phoenix had fallen to the ground and begun to convulse.
According to Gibby Haynes, the band was performing their song "Michael Stipe" while Phoenix was outside the venue having seizures on the sidewalk. When the news filtered through the club, Flea left the stage and rushed outside. By that time, paramedics had arrived on the scene and found Phoenix turning cyanotic, in full cardiac arrest and in asystole. They administered medication in an attempt to restart his heart.
The following day, the club became a makeshift shrine, with fans and mourners leaving flowers, pictures and candles on the sidewalk, as well as graffiti messages on the walls of the venue. A sign was placed in the window that read, "With much respect and love to River and his family, The Viper Room is temporarily closed. Our heartfelt condolences to all his family, friends and loved ones. He will be missed." The club remained closed for a week. Depp continued to close the club every year on October 31 until selling his share in 2004.
Before his death, Phoenix's image—one he bemoaned in interviews—had been squeaky-clean, owing in part to his public dedication to his various social, political, humanitarian, and dietary interests that were not always popular in the 1980s. As a result, his death elicited a vast amount of coverage from the media. Phoenix was described by one writer as "the vegan James Dean," and comparisons were made regarding the youth and sudden deaths of both actors.
The November 15, 1993, autopsy found that "Toxicology studies showed high concentrations of morphine and cocaine in the blood, as well as other substances in smaller concentrations." The cause of death was "acute multiple drug intoxication", including cocaine and morphine.
On November 24, 1993, Arlyn (later changing her name to "Heart") Phoenix published an open letter in the Los Angeles Times on her son's life and death. It read, in part:
His friends, co-workers and the rest of our family know that River was not a regular drug user. He lived at home in Florida with us and was almost never a part of the "club scene" in Los Angeles. He had just arrived in L.A. from the pristine beauty and quietness of Utah where he was filming for six weeks. We feel that the excitement and energy of the Halloween nightclub and party scene were way beyond his usual experience and control. How many other beautiful young souls, who remain anonymous to us, have died by using drugs recreationally? It is my prayer that River's leaving in this way will focus the attention of the world on how painfully the spirits of his generation are being worn down. River made such a big impression during his life on Earth. He found his voice and found his place. And even River, who had the whole world at his fingertips to listen, felt deep frustration that no one heard. What is it going to take? Chernobyl wasn't enough. Exxon Valdez wasn't enough. A bloody war over oil wasn't enough. If River's passing opens our global heart, then I say, thanks dear, beloved son, for yet another gift to all of us.
Unreleased and unfilmed projects
River's sudden death prevented him from playing various roles for which he had already been cast:
- Phoenix was due to begin work on Neil Jordan's Interview with the Vampire (1994) two weeks after his death. He was to play Daniel Molloy, the interviewer, which then went to Christian Slater, who donated his entire $250,000 salary to two of Phoenix's favorite charitable organizations: Earth Save and Earth Trust. The film has a dedication to Phoenix after the end credits.
- The Guardian suggested in 2003 "it was likely that Phoenix would have followed [Interview with the Vampire] by appearing as Susan Sarandon's son in Safe Passage (1994), a role that went to Sean Astin.
- Phoenix had signed onto the lead role in Broken Dreams, a screenplay written by John Boorman and Neil Jordan (to be directed by Boorman), and co-starring Winona Ryder. The film was put on hold due to Phoenix's death. In June 2012, it was announced that Caleb Landry Jones had been cast in the role.
- Gus Van Sant had gotten Phoenix to agree to play the role of Cleve Jones in Milk when he was originally planning on making the movie in the early 1990s. The role was eventually played by Emile Hirsch in 2008. When asked in Interview magazine, "You were going to do a movie with River about Andy Warhol, right?" Van Sant said, "Yeah. River kind of looked like Andy in his younger days. But that project never really went forward."
- In 1988, Phoenix was reportedly carrying around a copy of the 1978 memoir The Basketball Diaries. He had heard a movie version was in the works and wanted to play the autobiographical role of Jim Carroll. The film was sent into hiatus on numerous occasions with Phoenix being cited as the main contender for the role each time. The Basketball Diaries was made in 1995 with Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead.
- He had expressed interest in playing the 19th-century poet Arthur Rimbaud in Total Eclipse (1995) by Polish director Agnieszka Holland. Phoenix died before the movie was cast, with the role eventually going to Leonardo DiCaprio.
Every year on October 31, fans pay tribute to the life of the actor. His famous quote "Acting is like a Halloween mask that you put on." is frequently mentioned by fans on social media. Other male actors who have credited Phoenix as a major influence as well as paving the way for them include Leonardo DiCaprio, Jared Leto, James Franco, and many more.
During his acceptance speech for Best Actor at the 92nd Academy Awards, Joaquin Phoenix honored his brother by stating "When he was 17, my brother [River] wrote this lyric. He said: 'run to the rescue with love and peace will follow.'" 
In culture and media
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Phoenix's status as a teen idol and promising young actor, and his subsequent premature death, made him a frequent subject in popular culture media. He first gained references in music with Brazilian singer Milton Nascimento writing the song "River Phoenix: Letter to a Young Actor" about him after having seen Phoenix in The Mosquito Coast (1986). The song appears on the 1989 release Miltons.
Phoenix's friends, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, wrote a few lines for him in their hit song "Give It Away" from the 1991 album Blood Sugar Sex Magik: "There's a River born to be a giver, keep you warm won't let you shiver, his heart is never gonna wither ..." Phoenix also appears in the music video for their song, "Breaking the Girl" and following his death, the band paid tribute to him with the song "Transcending" (originally titled "River") on their 1995 album, One Hot Minute. Red Hot Chili Peppers' guitarist, John Frusciante, dedicated the song "Smile From The Streets You Hold" to River Phoenix. Frusciante wrote the first part of the song about their friendship while Phoenix was still alive. After Phoenix's death, Frusciante wrote the second part in his memory.
Phoenix has been the subject of numerous other tributes in song and other media. The band R.E.M. dedicated their album Monster to Phoenix (as Michael Stipe and Phoenix were close friends), and their song "E-Bow the Letter" from 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi is said to have been written from a letter Michael Stipe wrote to Phoenix but never sent because of the actor's death. River Phoenix is referenced in the song "Sacred Life" from the eponymous album by the British band The Cult: "River Phoenix was so young, Don't you know your prince has gone?"
Ex-10000 Maniacs singer Natalie Merchant wrote and recorded a controversial song, simply named "River", featured on her 1995 solo album Tigerlily (Elektra). While she deplores this death of a "Young & strong Hollywood son" who was "one of ours", she criticizes strongly the excesses of the people's "vulture's candor" and the media's greedy attention to the event and adds: "Why don't you let him be ... /Give his father & his mother peace", as well as: "It's only a tragedy", ending with the real question behind it: "How could we save him / From himself?"
Musician Sam Phillips has the dedication "For River" on her album Martinis & Bikinis. Other songs inspired by Phoenix include Dana Lyons' "Song For River Phoenix (If I Had Known)", Grant Lee Buffalo's "Halloween",× Ellis Paul's song "River", found on his 1994 release Stories, Rufus Wainwright's "Matinee Idol", Nada Surf's "River Phoenix", Stereophonics's "Chris Chambers", Jux County's "River Phoenix", and Santa Cruz's "River Phoenix" and "River Phoenix (Part 2)".
In her 1996 album Woman & a Man, Belinda Carlisle referenced River in the song "California". The song opens and closes with the line "I remember I was in a tanning salon, when I heard that River Phoenix was gone." In Jay-Z's album, Kingdom Come, the lyrics of "Hollywood" list him as one of the many fatalities of the pressures of Hollywood. New York band Japanther featured a song on their album Skuffed Up My Huffy (2008) entitled "River Phoenix", which is about certain events in his life and delivers the chorus "River Phoenix didn't mean it". In the song "The Viper Room", Wesley Willis takes an abrupt turn from an otherwise glowing account of the club by noting Phoenix's death, stating that he "...collapsed and died like a Doberman." On his 2013 album Not Thinking Straight, British recording artist Matt Fishel referenced Phoenix in the song "When Boy Meets Boy". Its lyrics portray a bedroom in which the walls are "covered in posters of idols and rock stars who had died too young" and the song's third verse contains the line "I paid tribute with a little wink to River Phoenix hanging on the wall". In the song's accompanying music video, an animated poster of Phoenix hangs on a wall next to Jimi Hendrix, Freddie Mercury and Kurt Cobain.
Gus Van Sant, with whom Phoenix worked in the film My Own Private Idaho, dedicated his 1994 movie Even Cowgirls Get the Blues as well as his 1997 novel Pink to him. Experimental Santa Cruz filmmaker Cam Archer also produced a documentary called Drowning River Phoenix as part of his American Fame series. During performances on November 13 and November 15, 1993, and February 12, 1994, and one of Nirvana's last USA shows in Seattle on January 7, 1994, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana dedicated the song "Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sunbeam" to Phoenix (among other celebrities who died young), just a few months before Cobain's death. Tom Petty dedicated "Ballad of Easy Rider" to Phoenix when he played in his and Phoenix's hometown of Gainesville, Florida in November 1993.
The British band Manic Street Preachers mentions Phoenix in their song "Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart" (from the album The Holy Bible, 1994) in the following line: "...I'm thinking right now of Hollywood tragedy; Big Mac; smack; Phoenix, R; please smile y'all ..." Phoenix was the subject of a controversial song by Australian group TISM titled "(He'll Never Be An) Ol' Man River" the single originally featured a mock-up of Phoenix's tombstone as its cover art in 1995. The chorus features the line, "I'm on the drug that killed River Phoenix." On the song "Love Me, Hate Me" by rapper Ja Rule, he numerates different ways he could die as a celebrity, and one of the lyrics says "I might OD in a club off drugs like River Phoenix". In the 1997 musical, The Fix, Phoenix is alluded to in the song "Mistress of Deception" in the lines, "Hot young actor died last night at an L.A. club/Ecstasy and booze/And too much NyQuil/Had the sweetest face/Warm and shy and innocent/Sexy in that careless kinda way/The newsman said his heart just stopped like that ..." The Hugh Cornwell song "Rain on the River" from his 2009 album Hooverdam is directly about the death of Phoenix, as his sister Rain sits over her dying brother on the sidewalk outside The Viper Room.
A lesser known reference to River Phoenix was Final Fantasy VIII's main protagonist Squall Leonhart. Tetsuya Nomura, the lead character designer for the game, stated he modeled Squall on River's visage during development, and even gave Squall the same birthdate. The 2015 TV series, Autopsy: The Last Hours of... featured River Phoenix as well as a number of other celebrities. The scene of Phoenix's death also merits several mentions in William Gibson's book Spook Country.
Rapper Tyler, the Creator references Phoenix in his 2017's Flower Boy, perceived by some critics as a kind of coming out album, as a sex symbol. In the song "I Ain't Got Time", he writes in the first verses "Boy, I need a Kleenex. How I got this far? Boy, I can't believe it. That I got this car, so I take the scenic. Passenger a white boy, look like River Phoenix".
Honors and rankings
Phoenix has been ranked numerous times on a number of lists recognizing his talent and career. He was listed as one of twelve "Promising New Actors of 1986" in "John Willis' Screen World" (2004). Phoenix was voted at No. 64 on a "Greatest Movie Stars of All Time" poll by Channel 4 television in the UK. The poll was made up wholly of votes from prominent figures of the acting and directing communities. He was ranked No. 86 in Empire magazine's "The Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time" list in 1997.
His life and death has been the subject of an E! True Hollywood Story, an A&E Biography and an episode of Final 24, which contains a dramatic reconstruction of his final hours and death. He was also referred to as "This century's James Dean" in episode 10 ("Mi Casa, Su Casa Loma") of the first season of Being Erica. His death was listed as No. 16 in the top 101 events in E! Television's "101 Most Shocking Moments in Entertainment". In 2010, Phoenix was voted by GQ Magazine as one of the "50 Most Stylish Men of the Past Half Century".
|1982–1983||Seven Brides for Seven Brothers||Guthrie McFadden||21 episodes|
Young Artist Award for Best Young Actor in a Drama Series 1984
Nominated – Young Artist Award for Best Young Actor in a New Television Series 1982
|1984||Celebrity||Jeffie Crawford (Age 11)||Miniseries|
|1984||ABC Afterschool Special||Brian Ellsworth||Episode: "Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia"|
Nominated – Young Artist Award for Best Young Actor in a Family Film Made for Television shared with Joaquin Phoenix
|1984||It's Your Move||Brian||Episode: "Pilot"|
|1985||Robert Kennedy & His Times||Robert Kennedy, Jr. (Part 3)||Miniseries|
|1985||Family Ties||Eugene Forbes||Episode: "My Tutor"|
|1985||Surviving: A Family in Crisis||Philip Brogan||Television film|
Young Artist Award for Best Young Actor Starring in a Television Special or Mini-Series
|1986||Circle of Violence: A Family Drama||Chris Benfield||Television film|
|1986||"Stand by Me"||Ben E. King||Himself|
|1991–1992||"Breaking the Girl"||Red Hot Chili Peppers||Himself|
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