The shocking death of River Phoenix
He was such a promising actor. River Phoenix, who passed away in October 1993, would have starred in 'Titanic' and 'Interview with the Vampire'. He was just 23 years old when he died. This is the story of his tragic accident.
"I knew something wasn't right that night, something I couldn't understand. I didn't see anyone getting high, but I remember that [River] was so high that it made me feel uncomfortable." This is how Samantha Mathis recalls the last hours of River Phoenix's life. She talked about the fateful night of his death in The Guardian, 25 years after the fact.
What happened in the early hours of October 31, 1993 at The Viper Room nightclub? Why did 23-year-old River Phoenix die that night?
According to Samantha Mathis in The Guardian, she and River met that night for a drink. Although it wasn't their plan, they went to The Viper Room, Johnny Depp's nightclub. "He said: 'Oh, there are some people playing music tonight in the club who want me to play with them – that's OK, right?' Samantha recalls.
They went to the club, stayed for a while, and it seemed to become a night like any other. However, it soon turned into a real tragedy. At some point, Samantha thought she saw River fight with a man, while she returned from the bathroom.
"The two were pushed out of the club by the doorman," she recounts in The Guardian. When Samantha followed them out to the streets, she saw River fall to the ground with convulsions. "What have you done?!" she shouted to the other man. He replied: "Leave him alone, you're spoiling the party for him."
Although Samantha returned to the club to ask for help, it was too late for River. Together with his younger brother Joaquin she tried to bring him back to consciousness, but it was in vain. "They called 911, but the paramedics couldn't do anything," The Guardian recounts. "He had died of an overdose of cocaine and heroin."
Hollywood had to say goodbye to one of its most promising young stars. River Jude Phoenix had entered the world of acting in the 1980s, after a childhood with a nomadic family. They had lived in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela.
River's first television appearance was on the show 'Fantasy.' His mother had gotten an audition for him and his sister Rain because she was a secretary at the NBC television network. His first success came from another NBC series, 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,' where he played the young Guthrie McFadden.
Two years later, in 1985, he starred with other young talents of the time (Ethan Hawke and Jason Presson) in 'Explorers'. This film opened the doors of Hollywood to him.
Then came other titles such as 'The Mosquito Coast' and 'Running on Empty', the latter earning him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
In 1989 he gave life to the young Indy in 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade'. A year later, he went into black comedy with 'I Love You to Death.'
In 1991 River co-starred with Keanu Reeves in one of his most remembered films: 'My Own Private Idaho'. It's considered by many as a classic in gay cinema. Directed by Gus Van Sant, the movie got River Phoenix an award for Best Actor at the 1991 Venice Film Festival.
After shooting this film, River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves became inseparable. River's death would be a tragic episode in Reeves's life.
River Phoenix continued to add success stories to his career. In 1993, he starred in 'The Thing Called Love' with actress Samantha Mathis. She would become his girlfriend.
The film also featured Sandra Bullock and Dermot Mulroney. It was completed in February 1993. River Phoenix would die in October of that year.
The sudden death of River Phoenix coincided with the shooting of his latest film, 'Dark Blood', a film that had only eleven days left to finish filming.
Directed by George Sluizer and starring, among others, Judy Davis and Jonathan Pryce, the film was kept unfinished in a drawer for 19 years.
In 2013, at the Berlin International Film Festival, 'Dark Blood' saw the light with an unfinished film montage and the voice-over of its director, George Sluizer, to explain to the viewer what River Phoenix could not finish.
River Phoenix had signed other contracts for which he had to be replaced. He had been selected to play journalist Daniel Malloy in 'Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles,' but eventually the role went to Christian Slater.
As Christian Slater himself confirmed in Venice Magazine, he was well aware that the original casting had chosen River Phoenix for his role. He donated the money earned for the film to charities matching River's preferences.
Jack Dawson's role in 'Titanic' was another blockbuster part that River Phoenix might have played if he hadn't died. Another young actor of the time, Leonardo DiCaprio, got the now-famous role.
Leonardo DiCaprio was one of the last people to see River Phoenix on the night before he died. "I grew up revering River Phoenix and wanted to shake his hand," DiCaprio said in an interview with Esquire.
"At a party at Silver Lake, I saw him walk up a flight of stairs," DiCaprio recalls. "He started walking up to me and I kind of froze. And then the crowd got in my way, and I looked back and he was gone. ... And he was... on his way to the Viper Room." That same night, River Phoenix passed away.
If River Phoenix's legacy is extensive, so is the legacy of his family. River's mother, Arlyn Sharon Phoenix (better known as Heart) is a well-known American social activist, and all River's siblings, here as children in the family photo, have dedicated themselves to the world of show business.
Rain Phoenix, on the right of this picture, played in the film 'Hitch' and has collaborated with groups such as Red Hot Chilli Peppers and R.E.M. Liberty and Summer Phoenix, to the left of her brother Joaquin in this photo, have worked in the world of fashion.
The best known of the Phoenix siblings is actor Joaquin Phoenix. One of Hollywood's heavyweights, he has had a long career in film with three Oscar nominations, a Golden Globe win for 'Walk the Line', and an Oscar for 'Joker'.
Joaquin was 19 years old when his brother died. It had a major impact on him. As he welcomed his first child with Mara Rooney in September of 2020, Joaquin decided to name the boy River.
Joaquin rarely speaks about his brother's death, but he did share an anecdote about River at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival. "I remember that when I was 15 or 16, my brother River came home with a copy of 'Raging Bull'. He forced me to see it, and the next day he woke me up and made me see it again."
He said, "You're going to act, that's what you're going to do," Joaquin Phoenix recounts. "He didn't ask me, he told me. I am indebted to him because acting has given me an incredible life."