Weekly, 12 Nov 1993
E! Weekly Website
23, collapsed outside a Los Angeles, CA, nightclub. The
young actor was reportedly behaving strangely and began
having convulsions prior to his death. Rumors of the use
of the drug GHB have surfaced, but autopsy results will
not be available until later in Nov 1993.
A tragic death exposes the
dark side of one of Hollywood's brightest stars Of all the
James Dean-idolizing twentysomethings who roam the sex,
drug, and rock & roll-powered scene on L.A.'s Sunset Strip,
River Phoenix, 23, seemed least likely to be Dean's "live
fast-die young" successor. Then again, his final hours,
spent acting "strangely" at the trendy Viper Room, were
the antithesis of his public image: The son of former hippies,
Phoenix was politically correct and a militant vegetarian
- the personification of a sober and more self-aware generation.
His untimely - and possibly drug-related - death raises
troubling questions about what Phoenix was struggling with
underneath his rain forest-ready facade.
According to an ENTERTAINMENT
WEEKLY reporter who was inside the Viper Room that night,
the shy young actor was not himself from the moment he arrived
with an entourage that included The Thing Called Love costar
Samantha Mathis. "He called attention to himself by the
way he was weaving through the crowd, unsteady on his feet,"
says the reporter. Later, as Phoenix stood near the stage
waiting to join Viper co-owner Johnny Depp, his pal Flea
of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Gibby Haynes of the Butthole
Surfers for a boozy blues jam, a bouncer says he noticed
Phoenix "shaking, kind of convulsing." He was told by an
unidentified companion that the actor was fine and was just
"kidding around." The bouncer then helped him outside the
Despite other signs of distress
- Phoenix was reportedly drinking and had been spotted in
the men's room in convulsions - it was not until the bouncer
frantically pushed his way past the stage that clubgoers
realized something was very wrong. Outside, Phoenix had
collapsed in seizures.
"I've never seen anything
like it," says photographer Ron Davis, who was outside the
club, and who claims Phoenix's friends acted dazed and confused
despite the star's dire condition. According to Davis, Mathis
and River's brother Leaf Phoenix argued with the doorman
about River's condition as the actor writhed on the ground.
Shortly thereafter, Leaf made his anguished call to 911,
pleading for an ambulance and worrying out loud that his
brother might have taken Valium. Davis said other patrons,
including actress Christina Applegate, also behaved like
deer caught in the headlights, unsure of what to do.
Despite Davis' claims, there
is no evidence that paramedics were slow to arrive or that
anyone there could have saved Phoenix's life. He was taken
to L.A.'s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in full cardiac arrest
and was pronounced dead about an hour later. The initial
autopsy report is inconclusive, and the county coroner's
office will not have the results of toxicological tests
until this week at the earliest. But the revision of Phoenix's
abuse-free image has already begun. "He was absolutely antidrug,"
says a producer who worked with him. "Then he went crazy."
Another casual acquaintance
confirms that Phoenix seemed to be going through a change.
"I saw him at a wedding in California about a year ago and
he was totally out of it," she says. "It was a formal affair.
Even the Chili Peppers were wearing cheesy '70s tuxedos.
But River arrived at 9:30 a.m., drinking a bottle of wine,
dressed in sneakers, a pair of shaggy, ripped shorts, and
a dirty T-shirt. People were angry with him."
Although he had no home in
L.A., he ran with Hollywood-based rockers and neo-brat packers
who frequented a club scene where the music is loud and
drugs (such as heroin and the synthetic steroid GHB) are
in ample supply. "We were all worried about the crowd he
was with," says director Peter Bogdanovich, who became close
to Phoenix during the filming of The Thing Called Love.
"L.A. bothered him. Something about it triggered all the
more difficult parts of his life."
Family and friends say that
Phoenix did not have a problem with drugs. Bogdanovich also
denies any knowledge of Phoenix's substance abuse on Love's
Nashville set, but a production source says the actor was
drinking heavily during filming. "There was one night they
couldn't get a performance out of him," she notes. Other
insiders point to his much-lauded role in My Own Private
Idaho as introducing him to a counterculture very different
from the one in which he was raised.
River was the oldest son of
John and Arlyn Phoenix, itinerant fruit-pickers who, until
1977, preached the word of the Children of God cult in Latin
America. After the close-knit family left the sect, they
settled in California, where his mother got a temp job at
NBC and helped her kids move into show business. "My parents
were tofu and sprouts kind of people," said Rain Phoenix
in a September interview. "They worked hard to accommodate
us in our goals." (The family is said to be devastated by
It was never clear if it was
River's choice to act, but he was soon helping to support
his family and ultimately bought his parents a farm in Gainesville,
Fla. "River was the breadwinner," says Naomi Foner, who
wrote the screenplay for 1988's Running on Empty, which
Phoenix received an Oscar nomination. "Before he bought
the home, his family never had one. Once the house was bought,
once that was taken care of, he was finally able to have
his fling, to act like a kid - he was a 23-year-old kid,
and he did all the stuff that kids do."
The truth about River's death
may never be revealed, and ironically, in one of his last
interviews, he admitted he liked to keep people guessing:
"I try to lie as much as I can when being interviewed. It's
reverse psychology. I figure if you lie they'Il print the
truth, and when I tell the truth they'll lie."
END OF INTERVIEW