River Phoenix‘s 1993 overdose was not the first tragic death of a young actor nor the last, but you wouldn’t know it from the number of songs that have been written to honor and mourn the 23-year-old Hollywood casualty. Kurt Cobain, REM, Beyoncé, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rufus Wainwright, Tom Petty, and many others have paid musical respect to the handsome young star, whose death from a mix of heroin and cocaine helped highlight the rise of heroin chic.
River didn’t live long enough to become a true matinee idol (how many people have actually seen Running On Empty, which got him his Academy Award nom at 18?). But prominent roles in films ranging from My Own Private Idaho to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade promised a fascinating career for the Phoenix, who enamored many with his political activism. He had no previous drug history, and many were shocked when River died on the sidewalk outside of Johnny Depp‘s club, the Viper Room, following a night of hard partying. Brother Joaquin, who would eventually be nominated for an Oscar himself, almost quit acting after his desperate 911 call was played on TV.
Despite claims that River’s last words were “No paparazzi, I want anonymity,” a photographer broke into the funeral home, and sold a snap of his corpse to the National Enquirer for $5,000.