Five or six years ago, anyone would have told you that River Phoenix’s body was as pure as his heartfelt acting. Famously vegan, Phoenix ingested no meat or dairy products and wore no leather; he even undertook to save the rain forest, buying hundreds of acres in Costa Rica. All this visible virtue just made it that much more bewildering when, on Oct. 31, 1993, the 23-year-old Phoenix collapsed outside Johnny Depp’s L.A. club, the Viper Room, convulsing from an overdose of cocaine and heroin.
Phoenix, an avid musician, had gone to the club to jam with friends like Depp and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea. As the actor left with his friend Samantha Mathis, 22, and his brother Joaquin, 19, he slumped to the sidewalk. He died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center about an hour later. Reports eventually surfaced that he had been using drugs for years.
In retrospect, the explanation seemed to be that Phoenix had traveled too far, too fast. The oldest of five, he spent several years in Venezuela with his parents, missionaries for the counterculture sect Children of God. After the family moved to L.A. when he was 10, Phoenix made commercials, TV movies — and then his breakthrough film, 1986’s Stand By Me. In all, the actor would make 13 features, including 1988’s Running on Empty, for which he got a supporting-actor Oscar nod at 17. After Phoenix’s overdose, his longtime agent, Iris Burton, said: ”Being a young actor … with so much being offered … is insanity. They should … stop the partying.” Echoed Ethan Hawke, ”Child acting … is profoundly negative and hurtful.”
At the time of his death, Phoenix had been filming New Line’s Dark Blood (it was never completed). Next, he was to have played the interviewer in Interview With the Vampire; Christian Slater got the role instead and donated his $250,000 salary to Phoenix’s favorite eco-charities.
More immediate tributes were left by fans, who covered the Viper Room’s exterior with flowers and graffiti. ”River was real,” read one note, ”and always stood for truth.” Showbiz friends (R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, Dermot Mulroney) mourned at memorials in L.A. and at the family’s Gainesville, Fla., ranch. The Viper Room was closed — for a week and a half. Heroin’s deadly chic lingers. And 80 acres of tropical rain forest are currently being destroyed every minute.