River Phoenix's Irish-Spanish father, John Bottom, and
Bronx-born Jewish mother, Arlyn Sharon Dunetz, joined the Children of God cult
in the late 1960s and became missionaries, traveling throughout South America.
Upon returning to the United States they adopted the surname "Phoenix." River
Phoenix was born River Jude Bottom in Metolius, Oregon, five miles south of
Madras, Oregon, and grew up in poverty. Contrary to popular belief, he was not
born in a log cabin. He and his sister often had to busk to make money for the
family. It was only after his starring role in the movie Stand By Me that
River's family was able to buy a car that was not secondhand.
River Phoenix and his family were all vegetarians. He believed that eating animals was wrong, though it was younger brother, Joaquin, who, at the age of four, persuaded the family not to eat meat any longer. The family were on a ship from Venezuela to Florida at the time, and Joaquin had seen fishermen killing fish by banging their heads against the bulkheads. The family eventually became vegans. River's opinions on the issue were so strong that when his actress girlfriend, Martha Plimpton, ordered soft-shell crab at a restaurant, he reportedly began weeping out of disappointment. When he played the role of Gideon in the TV version of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, his mother insisted on him using a rope for a belt; he steadfastly refused to wear leather.
River Phoenix was one of five siblings who pursued careers in show business, encouraged by their parents. He had significant juvenile roles in Stand By Me, The Mosquito Coast where he plays Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren's son, A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (this film deviated considerably from the original director's cut, which is now available under the title "Aren't You Even Gonna Kiss Me Goodbye?"), and Little Nikita, and was nominated in 1988, at the age of 17, for an Oscar for best supporting actor for his role in Running on Empty. He also portrayed a teenage Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. River met Keanu Reeves while Reeves was filming on River's brother's set and later went on to star opposite Reeves in Gus van Sant's My Own Private Idaho for which he won the Best Actor Award from the Venice Film Festival. His friendship with both Reeves and van Sant continued beyond the movie. River was also a friend of John Frusciante (guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers) and appeared on his second solo album Smile From the Streets You Hold on the song "Height Down." He had a band called Aleka's Attic before he died which also included his sister Rain and, later, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Sasa Raphael, both on bass guitar.
Phoenix disliked being seen as just a s-- symbol and usually refused to smile for photographs.
River Phoenix died at age 23 from a drug overdose of heroin and cocaine (speedball) outside the Viper Room, a Hollywood night club partly owned by actor Johnny Depp. Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Michael Balzary, also known as Flea, was present at the time, as was River's younger brother Joaquin. At the time of his death, Phoenix was acting in the starring role of the movie Dark Blood, which was never completed. He was also due to start filming on Interview With the Vampire as the interviewer, Daniel Molloy. Christian Slater eventually took on his role, donating his fee for the film to charity in honor of Phoenix. He was cremated in Gainesville, Florida a few days later, and the ashes were spread at the family's ranch.
River Phoenix has four siblings, a brother, Joaquin (who is also an actor), and 3 sisters, Rain (who is the lead singer in a band called the Papercranes, and is an actress), Summer (also an actress) and Liberty, who quit acting as a child.
This River Phoenix Biography Page is Copyright The Planets © 2004 - 2006 Chuck Ayoub