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Cosmopolitan, April 1995 v218 n4 p230(9)

Lost in Hollywood: the fast times and short life of River Phoenix

By John Glatt

River Phoenix was a promising young actor who died from a drug overdose in Oct 1993. He was raised in a cult and began modeling in 1979 to earn money to support his family. His acting career began in earnest when he received critical acclaim for his role in 1985's 'Stand By Me.'

In the summer of 1968, a twenty-three-year-old secretary named Arlyn Sharon Dunetz decided to drop out of her workaday life to pursue a hippie dream. She returned from her Manhattan office one day and told her husband that she was leaving him to find a more meaningful life. Stuffing some clothes into a backpack, Arlyn took a few dollars or savings and left the Bronx to hitchhike to California. She met John Bottom when he picked her up in his battered VW bus on Santa Monica Boulevard. "We talked and talked till early morning," said Arlyn. "We just knew we had similar desires." Similar desires included an alternative to the materialistic world in which neither of them felt comfortable. They discussed the Vietnam War, the antiwar movement, how peace and love were the solution to the world's madness. Soon after, they fell in love and began wandering the West Coast, drifting from commune to commune. Hallucinogenic drugs and marijuana were plentiful and cheap, and John and Arlyn took them as an essential part of what they considered their inner journey. John and Arlyn were eventually married in a hippie ceremony in 1969. One year later, on Sunday, August 23, 1970, River Jude Bottom came into the world. His parents named him River after the river of life in Hermann Hesse's novel Siddhartha, and Jude, after their favorite Beatles song, "Hey Jude." In 1972, Arlyn and John turned from psychedelic drugs to religion in the form of the radical cult Children of God--which survives in Los Angeles under the new name, The Family. To the applause of the whole Children of God commune, the Bottoms were officially "saved" as they renounced their old lives and accepted Jesus as their savior.

John and Arlyn and River were then given their new Bible name of Phoenix, which symbolized rising from the ashes of their old lives to be born again. During the next few years, the Phoenixes were rewarded for their loyalty to the cult by rising through the Children of God hierarchy. As River reached his formative years, he accompanied his parents when they toured communes to recruit new members. He was a thoughtful little boy but already seemed guarded and withdrawn, not as animated as his playmates.

At four, in line with the teachings of Children of God founder, David Berg, River began to experience sex regularly with the other young people of the group in the nurseries at night. Years later, he would acknowledge losing his virginity as a young child. "I'm glad I did it when I was young," he said. "But I didn't want those young vaginas and different body parts that were in my face to make me perverse when I was older, so I blocked it all out. I was completely celibate from ten to fourteen. You're just born into that reality, and you accept it." Former Children of God member Dr. Sam Ajamian, who now actively campaigns against the cult, says free sex and group orgies started as far back as 1971-a year before the Phoenixes joined. The group operated on a strict secrecy system within its communes, so husbands and wives were often unaware of each other's sexual partners. Explained Dr. Ajamian, "My wife could have been involved in all kinds of things, and I wouldn't know about it. That's how tight they were. David Berg even encouraged his disciples to molest their own children. He believed that one of the best ways for kids to learn about sex was by having it with their own parents. There was a memorandum about this sent out. People were supposed to read it and burn it." In 1974, the Phoenixes were ordered to South America to work as traveling missionaries for the cult. John was given the exalted title of Archbishop of Venezuela and the Caribbean, and the family moved to Caracas, Venezuela. River, then five, and his sister Rain, three, were coached by their parents to sing Children of God songs so they could panhandle on street corners to feed the family.

For their first modest venture into show business they took the name Los Ninos Rubios Qui Canta--the Blonde Children Who Sing. The children's street performances were about the only positive aspect of the Phoenixes' lives at that time. Poverty-stricken, they were living in deplorable conditions in Caracas, never knowing where their next meal would come from. "It was disgusting," recalled River. "It was a shack. It had no toilet and was rat-infested." Arlyn and John were becoming disillusioned with the Children of God. In 1976, Berg issued an official edict ordering his female followers to become prostitutes for Jesus and use sex as part of their witnessing. The final straw was seeing pictures of a grinning Berg, in black robes and long beard, surrounded by beautiful nubile girls.

Desperate and penniless, the Phoenixes moved into a but on the beach outside Caracas and prayed for guidance. They were so poor that John and Arlyn often went without food so the children could eat. Every night, the family would huddle together in the hut and pray for deliverance from their nightmare. Arlyn was pregnant again, and getting out of Venezuela to safety was fast becoming a matter of life and death. On August 23, 1977, River spent his seventh birthday sitting in the flithy hut eating coconuts and mangoes that had fallen from the trees. "I was never frightened," said River. "When you're raised on the road, you don't fear these things; you don't question them. We had faith, a lot of faith." Help finally came in the form of a priest who arranged for the family to escape back to the United States on a freighter taking a shipment of Tonka toys to Florida. "We were stowaways," said River. "The crew discovered us halfway home. My mom was pregnant." The Phoenix family landed in Florida without personal possessions; there had been no time to pack them. When the family arrived in the United States, at the end of 1978, they found themselves totally out of step with the world around them.

River had never received any formal education or normal social conditioning. His only worldly knowledge came from his parents and his early years with the Children of God. "When we arrived, we were very naive and sheltered in many ways," River would say. "And then suddenly we were exposed to all this information. It was like a brainstorm." The family moved in with Arlyn's parents, who had recently retired to Winter Park, Florida. John Phoenix hated living on the goodwill of his in-laws and tried to get his family back on its feet by starting a landscaping business. At his grandparents' insistence, River was sent to a local school but had a difficult time being accepted by his new schoolmates; he was so different from everyone else. "When I was in first grade everyone made fun of my name, of course," he said. "I think it's kind of a big name to hold up when you're nine years old. It seemed goofy. I used to tell people I wanted to change the world, and they used to think, This kid's really weird." In 1979, John Phoenix was forced to give up physical work when an old back injury recurred and left him a semi-invalid. It was at this low point in their lives that Arlyn was forced to take control. "We had the vision that our kids could captivate the world," said Arlyn as she set out on a campaign to transform River and Rain into musical entertainers. During their free time, River and Rain developed a new musical act reaturing popular songs instead of their old repertoire of hymns. River was also beginning to write his own songs for the act, and Team Phoenix, as Arlyn now called the family, was totally focused on achieving success.

After the Phoenix family performed locally at the Hernando Fiesta, reviewer Gayle Guthman of the St. Petersburg Times wrote a profile of the hippie family of musical child prodigies. Arlyn was thrilled with it and sent a copy to her old Bronx school friend actress Penny Marshall. Although Marshall, now a film director, says she has no recollection of Arlyn, the letter did find its way to the casting department at Paramount Pictures. A few weeks later, Arlyn received a form letter from Paramount, inviting the children for an interview if ever they happened to be in Hollywood. Team Phoenix was delighted and saw it as a sign from God. John and Arlyn loaded up their station wagon and headed to Hollywood. When the Phoenix family arrived at Paramount for their audition, the studio seemed unimpressed and sent them on their way. "We were really naive," said River. "I figured I'd play guitar and sing with my sister and we would be on television the next day." Arlyn took control of the situation by finding a secretarial job in the casting department of NBC-TV. The job turned out to be a perfect position for a would-be stage mother to find out where and when auditions were being held for TV commercials. Soon River was a regular at auditions, accompanied by his father. Arlyn's ambitious plans for her children took a giant step forward when she made an appointment to see Hollywood's leading children's agent, Iris Burton. Burton offered to sign River immediately. "River was the most beautiful child you've ever seen, like a little Elvis," she said. Burton quickly established River as one of the hottest young stars in the ad business. He was the angelic-looking, all-American kid in commercials for Mitsubishi, Ocean Spray, and even Saks Fifth Avenue, where Arlyn had liked to shop at lunchtime during her days as a Manhattan secretary.

Then, abruptly, River suddenly announced he did not want to have anything more to do with commercials. They were phony," River explaincd. He didn't believe in the products. And Burton, who had never encountered anything like the Phoenix family and their hippie idealism, was stunned by River's decision, one which his parents fully supported. In early 1982, River was called in to audition for a new CBS-TV series, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The show's executive producer was so impressed by River's talent as a singer and guitarist that he gave him the part of the youngest brother on the spot. Delighted that River was to be a TV star, the Phoenix family moved to the northern California town of Murphy to be with River on location, but from the first day the family's strict vegetarianism caused trouble on the set. "There were conflicts around his family's ideology." recalled cast member Terri Treas. "His parents didn't want River to wear leather, and when you're doing a western, you have to wear cowboy boots made of leather. That wasn't ideologically acceptable to them. It put River in a very uncomfortable position as a kid, but what could he do except obey his parents?" CBS canceled Seven Brides for Seven Brothers after just twenty-two episodes. Yet again, the Phoenixes were flat broke. For the next few months, River and his father were back in the auditioning line. John Phoenix, relegated to a role of caretaker, increasingly turned to alcohol and marijuana to relieve his frustrations.

With little money coming in, the pressures were mounting on River at each audition to get the part and keep the family afloat. River's hard work finally paid off when he was cast in Explorers, a big-budget science-fiction feature film about three young friends with very different personalities who build a spaceship out of junk. River played Wolfgang, who invented the spaceship. Ethan Hawke, in his first film role, played the dreamer Ben Crandall, and Jason Presson was the streetwise mechanic, Darren Woods. Once on the set, River became fast friends with his costars and for the first time began socializing with other kids his own age outside the Phoenix clan. But from the beginning, River stood out on the set because of special meals brought in daily by his ever-watchful parents, who were always lurking in the background to monitor his work. John Phoenix agreed, however, to relax his restrictions on River wearing leather to make things easier for the wardrobe department. Director Joe Dante says that although fourteen-year-old River was extremely bright, his lack of education and inexperience with life soon became apparent on the set. "There would be a lot of times when reference would be made to things River didn't understand or know about," said Dante. "Things that other kids might take for granted: commonly used words, historical events and figures, past presidents, famous writers, famous actors or singers. River didn't have a lot of material knowledge of the world because of the way he had been brought up. The meaning of things often had to be explained to him, and it put him in a difficult position."

For the first time in his life, River was challenged about his beliefs and would go on the defensive when he was forced into justifying them. "Ethan, who was a far more worldly boy, would often challenge River, and I don't think he was used to that," Dante explained. "He was suddenly confronted with a whole lifetime of thinking one way and finding out that it wasn't the way the mainstream of the world thought." After the end of filming, River was upset to have to say good-bye to his costars. "River was weeping and crying when Ethan got the bus to leave to go home to New Jersey," remembers Dante. "He was brokenhearted. River was from a very tight-knit family, and I don't think it was that simple for him to transfer his affections from one place to another. I think he genuinely felt liked in this group, and now it was all ending." Back home in Los Angeles, in the spring of 1985, Arlyn called River in from a game of yard football, excited by the news that Iris Burton wanted him to test for a role in a new film with the working title of Stand by Me.

River was one of three hundred young people director Rob Reiner had tested and the first actor to be cast. Based on the Stephell King novella The Body, the film tells the story of a group of four twelve-year-old boys who embark on an odyssey to find the body of a young boy who has been struck by a train. Reiner says that he deliberately chose River to play the pivotal role of Chris Chambers, the boys' leader and peacemaker, because he was so similar to the character in real life. The two months of shooting Stand by Me would be special for River. The fourteen-year-old would not only catch up on some of the childhood fun he had missed out on during his years as a missionary but also start drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. River smoked marijuana for the first time during the making of the film. Costar Corey Feldman remembers finding River getting high in his dressing room. "I went into his room, and I saw a joint, and he said, `Oh, it was someone else's ..... I had been doing it too, but it was one of those things where we really didn't want to let each other know what we were doing," says Feldman. The four boys, adolescent hormones raging, were also obsessed with sex and talked about little else. During the making of the film, River was smitten by an eighteen-year-old friend of his parents who offered to initiate him. He was delighted, but insisted that they first ask his parents for their blessing. John and Arlyn consented and decided to transform the event into a sort of family celebration and decorated a love tent in their backyard for the act to take place. "It was a beautiful experience," remembered Arlyn many years later. "A very strange experience" was how River would later describe the episode. "I got through that, thank God."

The next day, River turned up on the set with a big grin, recounting his exploits to the other boys and anyone else who would listen. The success of Stand by Me would change the Phoenix family's lives forever, launching River into stardom and giving the family financial security for the first time. But coping with his newfound celebrity wasn't easy. River had become recognizable wherever he went. His face turned up on the covers of teen magazines, and each day brought thousands of fan letters and requests for autographs. It was scary stuff for the shy, introverted fifteen-year-old. "After Stand by Me came out, people were telling me, `You're so good,' You're going to be a star,' and things like that," recalled River. "You can't think about it. If you take the wrong way you can get really high on yourself People get so lost when that happens to them. They may think they have everything under control, but everything is really out of control. Their lives are totally in pieces." Arlyn used River's earnings to establish a new stability for the family. On the advice of Iris Burton, the family incorporated as Phoenix in Flight Productions. Arlyn also hired Larry McHale as a housekeeper with special responsibilities to look after River and be his friend. Given the affectionate title of NANNY (New Age Non-Nuclear Youth), Larry, who had met Arlyn through mutual friends, handled everything from logistics to laundry. Arlyn also hired a young man, Ed Squires, to tutor the children at home. Since River had such difficulty reading and was so far behind other children his age, Squires decided that he was suffering from dyslexia. But Arlyn and John refused to believe anything was wrong and did not seek help. Arlyn's main priority was finding River's next movie role, which would be the vital next rung in his career. There was no shortage of offers. It seemed that every producer in Hollywood was now beating a path to Iris Burton's door with movie projects.

But on Rob Reiner's advice, they were holding back for the right opportunity. While River's mother carefully plotted his career, growing ever closer to Iris Burton, his father was withdrawing. River felt torn by Arly!n's ambition for the future and John's desire to keep his family dream intact by turning his back on worldly success. River had no real friends to confide in during this confusing period; he very much wanted to have companions his own age outside of the family. He started hanging out with his nanny," Larry, who began introducing him to his own friends around Los Angeles, many of whom were involved in drugs. River was concealing his alcohol and drug experimentation from his parents. Since his earliest days in the Children of God, he had become something of an expert dissembler. It was during this time that River first developed a moral stand in interviews in which he spoke out against drugs, playing down any of his own involvement. "I've tried marijuana a few times, but I don't like it," he told People magazine just after his sixteenth birthday. "I get really boring on marijuana. It makes me dull." At the end of 1986, River Phoenix and his father traveled to the Central American jungle of Belize to make The Mosquito Coast, which tells the story of a family who leave America to find a new life in the jungles of South America. In an eerie parallel to River's own story, the film traces the family's perilous adventures as they are led by their obsessive father, played by Harrison Ford. During the long, grueling hours on the set, River became close to Harrison Ford, who took him under his wing and taught him lessons in acting technique that would prove invaluable in his later movies. As River gravitated toward Harrison Ford as a strong father figure, John Phoenix was blaming himself for ever allowing River to go to Hollywood. He sensed that his son was slipping away from him.

Living with River in a village near Belize City, John was always looking for ways to escape the set, He kept trying to persuade River to take a trip to Guatemala. The boy would patiently explain to his father that he could not be irresponsible. According to set publicist Reid Rosefelt: "River would say, `Listen, Dad, I know I'm fifteen years old and I should have fun. But I have to do my scene tomorrow, and I have to learn my lines, and I have a responsibility to be on set and be rested.'" While making the film, River started dating his fifteen-year-old costar, Martha Plimpton. They continued to see each other once the film was completed. From the beginning, River tried to convert his new girlfriend to his vegetarian way of life with his usual but charming flair for the dramatic. Remembers Plimpton, "Once when we were fifteen, River and I went out for this fancy dinner in Manhattan, and I ordered soft-shell 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 a pain that I was eating an animal, that he hadn't impressed on me what was right. I loved him for that, for his dramatic desire that we share every belief, that I be with him all the way."

At sixteen, River Phoenix faced a difficult professional transition. In just two years, he had grown four inches and dropped twenty pounds to become a bona fide teen movie idol with a rockstar following of young girls, Although he good-naturedly posed for beefcake shots and suffered through interviews, he only wanted to be accepted as a serious adult actor. His roles in A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon and starring alongside Sidney Poitier in Litlle Nikita, River was tagged Hollywood's hottest teenage property. He was also the breadwinner of the family, who were now living on a rented ranch outside San Diego. He felt tremendous pressure to continue working. "His parents saw him as their savior," Plimpton says, "and treated him like their father." And John Phoenix's crisis deepened as River became more popular. He felt that the family's idealistic principles could not survive in the hard-nosed movie business. John urged River to leave Hollywood and use his money to start a new life. "My father is worried that we could be ruined by this business," said River at the time. "It's got a lot of pitfalls and temptations, and he doesn't want us to become materialistic and lose all the values we were brought up believing in." Although he had once shied away from interviews, River began welcoming them as an opportunities for airing his family's views and beliefs. His somewhat simplistic worldview branded River an environmental poster child. His clean-living eco-conscious image would become difficult to to live up to and sustain.

In an interview with the Bosion Globe, "The Utopian View of River Phoenix," the seventeen-year-old actor sounded like a New Age politician: "I'm quite in love with the human race and this planet that we live on," River began. "I see life as very fresh and beautiful. People say to me, `Oh, you have the world in your hands,' or `You're young, and you have all these opportunities.' But that's not why I feel the way I do.... I get very frustrated with the pace of my life--I want so badly for people just to understand each other and communicate better." River tried to balance his mission as family prophet with the temptations of Hollywood, but this conflict would eventually tear him apart. He became fearless in his pursuit or pleasure--it was against his nature ever to play it safe. River secretly began using cocaine regularly and experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs, such as peyote and psychedelic mushrooms. "Achieving success gets complicated," said River. "You find yourself hanging around with a different crowd. I probably would have shied away from it, but after a while you can't help but get sucked in ... all those parties and premieres and limos picking you up. And after a while, if you hang in with this little group, you lose your sense of reality completely." After finishing Running on Empty in August 1987, River decided to focus on finding a new family base away from Hollywood where he could melt into a community and live a "normal" life. In the fall, the Phoenix family moved to Gainesville, Florida, a college town with a strong music scene. River immediately felt at home in Gainesville.

At last he could lay down roots, find friends, and belong. Determined to be anonymous, River grew his hair into a long helmetlike fringe and combed it over his face whenever he went out. Once he settled in, River immediately persuaded L.A. friend Josh Greenbaum to move into his Gainesville house to help set up a band using the money from a development deal he had negotiated with Island Records. The deal provided funds for River to rehearse and record some demos with the goal of releasing an album on the island label if the music was good enough. In their first few weeks together, River and Josh spent their time playing music in the Phoenix backyard, where they would sit on the trampoline and practice for hours. They were also busy making the connections they would need to break into Gainesville's flourishing college music scene when they were ready. Josh McKay, a twenty-two-year-old guitarist from Denton, Texas, also joined the band and moved in with the family. Rain offered to play keyboards and sing harmony, and they recruited a local, classically trained viola player, Tim Hankins. They decided to call the band Aleka's Attic. By June of 1988, the, expanded Phoenix tribe moved to a twenty-acre spread in Micanopy, twelve miles outside Gainesville. Known as "Camp Phoenix" to the locals, the house soon looked like a sixties commune, with brightly colored hanging tapestries and environmental posters. The house was ecologically correct--to save energy they turned on the hot-water heater only ten minutes a day before showers, declined to have a dryer, used only recycled paper products, and never threw anything away that could be reused. In Micanopy, John Phoenix could devote himself full-time to cultivating an organic garden to help make the family self-sufficient. But he was far from content, mostly internalizing his fears for the family. He would get drunk and speak out about how Hollywood was corrupting his cherished dream. "When Martha Plimpton came to stay that summer, she was shocked by the disharmony in the family. River was drinking heavily, as well as smoking marijuana, snorting cocaine, and tripping on psychedelic mushrooms.

Troubled father and son had started drinking together in an attempt to strengthen their crumbling bond. Several months later, Martha Plimpton decided to end her four-year relationship with River because, as she told Esquire magazine, she could no longer cope with his drugs and drinking: "When we split up, a lot of it was that I had learned that screaming, fighting, and begging weren't going to change him. He had to change himself, and he didn't want to yet." The breakup with Plimpton was a huge shock to River. Without Martha, there was no one to rein him in. Over the next few months, River drowned his sorrows in his music. Aleka's Attic began playing every weekend around Gainesville and got a residency at the Hardback, a small no-frills punk-rock club with a never-ending supply of warm Guinness on tap. River seemed to like the dark recesses of the club, where he could hide with his friends and not be bothered by strangers. In the fall of 1989, a Gainesville band named Mutley Chix hired a new singer/ saxophonist named Sue Solgot.

The blonde, twenty-five-year-old Detroit native had left her adoptive parents to come to Gainesville to study fine-arts photography. Moving as she was in local musical circles, it was only a matter of time before Sue met River Phoenix, who was sporting a new marine crewcut for his next movie, Dogfight. River introduced himself as Rio" at a party, then denied being River Phoenix after a friend of Sue tried to unmask him. "I'm not that guy," claimed Phoenix. I'm nothing like him." River and Sue found they had a lot in common, and soon they began dating. When River asked Sue to live with him, she readily agreed. He found a huge one-bedroom apartment in Gainesville's most prestigious area, the Duckpond. Their new home took up the entire first floor of a restored two-story house and was only a twenty-minute drive from the Phoenix family home in Micanopy.

Although River mostly stayed in town, he found himself supporting-members of the ever-growing Phoenix tribe. There were now more than a dozen people sheltered on the Micanopy spread. The actor's self-sufficient friends resented these hangers-on and called them Klingons. They justified their existence by helping out as gardeners, secretaries, security personnel, and shoppers. John Phoenix, now seeing his longtime fears for his family proved right, became so unhappy with life in Micanopy that River bought him a ranch in Costa Rica. From then on, John spent nearly all his time in the village of Montezuma, a seven-hour ferry-and-bus ride from the capital city of San Jose, running a bed-and-breakfast operation. From time to time, River, Rain, and Leaf would fly out with friends to spend time with their father "The pressure was there to keep going, make more," said John Phoenix. "Iris Burton said ten years ago that young actors were like pieces of meat and river was a filet mignon. It might sound harsh, but she was only telling the truth. As he got famous, the scripts poured in. Everyone wanted a piece of him. He was constantly under pressure to make more films, make more money."

Arlyn Phoenix, who had changed her name to Heart," now divided her time between managing her children's movie careers and attending environmental workshops. Her companion was John Robbins, the onetime heir to the Baskin-Robbins ice cream fortune who had given up his inheritance to devote himself to helping the environment. Ultimately, it was River who had to earn the money to pay for everything. He cheerfully bought a house for his grandparents in West Palm Beach, helping to support them in their retirement, and would always assist hard-up members of his father's family when they were down on their luck. Increasingly, River Phoenix became a benefactor who gave but never asked for anything in return. Keanu Reeves convinced River to take the part of Mike Waters in My Own Private Idaho, a film about two young drug-taking homosexual street hustlers in Portland, Oregon. River was excited about doing Idaho, since he felt it could establish him as a serious actor and finally bury the teenage heartthrob image he so detested. To help River prepare for his role, director Gus Van Sant made videotapes of a former Portland street hustler named Mike Parker, the real-life model for River's character. Five months before the cameras were set to roll, River and Keanu actually flew to Portland to research the world of by bustling. Staying with Van Sant, they became frequent visitors to Portland's Old Town district and spent nights with the hustlers who cruised a strip outside the gay City Nightclub on Thirteenth and Burnside called "Vaseline Alley," where boys as young as twelve sold their bodies to passing motorists on forty-dollar "dates." River spent hours questioning Mike Parker about every part of his life until he knew the character so thoroughly he could step into it. He studied Parker's soft-spoken voice and nervous, darting eye movements. Phoenix Was extracting what he needed from Parker until he had fully transformed himself into Mike Waters. "I "I think he pulled out all the stops to get into his role for Idaho," says Parker. "He found it so challenging that it took over his whole being. Maybe he just went a little too far."