Phoenix began acting at age 10 in television commercials. He appeared in diverse roles, making his first notable appearance in the 1986 film Stand by Me, a hugely popular coming-of-age film based on a novella by Stephen King. Phoenix made a transition into more adult-oriented roles with Running on Empty (1988), playing the son of fugitive parents in a well-received performance that earned him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor nomination, and My Own Private Idaho (1991), playing a gay hustler in search of his estranged mother. For his performance in the latter, Phoenix garnered enormous praise and won a Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival, along with Best Actor from the National Society of Film Critics. He was listed by John Willis as one of twelve promising new actors of 1986.
On October 31, 1993, Phoenix collapsed and died of drug-induced heart failure on the sidewalk outside the West Hollywood nightclub The Viper Room. Prior to his death, Phoenix had been in the middle of filming Dark Blood (1993).
Phoenix's image—one he bemoaned in interviews—had been squeaky-clean, owing in part to the public discussion of his various social, political, humanitarian, and dietary interests not always popular in the 1980s. As a result, his death elicited a vast amount of coverage from the media at the time.
On the evening of October 30, 1993, Phoenix was to perform with his close friend Michael "Flea" Balzary from the Red Hot Chili Peppers onstage at The Viper Room, a Hollywood night club partly owned at the time by actor Johnny Depp. Phoenix had returned to Los Angeles early that week from Utah to complete the three weeks of interior shots left on his last project Dark Blood, a film that was finally completed in 2012. His younger sister Rain and brother Joaquin had flown out to join him at the Hotel Nikko (now the SLS Hotel) on La Cienega Boulevard. Phoenix's girlfriend, Samantha Mathis, had also come to meet him. All would be present at the scene of Phoenix's death.
Phoenix died of an overdose of cocaine and heroin. During the early-morning hours of October 31, 1993, Phoenix collapsed outside and convulsed for over five minutes. When his brother Joaquin called 9-1-1, he was unable to determine whether Phoenix was breathing. Sister Rain Phoenix proceeded to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, to no avail.
During the episode, Johnny Depp and his band P (featuring Flea and Phoenix's friend Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers) were onstage. According to Haynes the band was in the middle of their song, "Michael Stipe" while Phoenix was outside the venue having seizures on the sidewalk. When the news filtered through the club, Flea left the stage and rushed outside. Paramedics had arrived on the scene and found Phoenix in a flatline state, and they administered drugs in an attempt to restart his heart. He was rushed to the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, accompanied by Flea, via an ambulance. Further attempts to resuscitate Phoenix were unsuccessful. He was pronounced dead at 1:51 a.m. PST on the morning of October 31, 1993.
The following day the club became a makeshift shrine with fans and mourners leaving flowers, pictures and candles on the sidewalk and graffiti messages on the walls of the venue. A sign was placed in the window that read, "With much respect and love to River and his family, The Viper Room is temporarily closed. Our heartfelt condolences to all his family, friends and loved ones. He will be missed." The club remained closed for a week. Depp continued to close the club every year on October 31 until selling his share in 2004. Phoenix was described by one writer as "the vegan James Dean", and comparisons were made regarding the youth and sudden deaths of both the actors.
Search of River Phoenix: The Truth Behind The Myth by Barry C. Lawrence
Paperback: 456 pages
Publisher: Wordsworth Publishing; first edition (October 19, 2004)
Amazon: Search of River Phoenix: The Truth Behind The Myth
The complete book about the life of Academy Award nominee River Phoenix, from his parents beginning, his birth, member of a cult religion, to his TV acting, actiavisim, veganism and movie career.
River Phoenix: A Short Life by Brian J. Robb
Paperback: 168 pages
Publisher: Plexus Publishing; Second Edition edition (November 24, 1997)
Amazon: River Phoenix: A Short Life
River Phoenix: A Short Life is the definitive biography of this talented but tragic young star. Brian Robb looks at Phoenix's unusual childhood, his early days on TV and film, and the pressures of stardom that led to his lethal overdose in 1993. His short but incident-packed life is a tale of modern Hollywood.
Lost in Hollywood: The Fast Times and Short Life of River Phoenix by John Glatt
Publisher: St Martins Mass Market Paper; Reprint edition (April 1996)
Amazon: Lost in Hollywood: The Fast Times and Short Life of River Phoenix
A profile of the late film star River Phoenix chronicles his high-pressure childhood, personal endeavors for environmental causes, rejection of his heartthrob image, and tragic death due to a drug overdose.
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