River Phoenix: life and film highlights of the late actor as brother Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara name baby son after him

The older brother of Joaquin Phoenix passed away in 1993 aged 23

Monday, 28th September 2020, 3:20 pm
River Phoenix starred in films such as Sneakers, Little Nikita, Stand by Me and My Own Private Idaho (Photo: IMDb)
River Phoenix starred in films such as Sneakers, Little Nikita, Stand by Me and My Own Private Idaho (Photo: IMDb)

Joaquin Phoenix and his wife Rooney Mara have named their new baby son River after Joaquin’s late brother who died in 1993.

Speaking at the Zurich film festival, director Victor Kossakovy, whose new film Gunda is executive produced by Phoenix, revealed the news.

He said: “He just got a baby by the way, his name was.. Beautiful son called River.”

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Who was River Phoenix?

River Phoenix was an American actor, musician and activist, known for his roles in films such as Stand by Me and My Own Private Idaho.

He was dubbed “the vegan James Dean” because of his good looks, acting skills and passion for animal rights advocacy.

River was also the older brother of Oscar winning actor Joaquin Phoenix.

Early life

River Phoenix was born on 23 August 1970 in Madras, Oregon, and was the first child of Arlyn Dunetz and John Lee Bottom.

His siblings would go on to include brother Joaquin Phoenix and sisters Rain, Liberty and Summer.

In an interview with People magazine, River described his parents as “hippieish”.

In 1972, River’s family joined a cult called the Children of God religious movement.

As missionaries for the Children of God, River and his family lived in Texas, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.

River rarely spoke about the Children of God, but was quoted by his mother in an Esquire article as saying: “They’re disgusting, they’re ruining people’s lives.”

Eventually the family left the cult and moved back to the US. River never attended any formal schooling, with screenwriter Naomi Foner saying that he was “totally, totally without education”. As a young child, River learned to play guitar.

His mother found an agent to represent all the Phoenix children, and River began working at eight years old.

His early roles include starring as Guthrie McFadden in the TV series of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers from 1982 to 1983, and as a young boy who discovers he has dyslexia in ABC Afterschool Special: The Riddle of Dyslexia.

What films was River Phoenix best known for?

At age 15, River became a household name following his role as Chris Chambers in Stand By Me (1986).

The film, directed by Rob Reiner, was based on a Stephen King novella called The Body, and also starred Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell.

The film was heavily praised and garnered a number of award nominations, including Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars and Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture.

Talking to the Chicago Tribune, River said: “The truth is, I identified so much with the role of Chris Chambers that if I hadn’t had my family to go back to after the shoot, I’d have probably had to see a psychiatrist.”

River’s sixth feature film was called Running on Empty (1988), directed by Sidney Lumet, and was the role for which he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars.

The same year, he starred as a young Indiana Jones in box-office hit Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, directed by Steven Spielberg.

River starred opposite Keanu Reeve’s in the avant-garde film My Own Private Idaho, which was directed by Gus Van Sant in 1991.

It was for this role that River won gongs at the Independent Spirit Awards, National Society of Film Critics Awards and Venice Film Festival.

What about his music career?

Acting was only one facet of River’s life, with music being another passion of his.

He was a singer, songwriter and talented guitarist and in 1986, he was able to secure a two-year development deal with the recording label, Island Records.

River put together a band and in 1987, Aleka’s Attic was formed, which also featured his sister Rain.

While filming The Thing Called Love (1993), River wrote and recorded the song Lone Star State of Mine, which he performs in the movie.

The Aleka’s Attic song Too Many Colours was also used in the film My Own Private Idaho, which starred River.

Animal rights and political activism

River was also known as a dedicated animal rights, environmental and political activist.

He was a high profile PETA spokesperson, and in 1992 he won the PETA Humanitarian Award for his fundraising efforts.

His band, Aleka’s Attic, also played at environmental benefits for PETA.

River became vegetarian at the age of eight, telling the New York Times in 1989: “When I was old enough to realise all meat was killed, I saw it as an irrational way of using our power, to take a weaker thing and mutilate it.”

River later became a vegan, with his first girlfriend Martha Plimpton telling Esquire: “Once when we were 15, River and I went out for a fancy dinner in Manhattan, and I ordered soft shelled crabs.

“He left the restaurant and walked around on Park Avenue, crying. I went out and he said, ‘I love you so much, why?’ He had such pain that I was eating an animal, that he hadn’t impressed on me what was right.”

At the time, veganism was so unusual that some magazines referred to River as an “ultravegetarian”.

He also bought 800 acres of rainforest on the border of Costa Rica and Panama. After his death, the land was sold to a conservancy and the funds were used to create the River Phoenix Centre for Peace-building in Florida.

When did River Phoenix die?

River died of a drug overdose on 31 October 1993, at the age of 23.

He had started work on a film called Dark Blood and it was during a break in filming that he went to the Viper Room in Los Angeles with his brother Joaquin, sister Rain and girlfriend Samantha Mathis.

He had struggled with drugs and alcohol in the past and it was that night that he had taken dangerous doses of different drugs, including morphine and cocaine.

He went outside where he collapsed and started having convulsions. Joaquin called an ambulance and while River was still alive when paramedics arrived, he passed away in the hospital that evening.