River Phoenix was a young, promising actor with a bright future ahead of him. He began acting at the age of eight, and, like many other child actors, he got caught up in drugs. Ironically, he spent much of his career hating the celebrity lifestyle and tried to reshape it. Unfortunately, he lost his life in the same stereotype that defines Hollywood today.
With a loving family, caring girlfriend, dashing good looks, and natural performance capabilities, it’s difficult to see why someone like River would risk it all. He had an interesting childhood, and you most certainly recognize his brother, Joaquin, as the latest Joker.
Exceptionally talented, with a famously beautiful heart, River Phoenix’s death was a devastating shock to the world. His girlfriend, Samantha Mathis, spoke to The Guardian about that fateful night and the man behind the myth.
On October 30th, 1993, River Phoenix and his girlfriend, actress Samantha Mathis, and his brother Leaf, better known as Joaquin, and his sister Rain walked into the Viper Room, a popular L.A. club owned by Johnny Depp. What was supposed to be a fun night out turned into a tragedy.
Mathis believed that they were just dropping off River’s little siblings, “but when we arrived, he said to me: ‘Oh, there are some people playing music tonight in the club who want me to play with them – that’s OK, right?’” she explained.
But the truth was, it wasn’t okay with her. She thought they were just dropping off Leaf and River and going straight to her house. “I knew something was wrong that night, something I 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,” she said.
But she knew that River really wanted to stay, and she didn’t think they would be out for too long. Unfortunately, that night took a sharp turn. With tears in her eyes, Mathis said, “Forty-five minutes later, he was dead.”
It’s been over two decades since that dreadful night, when the young, hunky actor died in the most cliched way, on Sunset Boulevard, at the young age of 23. Phoenix never liked fame but understood that it could be quite beneficial, as long as you use it for good.
The actor spoke excessively about his vegetarianism and how important it was to take care of the environment. Many celebrities speak about their philanthropy, but none succeeded in the way Phoenix did. He believed in his principles more intensely and more passionately than most people believe in anything.
This was a sensitive boy who once ran out of a restaurant crying because his ex-girlfriend, actress, and activist Martha Plimpton ordered seafood. The glitz and glamour of Hollywood didn’t phase him much. He was hardly even captivated by his own celebrity status.
In 1989, when he was nominated for an Oscar for his Running Empty role, a journalist on the red carpet asked him: “It’s easy to get caught up in the Hollywood hoopla, isn’t it?” He replied, “Mmm, not for me, it isn’t,” looking a little stunned by the question. But reacting against success is just as dangerous as embracing it since it can lead to confusion and self-loathing.
“I wish I could go someplace where nobody knows me,” River sobbed in Stand by Me, his breakout performance. After his death, his mother Arlyn (known as Heart) revealed to Esquire magazine that her son shared that feeling:
“As River grew, he did not become more and more comfortable being the poster boy for all good things. He often said he wished he could just be anonymous. But he never was. When he wasn’t a movie star, he was a missionary. There’s a beauty in that – the man with the cause, the leader – but there’s also deep loneliness.”
Like other stars who die young, Phoenix isn’t only remembered for his early death but his incredible talent. Every promising young actor showing early talent gets compared to Phoenix, from Leonardo DiCaprio to Timothée Chalamet.
According to Stand by Me, director Rob Reiner said: “When River came in to audition, it was obvious that he was just an amazing, amazing talent. He could play instruments, and he was so bright and brilliant, he could do anything, really.” He had natural talent, but Reiner still needed to get emotion out of the 15-year-old, and he got him to show his pain instead of bottling it inside.
Reiner explained that he knew he was dealing with something and needed him to put it in his performance. “I said to him: ‘I want you to think about a time when someone, an adult who is important to you, let you down.’ He nodded and went away to think for a few minutes.
The next take, in which he’s crying, is the one that’s in the movie. He never told me what he thought about – I assumed maybe one of his parents, but I don’t know. And when I watch the movie now, when he disappears at the end, it’s just very, very sad.”
Unfortunately, out of the four child actors who played in this movie, only two of them made it to adulthood unscathed: Wil Wheaton and Jerry O’Connell. Phoenix and Corey Feldman weren’t as lucky. Thankfully, Feldman didn’t lose his life, but it doesn’t mean his experience was smooth sailing.
Feldman famously exposed Hollywood for its pedophilia and admitted that someone in the movie industry sexually abused him. When Reiner was asked if he thinks showbiz reflects on child actors’ fate, he said he believes there is a 50/50 chance they will turn out okay.
Reiner explained, “I don’t know if it’s reflective of child actors exactly, but more about whether child actors have enough of a familial foundation to withstand the difficulties. When I saw Leonardo DiCaprio in This Boy’s Life and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? I thought:
‘Wow, this kid is insanely talented, if he doesn’t have some kind of familial moorings, he’s going to fall off the deep end.’ So when we made The Wolf of Wall Street, I told him I’d been worried about him. He said: ‘Even though my parents divorced, I always had a good relationship with both of them.’ So he had that secure foundation.”
During Stand By Me, Phoenix seemed to have a stable home life and a good relationship with his family, so Reiner wasn’t too worried about him. “He had his mother there with him and all his siblings, they were all there,” Reiner said and then paused for a second. “But I knew his father had problems with alcohol or something. I knew there were problems there.”
It’s never a good idea to confuse actors with their characters. But it’s impossible to ignore the fact that all of River’s best performances involved him playing a character with complicated family life. Perhaps he was able to relate, so his portrayals were more convincing?
River’s best performance was arguably his role as a street hustler named Mike in My Own Private Idaho. His character said, “If I had a normal family, and a good upbringing, then I would have been a well-adjusted person… didn’t have a dog or a normal dad anyway, yeah. That’s alright. I don’t feel sorry for myself. I mean, I feel like I’m, you know, well adjusted.”
And who could forget Running on Empty, where he played a lonely teenager, trapped by his parents’ lifestyle, off the grid. In Mosquito Coast, he depicted the son of a man who was determined to build a utopia in Central America. In Stand by Me, he portrayed a character who hated being judged for his family’s reputation.
It is widely known that Phoenix had an eccentric childhood in the ‘80s, but, in retrospect, it seems like few people really appreciated how extraordinary he actually was. First of all, his parents were traveling counter-cultural hippies, and when River turned three, his family joined the Children of God, a Christian cult that believed that sex without boundaries was a form of love… among other things. (Actress Rose McGowan was also raised in that cult.)
Then, the family traveled from Venezuela to Mexico to Puerto Rico to spread the word of the cult, and young River was sent out to raise money for food.
In an interview years later, the actor revealed that he was sexually abused when he was four years old. River rarely spoke about the cult, but his mother quoted him saying: “They’re disgusting. They’re ruining people’s lives.”
The family was so deeply embedded in the cult that River’s father John was designated “the archbishop of Venezuela.” The family ultimately left the Children of God and moved back to the U.S. River didn’t attend school, though. His mother got ahold of Paramount’s casting director, and her son started working at eight years old.
In 1987, when a TV crew came to Florida to visit the family home, 13-year-old Phoenix told the journalist. “We kinda miss [having a normal childhood] sometimes, missing out on friends, but when we go someplace, we get to meet other people. But then you have to say goodbye to them.”
Their mother Heart is pleased with the way her kids turned out: “I think the opportunities [in the film] are just amazing, the things they’ve gotten to do and gotten confidence. I think they’re pretty much [normal] children.”
The family was close and loving, but John was a complex man and had his own struggles. If you look at pictures of John from the ‘80s, he’s the spitting image of Joaquin. Apparently, River viewed his dad as more of a little brother than a parental figure. John had alcohol problems, and River felt like he had to support his family from a very young age.
“River said to me in that last year: ‘I just have to make one more movie to put away enough money so my youngest sister can go to college,’” said his girlfriend at the time, Samantha Mathis. “I don’t know if that was true, but I remember him saying that.”
Over the years, a lot of things have been published about River Phoenix, but Mathis, who was there when he passed away, didn’t speak about it in depth for years, “except to my therapist,” she said. She kept quiet out of respect for her family, and because her boyfriend’s death traumatized her and her brain blocked out the horrific memories.
But recently, for the first time since Phoenix’s death, she watched The Thing Called Love. It was his last finished film, and he starred alongside Mathis. It got her thinking about him and brought up memories she hadn’t thought about in decades.
“We met when we were both 19, and he bummed a cigarette off me in an L.A. club. This sounds incredibly cheesy, but I knew I would be with him one day. It just felt fated between us, and there was such chemistry,” Mathis told The Guardian.
Three years after that first interaction, Mathis’s premonition came true. The pair were both cast as the leads in The Thing Called Love. After spending so much time working on the movie together, Mathis and Phoenix started dating. Even though their relationship was short-lived, their love was real.
“I think we recognized something in each other,” Mathis explained. She was raised by a single mother and got into acting when she was a teenager. “We came from very different families, but perhaps there were some broken parts in each other we recognized. We found safe harbor.”
After Phoenix died, several people who were close to him talked about how they witnessed the famously clean-living actor slip into drug abuse. On the other hand, Mathis described the last year of his life as simple and happy, spending time with the family in Florida: “We just hung out with his siblings and got to be kids,” she said, crying. “He was so good at hanging out.”
Perhaps it was because he didn’t really have a father figure; Phoenix surrounded himself with mentors and big brothers who tried to help him: Dermot Mulroney and Dan Aykroyd, just to name a few. Phoenix and Mathis even stayed at Aykroyd’s place in Canada for a while. Aykroyd’s best friend, John Belushi, died of a drug overdose years prior and urged River to stay away from drugs. Michael Stipe gave him the same advice.
“We met through my sister,” Stipe said. “She’d moved to Florida and became familiar with the whole family. I would visit her and hang out with them, and I have two sisters who I love very much, but River was like my little brother. We’re exactly ten years apart, and he really did feel like a brother to me.”
As they became more and more successful, Phoenix’s mom moved the children to Florida; she wanted to keep them away from the dangerous temptations of L.A. life. But Phoenix still thought it was his job to fix people, and he started hanging out with several creative folks in Los Angeles. He even helped one particular friend get into rehab.
“But when he needed help, they didn’t help. In fact, in some cases, it was the opposite,” Mathis said. She expressed that, as far as she knows, Phoenix was sober during their relationship. “But I was very young then. In the days before he died, though, I knew something was going on.”
According to Running with Monsters, a 2013 book written by Bob Forrest, Phoenix’s friend, the actor spent the last few days on a massive drug binge with Red Hot Chili Peppers’ guitarist, John Frusciante. Forrest wrote:
“[River] stayed with John for the next few days and probably didn’t get a minute of sleep. The drug routine stayed pretty consistent for all of us. First, smoke crack or shoot coke directly into a vein for that 90-second, electric brain-bell jingle. Then shoot heroin to get a grip and come down enough to be able to carry a conversation for a few minutes before you start the cycle again.”
On the night of October 30th, 1993, they arrived at the Viper Room. Mathis realized that Phoenix wanted to stay and hang out there, and she went to the bathroom. She said, “I knew he was high that night, but 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,” she said.
When Mathis came back from the bathroom, she thought she saw Phoenix fighting with another guy and both of them getting kicked out of the side door by the bouncer. When she ran after them into the street, she saw River drop to the ground and go into convulsions on the pavement.
Since this was before the paparazzi era, no one was there snapping pictures. Unfortunately, that also meant that no one was there to help. Mathis started freaking out and yelled at the other man, “What have you done? What are you on?” His response was, “Leave him alone, you’re spoiling his high.”
Mathis immediately ran back to the side door and desperately tried to get inside the club to get help, but the door was shut firmly. She ran around to the main door, looked for River’s siblings, and they all ran outside.
Joaquin called the police – a 911 phone call that would almost immediately be leaked to the media: “He’s having seizures! Get over here please, please, ‘cause he’s dying, please,” the 19-year-old sobbed. Sadly, River had already flatlined before the paramedics got there, and he was pronounced dead at the hospital. His cause of death was a cocaine and heroin overdose.
After his death, everyone had their theories about how this dashing, talented boy, with such big dreams, fell off the deep end. Mathis said that she remembers him as “sensitive and obsessive. He felt things on his heart very deeply.”
His Running on Empty co-star, Martha Plimpton, also had nice things to say about the fallen actor: “He was just a boy, a very good-hearted boy who was very fucked up and had no idea how to implement his good intentions.”
River Phoenix was younger than James Dean when he passed away, and his loss was just as emotional for his generation. Before he died, the actor had such a bright future, and it looked like he would be even more successful than Tom Cruise. Unfortunately, we never got to see River reach his full potential.
His absence also made room for other young aspiring actors – most notably, Leonardo DiCaprio. Luckily, DiCaprio’s fate as a child star turned out differently. “Leo told me he saw River the night he died before he went to the Viper Room,” Reiner said.
He went on to explain, “And that might have been [a warning] because Leo never ever got into drugs.” DiCaprio ultimately got at least two starring roles in movies that were intended for River: The Basketball Diaries and Total Eclipse.
River Phoenix is still admired today. He was such a natural talent that his work stays amazingly undated. Unfortunately, being an actor cost him his life, but he did succeed in his mission.
A known irony about Phoenix was how much he hated celebrity and tried to reshape it. In the process, he inadvertently created many of the clichés that now define the Hollywood lifestyle. Now, it’s difficult to find a celebrity who doesn’t talk about the environment and vegetarianism.
He also made acting look cool instead of indulgent with his band, Aleka’s Attic. He wanted to show the world that creativity could not be contained in one artform. It’s almost impossible to imagine old school celebrities, like Kurt Cobain (who died shortly after Phoenix), in Hollywood today.
But when it comes to River Phoenix, it’s easy to imagine him living on a ranch somewhere, occasionally acting in indie movies, and urging his fans to look up from their phones and focus on the beauty of nature.
“I’m looking at a photo of him now, oh wow…” Mathis told The Guardian. “If River was still here, I think he’d be acting, directing, saving the environment, just living and hanging out. Oh gosh, wouldn’t that be nice?” Yes, it would.
Samantha Mathis isn’t the only person who misses River. His loss truly left a hole in Hollywood and broke the hearts of many. He will remain the young, happy, 23-year-old actor forever and will continue to live on through his movies. His brother Joaquin also got the acting gene and has been following in his big brother’s footsteps.
River remains alive through his famous brother Joaquin, but did you know that there are also three sisters in the Phoenix clan? You may even recognize some of them from movies and TV shows. The girls are, from oldest to youngest, Rain, Liberty, and Summer. Yes, these are all legal names, but wait till you hear their middle names!
Rain Joan of Arc Phoenix is a proud name to have, even though it doesn’t really roll off the tongue. She has dabbled in acting, making appearances in the Will Smith Comedy Hitch and the Shakespeare adaptation O. However, her true passion is music, and she has been embarking on a career in that.
Liberty Mariposa Phoenix lives a relatively private life. She stays out of the spotlight and is the most low-key of all the Phoenix children. She quit acting at the age of 10 and these days she’s interested in fashion and charity work.
Next is Summer Joy Phoenix. With over two dozen movie and TV credits to her name, Summer is the Phoenix girls’ biggest actress. Summer was also briefly married to a Hollywood A-lister – Casey Affleck. Reportedly, the Phoenix kids have an additional half-sister named Jodean from their father’s first marriage.
Can you imagine a more fitting name than Phoenix for a young, brilliant, Hollywood heartthrob in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s? Most aspiring celebrities change their name to make it that cool. Well, as it turns out, River was no exception. Phoenix was his stage name.
He didn’t change his first name, though. He was born River Jude Bottom. No, I’m not lying. The late actor had a rather amusing name until he was nine. Good thing he didn’t really go to school because his classmates would have had a field day if there was a student named River Bottom. Kids could be so cruel!
Although they gave their children unique names, it’s a good thing they didn’t pick names that would match their last name. That could turn out to be incredibly funny or incredibly mean. Luckily, they don’t have a sister named Apple or a brother named Rock.
In 1979, John and Arlyn Bottom decided to change their last name to “Phoenix” after their youngest child, Summer, was born. The name was deliberately chosen because of its mythical symbolization of rising from the ashes. The family went through a few tough years and were looking for some kind of “rebirth.”
The name change couldn’t have come at a better time because just three years later, the Phoenix kids started landing professional acting roles. Even in their earliest acting gigs, none of their credits used their original last names.
This means, if you look back at movies from the early ‘80s, you won’t find the name “River Bottom” on any cast list. Do you think their original name would have affected their stardom? I mean, there is a reason people create stage names in the first place. Joaquin Bottom, starring as the Joker, really doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Unfortunately, it’s not hard to find examples of actors who passed away during post-production, forcing filmmakers to find creative ways to wrap up the movie anyways. This unfortunate phenomenon was famously seen after Paul Walker’s fatal car accident when his brother stood in for his unfinished scenes in Furious 7.
For someone as prolific as River was in his early 20s, it’s somewhat surprising that he only left one unfinished movie behind when he left this world, far too soon. That movie was Dark Blood, a thriller starring Judy Davis and Jonathan Pryce.
The movie was abandoned for almost two decades because there were too many important scenes missing that River never got to shoot. Director George Sluizer thought he could salvage the film and complete it with some narration to explain the missing plot points.
Sluizer reached out to Joaquin, hoping he would serve as a verbal stand-in for River. But just like the rest of his family, he refused to participate in the movie in any way. Undeterred, the director completed Dark Blood which premiered in 2012 at several European film festivals.
Joaquin may not have had his huge breakout role in the ‘80s that made him a Hollywood superstar like his brother, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t busy working as an actor. When 1990 rolled around, Joaquin was already featured in four films and nine TV shows, such as Hill Street Blues, Murder, She Wrote, and Superboy.
With a well-established career, Joaquin took a little break and went traveling with his father. I mean, if you’re a teenager and have the money and freedom to do so, why wouldn’t you go on an adventure and see the world?!
Then, after River died, Joaquin was so angry at the media, with news outlets replaying his 911 call after River collapsed. Joaquin decided to take another year off from the toxic industry. After six years away from the spotlight, Joaquin came roaring back with a vengeance with his role in Gus Van Sant’s black comedy alongside Nicole Kidman.
On the set, he met Casey Affleck, who became a longtime family friend. The movie includes a quick cameo from Joaquin’s sister, Rain, playing an uncredited tambourine player. It was one of the rare occasions that the Phoenix siblings were on screen together after their child acting days.
Joaquin was a pretty busy child actor. He made his acting debut in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, alongside his siblings River and Liberty. It didn’t take long for Joaquin to start racking up movie and television credits. Actually, if you want to get technical, “Leaf Phoenix” was accumulating those credits.
I mean, it makes sense. Joaquin’s name doesn’t follow his siblings’ theme, who are all named after something found in nature, or in Liberty’s case, a word that represents a positive ideal. Joaquin had such a unique name because he was born in Puerto Rico, so his parents chose the Latin-flavored name: Joaquin Rafael.
Since his name was so different from his siblings, Joaquin felt left out and started referring to himself as Leaf when he was about five, not long after the family changed their last name. So, he was never Leaf Bottom. He chose Leaf because he felt it went well with River, Rain, and Summer. Plus, it goes great with the family’s (new) last name.
He only went by Leaf to the point where he was credited as Leaf Phoenix for his earlier acting jobs, including his Parenthood role. He decided to go back to his given name, personally and professionally, when he was 15 years old. The name change marked the end of his time as a child actor.
We mentioned that the Phoenix family was, well… eccentric. Just by their childrens’ names, it’s easy to realize that John and Arlyn Bottom were the epitome of free-spirited flower children. Naturally, the couple met in the most hippie way possible: hitchhiking.
Arlyn originally took the safe path and settled down in New York with a husband who worked with computers. She quickly became restless with such a boring life and did what most young adults in their twenties did in the 1960s – traveled and hitchhiked across California, the center of the flower power movement.
It was during that time when she met songwriter John Lee Bottom who let her hitch a ride. Within a year of dating, the pair tied the knot. The newlyweds drove around picking fruit and became parents in 1970 when River was born. Two years later, they had Rain.
With that said, there is a lot to unpack about John and Arlyn’s peculiar lifestyle, especially in their early years together. We mentioned that the family joined the Children of God, a Christian cult, when River was only three. Thankfully, the family left the cult, and the kids got into show-biz.
The Bottoms had a pretty nomadic existence. They were wanderers, but it didn’t slow them down, even after they had kids. Not many children get to see as much of the world as the Bottom kids did.
Their drifter lifestyle went on as they were popping out kids, and each of their five children was not only born in a different U.S. state or territory but, in one case, in a whole other country. Their firstborn, River, was born in Oregon. When they had Rain, the family was all the way down in Texas.
As we mentioned, Joaquin was born in Puerto Rico (San Juan, to be exact). Child number four, Liberty, was born in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1976, making her the only one to be born outside of the United States. Her birth name was Liberated (“freedom” in Spanish); however, she goes by Liberty.
Finally, they went back to the United States, where they had child number 5, the baby. Ironically, Summer was born in Winter Park, Florida. If you are keeping track, that’s three U.S. states, one U.S. territory, and one completely different country.
Since the children were relatively close in age and all trying their hands in acting, it makes sense that they were often up for similar roles. After all, there are only so many movies that would call for multiple Phoenix children. Naturally, there would be a certain amount of competition between the siblings.
But not for the Phoenix clan. The siblings were so supportive of one another and were each other’s biggest fans. When River’s career skyrocketed, there was absolutely no bitterness. In fact, Joaquin and his sisters couldn’t have been happier about their brother’s success. The same was true when Joaquin carved his path to success.
I guess not all siblings are competitive with each other. It’s actually touching to see how proud they were of one another. I guess we should give Arlyn and John credit for that. Their loving hippie nature must have rubbed off on their children.
Despite being roamers, John and Arlyn gave their kids a sense of familial love. Plus, all the Phoenix kids seem to be ridiculously talented. Unlike other famous families, whose rivalries are usually targeted to the “star” that rises above the others, the Phoenix family were always thrilled with each other’s successes.
It was around 2008, and Joaquin was seemingly in the midst of a public breakdown or at least involved in some kind of strange, Garth Brook, an ill-advised vanity project. He grew out his beard, which made him look just like his father, John. He began showing up on talk shows with a strange and low-key demeanor, yapping about how he wanted to quit acting to become a rapper.
As it turned out, the whole charade was just a publicity stunt for a faux-documentary he was creating, directed by Casey Affleck called I’m Still Here. The movie wasn’t well-received, and the whole thing felt like a joke that only Joaquin and Casey found funny.
Casey Affleck is typically known for more acclaimed projects and being extremely selective about his roles, so why would he be involved in such a strange project? Well, that’s because he and Joaquin are old pals! Furthermore, they were brothers-in-law at one point.
Casey exchanged vows with Summer, the youngest Phoenix kid. The pair were married from 2006-2017 and even had two sons together: Indiana August and Atticus. Unfortunately, they split after 11 years of marriage. But Casey is the longest-lasting Phoenix family-in-law.