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Hollywood Insider River Phoenix Facts 32, Tribute, Biography


Video Version of this Article

Photo/Video: River Phoenix/Lance Staedler/Hollywood Insider YouTube Channel

Hollywood Insider’s Tribute to River Phoenix

River Phoenix – a superstar who took Hollywood by storm, lives on eternally through the beautiful gems of Cinema he leaves behind. Phoenix had achieved global fame and success by the time he was 23 and he used that massive platform to speak out on important issues such as conservation and protecting nature. He died at the age of 23 and his name lives on as a Hollywood icon in his own right. His films continue to find their place in the list of many people’s favorites with classics such as Stand By Me, My Own Private Idaho with Keanu Reeves, etc. River’s brother Joaquin has continued with his legacy. The world was robbed of River’s talent, charisma, and heart and this article is a testament to our love for River. River Phoenix’s story is one we often hear, of child actors who struggle in the spotlight and fall prey to the use of drugs that results in a death that comes too soon. Yet, even after his tragic death, River Phoenix’s memory lives on in the characters he portrayed on-screen.

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Here are 32 things you may not know about River Phoenix:

1. River Phoenix’s birth name

Although known in the mainstream as River Phoenix, his birth name was River Jude Bottom. His first name is after the river of life from the novel Siddhartha by Herman Hesse and his middle name is after the Beatles’ song “Hey Jude”.

2. His family was part of a religious cult

In 1973, his family joined a religious cult named Children of God where they worked as missionaries. Phoenix and his siblings were raised and grew up in this cult before his whole family became disillusioned with it in the late 1970s.

3. He had no formal education

Although River Phoenix could read and write, due to the unconventional nature of his childhood, he had no formal education.

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4. The family changed their last name to Phoenix

In 1979, after leaving Children of God, River Phoenix’s parents chose to change the family surname to Phoenix, after the mythical bird that rises from its own ashes. This new last name symbolized a new beginning. 

5. He was discovered while busking

River and his siblings would play music on street corners to earn some extra money. In 1981, while River and his brother, Joaquin, were playing in Century City Mall, they were discovered by Iris Burton, a Hollywood agent.


6. He taught himself to play guitar when he was 5

Not only was River Phoenix interested in acting, he truly began his career with a passion for music. At the young age of 5, he taught himself how to play guitar.

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7. He had his TV break alongside his siblings River Phoenix’s first acting role was in the 1982 TV series Seven Brides for Seven Brothers—adapted from 1952 musical of the same name—when he was 12 years old. River’s brother Joaquin—then known as Leaf—and sister Liberty made their TV debuts in one episode of the series.

8. He has a Guinness World Record A rather obscure and specific Guinness World Record is: first brothers to receive Oscar nominations for best actor. This record is held by River and Joaquin Phoenix, as River was nominated for 1988’s Running on Empty, and Joaquin was nominated for 2001’s Gladiator.

9. He shares an on-screen Dad with his brother Joaquin Both River Phoenix and his brother Joaquin Phoenix were in films where they played the son of a character played by Richard Harris. In Silent Tongue, River played Harris’ son, and in Gladiator, Joaquin played Harris’ son.

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10. All four of his siblings have done something in the entertainment industry River Phoenix’s siblings—Rain Phoenix, Joaquin Phoenix, Liberty Phoenix, and Summer Phoenix—have all become involved in the entertainment industry, be it through acting or singing.


11. Phoenix was in a band with his sister Rain

In 1987, Phoenix formed a band with his sister Rain Phoenix, drummer Josh Greenbaum and a few other friends of his. They called it Aleka’s Attic.

12. Bought property so that no one else could touch it In order to make sure that land was protected, River Phoenix bought 800 acres of endangered rainforest in Costa Rica. River bought it simply so that no one else could abuse the land.

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13. Lifelong vegan River Phoenix was very passionate about saving the environment and protecting wildlife. He strongly believed that no animal should be killed just for the sake of food.

14. He shared a feature film debut with Ethan Hawke The sci-fi film Explorers was River Phoenix’s first feature film, and this also happened to be the first feature film with Ethan Hawke.

15. His most emotional scene In the film Stand by Me, one of the most famous scenes is when River Phoenix’s character finally opens up to his friend and emotionally breaks down. The director of the film, Rob Reiner, reportedly urged River to channel his memories and feelings of instances in his life where adults let him down. After the scene ended, River was unable to stop crying and needed emotional assistance.

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16. Keanu Reeves was one of his closest friends

Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix became best friends after working together in I Love You to Death. Reeves had been on the set of the film Speed when he heard about his friend’s death and was devastated by the loss.

17. Phoenix almost wasn’t in My Own Private Idaho

River Phoenix’s agent had refused to tell River about the film, and so Keanu Reeves motorcycled all the way from Canada to Florida in order to give River the script in person. If it wasn’t for that, River may not have had this definitive role.

18. Missed movie premiere because he was afraid to fly

River Phoenix much preferred driving over flying. His fear of flying prevented him from attending the My Own Private Idaho premiere in New York as there was not enough time to drive across the country.

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19. A major investor in House of Blues

The House of Blues—an immensely successful chain of music venues—started as a single night-club that was opened by Dan Aykroyd—known for The Blues Brothers and Ghostbusters. River Phoenix had been among one of the early investors.

20. Reputation for losing himself in roles

River Phoenix had a quality of involuntary method acting, taking on the qualities of the characters he played. While this does result in more earnestness on-screen, this took an emotional toll on River, as his roles were often very intense. In 1994 Bobby Bukowski, the cinematographer for Dogfight, told Esquire, “the street-urchin character in [My Private Idaho] stayed with him and played into the whole drug thing.”


21. Harrison Ford personally recommended Phoenix to play young Indiana Jones

In 1986’s The Mosquito Coast, River Phoenix played Harrison Ford’s son. After this role, Ford became adamant that of all of the actors considered, Phoenix was the one who looked most like him at a young age and should play a young Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

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22. Originally cast as Daniel Malloy in Interview with a Vampire Before his death, River Phoenix was cast in the role of Daniel Malloy for the film Interview with a Vampire. In fact, shooting for the film was scheduled to start just weeks after his death. Christian Slater, who took the role, donated his earnings from the film—$250,000—to River’s favorite charities: Earth Trust and EarthSave.

23. Three of his potential film roles went to Leonardo DiCaprio Before he died, River Phoenix had been attached as a lead actor for The Basketball Diaries, expressed interest in the film that became Total Eclipse, and had been sought after by James Cameron for Titanic. All of these roles ended up going to Leonardo DiCaprio, who actually viewed Phoenix as an early inspiration of his. Interestingly, DiCaprio actually caught a glimpse of Phoenix before he left the Viper Room on the day he died, but regrets not ever being able to truly meet him.

24. Phoenix died at Johnny Depp’s club On October 30, 1993, River Phoenix was at The Viper Room—a club/bar owned by Johnny Depp—with his girlfriend, Samantha Mattis, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and his siblings Rain and Joaquin. Phoenix collapsed on the sidewalk outside the club and although he was taken to a hospital, he died of an accidental overdose of cocaine, heroin, and other drugs.

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25. Last words There are many rumors about River’s last words. While some claim that River said nothing before he collapsed, some say that his last words were, “No paparazzi, I want anonymity.”

26. He was planning early retirement when he died

According to River’s girlfriend of the time, Samantha Mattis, before he died, River was planning to make one more movie to put away enough money for his youngest sister to go to college before retiring from his acting career. Although Mattis has stated she doesn’t know if it is entirely true, she remembers him telling her that.

27. Photographer broke into the funeral home to get a picture of his body

The media went crazy following River Phoenix’s death. TV news managed to get a recording of the 911 call made by Joaquin Phoenix and broadcast it on multiple television stations. In addition, a paparazzi got a picture of River’s body by breaking into the funeral home that he was kept at. This photograph was published by the National Enquirer.

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28. Two of his Sisters named their children after him

River’s one sister, Liberty Phoenix, named her son Rio, which is Spanish for river, and his other sister, Summer Phoenix, named her daughter Indiana because River had played a young Indiana Jones.

29. The Red Hot Chili Peppers dedicated an album to him

Flea, the founding member of the band, became really close to River as they were both in the cast of My Own Private Idaho. After River’s death, the Red Hot Chili Peppers made a song entitled “Transcending” as a tribute to Phoenix.

30. He made 13 films

By his death, although he only has 13 film credits to his name, River Phoenix was firmly established as an icon of his generation.

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31. His last movie came out almost 20 years after his death

The film, Dark Blood, was still in production when River died. At the time, it was about 80% finished, but the director, George Sluizer, decided that he did not want to finish the film without River. After facing a near-death experience, however, Sluizer decided to revisit the project 15 years later, and simply recorded a voiceover of himself describing the missing scenes. The film premiered in 2012 at a film festival in Holland.

32. R.E.M. dedicated an album to River Phoenix

Michael Stipe, the lead singer, and lyricist for the band R.E.M. was a close friend of River’s and was unable to write for 5 months after his death. The band dedicated their album ‘Monster’ to River.

 We, at Hollywood Insider, will continue to highlight River Phoenix and his magic. River, we all miss you, your fans, old and new. You were beyond your years and left us spellbound with your talent, charisma, and heart. You may have only spent 23 years physically on Earth, yet you managed to achieve more than most do during their entire full human lifetime. We hope you are much happier wherever you are. We respect you, we love you, we admire you. Your Cinema will continue to enthrall generations way into the future, and thus you are eternal.  

By Kaliray Arison

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