What You Didn’t Know About River Phoenix

The following article includes mentions of child abuse and sexual assault.

Many folks focus on the end of ’80s superstar River Phoenix’s existence, but there’s much more to know about this gifted guy beyond how, where, and why he passed away. During his short life — he was only 23 when he died — Phoenix was a force to be reckoned with in the entertainment industry and as a person in his own right. This was largely due to his natural talent, swoon-worthy looks, charisma, personal ideals, and special swagger. 

Also realize that the mesmerizing star was at the top of his game when he died after collapsing out in front of the popular West Hollywood nightclub The Viper Room on Halloween night in 1991. If this tragedy hadn’t taken place, he would have turned 50 in 2020. 

Nevertheless, one memorable situation after the next added up to fill out this fascinating actor’s life by the time he met his tragic fate. So, keep reading to learn about the many facets of this unique thespian’s short time on earth — and don’t be surprised if you learn a litany of unbelievable details about what happened to River Phoenix along his way to ultimately finding fame, Hollywood-style.

If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.

River Phoenix was not the deceased star's original name

River Phoenix was not the late star’s original last name. Rather it was Bottom. As in River Bottom. He arrived on August 23, 1970 on “a peppermint farm to hippie parents” in Madras, Oregon, per USA Today. As Biography recounted, John Lee Bottom and Arlyn Dunetz named their firstborn “after the river of life in Hermann Hesse’s book ‘Siddhartha.'” 

Continuing with the nature theme, the Bottoms called two of their other children Rain and Summer (pictured above with brother Joaquin Phoenix). Early on, Joaquin used the nom de plume Leaf, while his other sister was named Liberty. After the youngest Bottom, Summer, came into the world in 1979, her parents decided to forego John’s surname, and instead picked Phoenix “with its connotations of a magical bird rising up out of the ashes,” according to The Guardian. The name stuck.

All of the Phoenix children were born in different places: River arrived in Oregon, Rain Joan of Arc in Texas, Joaquin Rafael in San Juan, Libertad Mariposa (Liberty Butterfly) in Caracas, and Summer Joy in Florida.

When he was young, River Phoenix was constantly moved from one place to another

Starting in the early 1970s, River Phoenix traveled the world with his former fruit-picking parents, who had then become missionaries for Children of God, a new church existing under the tutelage of controversial founder David Berg. As a result, noted The Guardian, River never went to a formal school, and before settling in Hollywood, River’s family lived in Texas, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Venezuela. The family’s nomadic lifestyle wasn’t always easy on the children. As a 13-year-old Joaquin Phoenix told a reporter in 1987 (via The Guardian), “We kinda miss [having a normal childhood] sometimes, missing our friends, but when we go some place we get to meet other people. But then you have to say goodbye to them.”

So why did the Phoenix family take such a transient path? “[Arlyn and John Phoenix] wanted to make a good life for their kids that wasn’t the typical ‘white picket fence’ kind of life,” River’s friend Joshua Greenbaum shared in “People Magazine Investigates: Cults.” “Obviously, they were searching for something.” River’s parents were described as “traveling counter-cultural hippies” by The Guardian, and they were said to embrace their new religion with gusto before ultimately realizing that the Children of God was, in fact, a cult with despicable leanings.  

River Phoenix was a victim of sexual abuse

The cult was a traumatic time for River Phoenix. After “block[ing] out” the experience for years, he told Details (via LA Weekly) that he was sexually assaulted when he was only four years old. This was not a solitary experience since the Children of God creed encouraged incest as well as pedophilia. 

Speaking to The Sunday Post, another survivor of the cult recounted being “repeatedly raped and abused, forced on to the streets to trick people into donating money and taught how to conceal her torment from social workers and teachers.” She recalled that the abuse, like with Phoenix, began when she was four. She also said that her father was one of the abusers, adding that when she “complained,” her aggressor said she “must have a demon inside … because sex was love, and love was what God wanted [them] to show each other.”

Likely as one way to try to erase those horrible memories, Phoenix was “completely celibate from [ages] ten to fourteen,” per LA Weekly. According to Esquire (via The River Phoenix Pages), River “rarely talked about” Children of God. “They’re disgusting,” he reportedly said of the cult. “They’re ruining people’s lives.”

If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN’s National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

River Phoenix and the rest of his family became stowaways

Eventually, Arlyn and John Phoenix realized just how dangerous the cult was, so they decided to break away. River Phoenix and the rest of his family left Venezuela and hid on what Cosmopolitan described as “a freighter taking a shipment of Tonka toys to Florida.” This journey made a huge impression on the young children, but not because of the secretive way in which they were traveling. As Rain Phoenix recalled to The Guardian, watching “a group of fishermen thrashing fish against some nails sticking out of the side of the boat” inspired the family to go vegan. 

As Cosmopolitan recounted, the Phoenix clan made it to the United States — but not before crew members realized the family was on board. (Evidently, it wasn’t too big of an issue.) When they got to Florida, “they found themselves totally out of step with the world around them.” They stayed with the then-pregnant Arlyn Phoenix’s parents for a time in the Sunshine State, but that would soon change.

“River and his sister Rainbow won so many local talent contests that they were written about in The St. Petersburg Times,” The New York Times wrote in 1989. “A copy of the article found its way to the casting department at Paramount Pictures, and the family received a letter saying the children could be interviewed if they were ever in Los Angeles.” And so, the family relocated to Hollywood with stars in their eyes. 

Before he was famous, River Phoenix busked with his younger sister

As a young kid, River Phoenix played music on the street for money with little sister Rain Phoenix. “So at an early age, River was busking on street corners, trying to spread the word and proselytize for the cult,” biographer Gavin Edwards told NPR. “But if he didn’t bring home enough loose change that day, the family wasn’t going to eat. So it was a lot of weight in a lot of different ways, on a very young child.”

Calling her brother “a bit of a guitar prodigy,” Rain shared with The Guardian that she and River “spent a lot of time singing round the fire at home after dinner, making little four-track demos in our room, or when we would be round at people’s houses, we’d just break out the guitar and start singing.” Eventually, their musicianship would catapult the family into the spotlight. As the Independent recounted, “[The family] ended up in LA, where Phoenix and his siblings were spotted by talent agent Iris Burton while busking on a street corner.” When Burton died in 2008, the Los Angeles Times mentioned her connection to the Phoenix family in her obituary, noting that she spotted them “singing for spare change in Westwood. She soon represented all four.”

Though he found great success as an actor, music remained his passion. Per the Chicago Tribune, a young River “saved for his own prized possession, a $650 guitar” when his film career started to take off.

The small screen is where River Phoenix got his first big break

River Phoenix’s big break was as a regular on the TV reboot of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” Starting at age 11, the eldest Phoenix sibling played Guthrie McFadden for 22 episodes. Later, he was cast in episodes of “Family Ties,” “The Love Boat,” and “Hotel.”

Then, not very long after breaking into show business, Phoenix moved on to making movies. Before his death, he took part in a number of films – ” My Own Private Idaho,” “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” “Dogfight” and “The Thing Called Love” among them  and was on Hollywood’s radar because of his stellar work. After acting in “Stand By Me,” River’s performance as Chris Chambers “marked him as one of the most talented and promising actors in Hollywood,” wrote Vogue.

This Phoenix brother had been an Oscar nominee for his role as Danny Pope in “Running on Empty” when he was 17. Though he did not take home the trophy at the 1989 Academy Awards, it was still a shining moment. At the time, Phoenix was at work on the film “I Love You to Death” with Kevin Kline. Kline was on hand for the same Oscars as Phoenix, as he had also been up for the Supporting Actor award due to his “A Fish Called Wanda” role. When Kline won, Phoenix cheered on his co-star with gusto.

River Phoenix was a dedicated member of PETA and environmentalist

In a 1995 Esquire interview (via The River Phoenix Pages), longtime vegan River Phoenix’s former girlfriend Martha Plimpton said she once ordered soft-shell crab when they were out together, and it hit her date hard. “He left the restaurant and walked around on Park Avenue, crying,” she shared. “I went out, and he said, ‘I love you so much. Why?’ He had such a pain that I was eating an animal, that he hadn’t impressed on me what was right.” Plimpton said she was moved by his actions. Esquire also noted that many of River’s “friends often ended up being vegan like he was.”

Fighting for animal rights was a huge part of Phoenix’s life. As he told The New York Times in 1989, “When I was old enough to realize all meat was killed, I saw it as an irrational way of using our power, to take a weaker thing and mutilate it. It was like the way bullies would take control of younger kids in the schoolyard.” 

He joined PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), and even performed in a PSA for the organization. As Vogue recalled, PETA declared him the Humanitarian of the Year in 1992. And he really put his money where his mouth was. As CR Fashion Book recounted, “Most notably, as a testament to his environmentalism, Phoenix once bought 800 acres of rainforest on the border of Costa Rica and Panama, as well as created a non-profit to save endangered species.”

Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix were dear friends

River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves were introduced to each other by Joaquin Phoenix, who had appeared in “Parenthood” with the older actor. River and Keanu would become friends while working together on “Love You to Death” and “My Own Private Idaho,” the latter of which has quite a backstory. As Gavin Edwards wrote in “Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind” (via Grantland), Reeves took “his motorcycle from Canada all the way down the eastern United States, until he reached Gainesville, Florida” to hand deliver the treatment for the flick to make sure River saw it because his agent “had refused to pass it on to the Phoenix family.”

When Interview asked Reeves whether or not he was the first to sign on for the movie, he replied, “No. We were always together.” In the same interview, River remembered “talking really fast about the whole idea” while they were driving around in Los Angeles one night, adding, “We said ‘OK, I’ll do it if you do it. I won’t do it if you don’t.’ We shook hands. That was it.”

When River died, Reeves — who was making the movie “Speed” — was hit hard. “Meeting River was a revelation. As a person and an artist,” Reeves relayed to People in 2019. “His generous heart and shining spirit along with an intelligence, curiosity, wit and humor inspired … He was there. He tried. He was trying. A beautiful exceptional soul. Light.”

Leonardo DiCaprio saw River Phoenix the night he died

Born just four years after River Phoenix, child star turned Oscar winner Leonardo DiCaprio looked up to the “Stand By Me” star early in his career. As he shared with Esquire in 2019, “I grew up revering River Phoenix as the great actor of my generation, and all I ever wanted was to have just an opportunity to shake his hand.” 

While they never got a chance to strike up a friendship, the two did cross paths. DiCaprio recalled to the publication seeing Phoenix at a party the night the “My Own Private Idaho” actor died, but Phoenix left for The Viper Room before they could meet. “It was almost as if—I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s this existential thing where I felt like . . . he disappeared in front of my very eyes, and the tragedy that I felt afterward of having lost this great influence for me and all of my friends,” he said. 

The many talents of River Phoenix

River Phoenix found success in the entertainment industry outside of the film world. While living in Florida, he and Rain Phoenix started a band called Aleka’s Attic.

“The band played packed shows in every Gainesville venue they could,” Alan Bushnell, fan and owner of Hardback Cafe recalled to The Independent Florida Alligator. Among their more memorable moments, Aleka’s Attic performed for Bill Clinton during his presidential campaign. Unfortunately, the group couldn’t totally get the wheels off the ground. As Variety recounted, the band nabbed a “potential deal with Island Records in the early ’90s,” but it didn’t come to fruition. Still, a single by the band was included on the “My Own Private Idaho” soundtrack, and their tune “Across the Way,” was released on PETA’s “Tame Yourself” promotional album. 

At the end of the day, acting was not River Phoenix’s real passion. As Gavin Edwards wrote in “Last Night At The Viper Room: The Life and Death of River Phoenix” (via Rolling Stone), “River had been treating acting as a lark — he enjoyed doing it, but music remained his first love.” 

Christian Slater took over for River Phoenix in Interview of a Vampire

Not long before his death, River Phoenix had been plucked for a juicy part in the film adaptation of Anne Rice’s “Interview with the Vampire” alongside Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. “We lost River. Literally a week before he was supposed to come in, he passed away,” Pitt said in EW (via E! News). “It was a horrible moment.”

As EW reported in 1993, there was a frantic talent search following Phoenix’s unfortunate passing, and actors Stephen Dorff, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Christian Slater all became frontrunners. Slater ultimately won the part of Daniel Malloy, but he didn’t fully relish the experience. 

When Yahoo Entertainment asked Slater about the role in 2018, he didn’t gloss over the heavy circumstances. “It was awkward, he said. “It was uncomfortable. It was hard. How to replace somebody that died in that way, and somebody that I admired greatly.” He shared that he “didn’t feel right taking money for it,” so he ended up giving what he made from the movie “to charities and things that [Phoenix] was involved with.” Meanwhile, the credits for “Interview with the Vampire” include a dedication to the late River Phoenix.

What was River Phoenix's net worth when he died?

River Phoenix’s net worth at the time of his death at age 23 in 1993 was $5 million, according to a number of sources, including Celebrity Net Worth. The reason given for his wealth came not just as a movie star, but also due to his work as a musician, singer-songwriter, and guitarist.

Even though he was very young when he passed away, Phoenix was called “one of the most popular and successful actors of the 20th century” by Biography Gist. The actor from Madras, Oregon, received numerous awards for his work on the silver screen, with the outlet mentioning his Young Artist Award for his first film, “Explorers,” and his Jackie Coogan Award as Chris Chambers in “Stand By Me.” He also won the National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actor as Danny Pope in “Running on Empty.”

The tragic final night of River Phoenix's life

The night River Phoenix died, he had “hastily gulped [a] speedball” inside Johnny Depp’s The Viper Room, according to LA Weekly. As Gavin Edwards recounted in “Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind” (via LA Weekly), after the provider of the drink apparently said it would make the actor “feel fabulous,” River demanded, “What did you give me? What the f**k is in it?” He was soon “convulsing on a Sunset Boulevard sidewalk.”

Rain Phoenix and River’s girlfriend, Samantha Mathis, were also at the scene as the revered actor lay on the hard cement. Mathis knew “something was wrong that night” but she told The Guardian she “didn’t understand. I didn’t see anyone doing drugs but he was high in a way that made me feel uncomfortable — I was in way over my head.” 

Joaquin Phoenix called 911 and his brother was taken to the hospital, but it was too late. As LA Weekly wrote, he was “in full cardiac arrest for 20 minutes” and died shortly thereafter. River Phoenix was gone, leaving behind a legacy of top films, memories, and loved ones.

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