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 vegetarianthe personification of a sober and more self-aware generation. His untimelyand possibly drug-relateddeath 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 stage door.
Despite other signs of distressPhoenix was reportedly drinking and had been spotted in the men's room in convulsionsit 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 the loss.)
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, for 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 kidhe 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'll print the truth, and when I tell the truth they'll lie.''
Additional reporting by David Bock, Melina Gerosa, Gregg Kilday, Heidi Siegmund, Michael Syzmanski, Malissa Thompson, and Jeffrey Wells