Phoenix, River Jude

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Phoenix, River Jude

(b. 23 August 1970 in Madras, Oregon; d. 31 October 1993 in Los Angeles, California), Academy Award—nominated actor who advocated vegetarianism, environmental responsibility, and protection of animal rights.

Named River Jude Bottom after the river of life in Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha (1922), River Phoenix was born in a small house on an Oregon peppermint farm, where his parents, John Lee Bottom and Arlyn Dunetz, were working. Out of sync with mainstream society and embodying nonconformist hippie idealism, the bohemian parents, with their infant son in tow, spent the first two years after his birth trekking across the country from commune to commune. They considered themselves seekers and believed psychedelic drugs would aid their inner spiritual journey.

In 1972 the Bottoms abandoned drugs in favor of religion and joined the controversial Children of God. The antiestablishment beliefs of the group appealed to the couple, who began using the surname Phoenix (changed officially in 1989) to symbolize their rebirth into the church. They settled in Colorado Springs, Colorado, at one of the group’s largest communes.

After two years the family took to the road to spread the church’s teachings and recruit new members in Texas, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and finally Caracas, Venezuela, where the family, which now included River’s sister Rain and brother Joaquin (who went by the name “Leaf” for many years), settled in 1976. With almost no financial support from the Children of God, the penniless missionaries often lacked adequate food and shelter. River (who had learned basic guitar chords) and Rain, ages five and three, respectively, sang for money on the streets and passed out religious literature.

Weary from hunger and poverty and troubled by proclamations from the Children of God’s egotistical leader, who encouraged using sex to recruit new members, the Phoenix clan returned to the United States at the end of 1978 and settled in Florida. The family, with the addition of daughters Liberty and Summer, became devout vegans who neither ate meat nor used leather or any product that exploited animals.

The Phoenix children were bright, but without formal education they lacked the basic knowledge that other children their age possessed. Nonetheless, they were gifted in the arts, and encouraged by their success in local talent contests, the Phoenix family next headed to Hollywood in the family Volkswagen. Arlyn found a secretarial position in the NBC casting department and made an appointment with Iris Burton, a leading talent agent for children. River’s wholesome good looks helped land him jobs in commercials, including those for Ocean Spray, Mitsubishi, and Saks Fifth Avenue. Despite the precious money it provided the family, River quickly decided that commercials were too “phony,” and so, with the family’s approval, he stopped doing them.

In 1982 River and Rain landed small singing roles on the television series Fantasy. This exposure led to River’s role as the singing, guitar-playing youngest brother on the CBS show Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1982). After that show’s cancellation, he made guest appearances on the television shows Hotel, It’s Your Move, and Family Ties (1984) and in the miniseries Celebrity (1984) and Robert Kennedy: The Man and his Times (1985). He played the lead in a onehour drama, Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia (1984) and had a key role in Surviving: A Family in Crisis (1985).

His first movie role came in 1985, playing a comic teenage inventor in Explorers. But it was his next performance, in the coming-of-age story Stand by Me (1986), that launched him as a teen idol and raised his profile among directors and casting agents. After playing Harrison Ford’s son in The Mosquito Coast (1986), when he began dating the actress Martha Plimpton, River began taking nearly back-to-back movie roles, starring in three movies released in 1988: A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon, Little Nikita, and Running on Empty. Although uneasy with his heartthrob image, the lithe, five-foot, eleven-inch actor with blue eyes and sandy brown hair adorned dozens of teen magazines and received thousands of fan letters each week.

In 1988 at age seventeen, he was nominated for a best supporting actor Academy Award for his portrayal of the son of political radicals hiding from the FBI in Running on Empty. Much sought after by directors, he then took small parts in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and in I Love You to Death (1990) as well as a starring role in Dogfight (1991).

River valued privacy and retreated to Gainesville, Florida, where his family lived, when he was not filming. There Phoenix enjoyed relative anonymity and was able to focus on his band, Aleka’s Attic, which he formed with his sister Rain and a few friends. The band had a loose contract with Island Records but only released one song—on Tame Yourself, a fund-raising compilation for P.E.T.A. (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). In addition to a concern for animals, River and the other Phoenix family members were outspoken about protecting the environment, especially the destruction of the rain forests.

Persuaded by costar Keanu Reeves, Phoenix took the role of Mike Waters, a narcoleptic gay prostitute in Gus Van Sant’s dark 1991 drama My Own Private Idaho. His gritty performance earned him best actor awards at the Venice Film Festival and from the National Society of Film Critics. After a smaller role in Sneakers (1992), he returned to his musical roots in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Thing Called Love (1993), singing all of his character’s songs in his role as a struggling Nashville singer. (One of the songs, “Lone Star State of Mind,” was actually written by Phoenix.) His final completed movie was Silent Tongue (1993), a Western directed by Sam Shepard.

On a break from shooting his next film, the nearly completed Dark Blood, the twenty-three-year-old actor, along with girlfriend Samantha Mathis (his The Thing Called Love costar) and siblings Rain and Joaquín, visited the Viper Room, a Los Angeles nightclub. Within a few hours a convulsing River collapsed on the sidewalk outside and was then rushed to nearby Cedars Sinai Medical Center. He was declared dead twenty minutes later. The coroner’s report confirmed rumors that his death was the result of a drug overdose. Fans around the world mourned his shocking death. Dark Blood was never finished, and his upcoming role in the film adaptation of the Anne Rice novel Interview with the Vampire (1994) was recast. Following a memorial service, he was cremated and his ashes were scattered on his family’s ranch in Gainesville. After his death many struggled to reconcile his healthful public image with accounts that his experimentation with drugs had begun in his early teens. The length and severity of his substance abuse are disputed.

River Phoenix was one of the most talented actors of his generation. He infused his roles with a rare mixture of innocence and wisdom. His life was guided by the idealistic principles espoused by his tight-knit family, and his career choices often reflected artistic integrity rather than commercial success. His acting gifts and social activism have been somewhat overshadowed by his highly sensationalized death.

Biographies include John Glatt, Lost in Hollywood: The Fast Times and Short Life of River Phoenix (1995); Brian J. Robb, River Phoenix: A Short Life (1997); and John L. Barker, Running on Empty: The Life and Career of River Phoenix (1998). Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times (both 1 Nov. 1993). A lengthy article also appeared in the London Independent (5 Dec. 1993).

Carrie C. Mcbride