It was 20 years ago today that River Phoenix died on a dirty sidewalk in Hollywood. If that sentence sounds a bit harsh, well, it’s supposed to. That’s the unfortunate reality of the what happened on October 31, 1993. One of the most promising actors of his generation had just been inside of Johnny Depp‘s notoriously hedonistic rock club, the Viper Room, hoping to join his buddy Flea (from the Red Hot Chili Peppers) on-stage, but instead decided to ingest a cocktail—a literal cocktail!—that contained heroin and cocaine. Just a few minutes later, he was convulsing near a parking meter on Sunset Boulevard; he never regained consciousness. He was 23 years old.
Sadly, we’ll never get to know whether or not River Phoenix would’ve been able to successfully traverse that very fine tightrope that popular child actors must cross to carry them into the realm of successful adult actors. All we’re left with is a resume that contains a few universally beloved roles (Stand By Me, Dogfight, his Oscar nominated work in Running With Empty), a promising cameo that hinted at the potential of superstardom to come (as young Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade), one transformative performance (My Own Private Idaho), and a series of forgettable characters (basically everything else on River Phoenix’s IMDB page). Due to his tragic and untimely death, we’ll always remember him as being a preternaturally gifted actor that’s frozen in time, one who possessed that rare combination of matinee idol looks with an ability to project the kind of emotional depth that lept off the screen and burrowed straight into your heart.
We’re currently making our way through an excellent new biography of River Phoenix by journalist Gavin Edwards called Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind, which sheds some light on his painful childhood growing up in South America as a member of a religious cult called Children Of God, his incredibly strong beliefs about veganism (he once dumped then-girlfriend Martha Plimpton because she ordered soft shell crab on a date), and the rambunctious posse of hardcore drug abusers he fell in with during the last few years of his life. It’s an entertaining and insightful read about the mercurial talent, who in many ways seems very Kurt Cobain-esque in his demeanor. More than anything else, though, the book has served as a gateway for us to go back and re-explore River Phoenix’s all-too-brief career and ponder where it all might have ended up had life turned out differently for him.
[Photo Credit: Splash News]