Noted for the depth, sensitivity, and intelligence that he brought to his roles during his teens, River Phoenix was on the cusp of becoming a successful adult actor when he overdosed on drugs and died on Halloween night, 1993.
The son of Arlyn Dunetz and John Bottom, Phoenix was born River Jude Bottom on August 23, 1970, in a log cabin on a mint farm in Madras, OR. His parents named him after the "river of life" that flowed through Hermann Hesse's novel Siddhartha and for the Beatles' song "Hey Jude." From the time Phoenix was born, his parents lived the hippie life, moving to several communes until they joined the controversial Children of God cult. They became missionaries for their new church and spent a couple of years wandering Latin America before landing in Venezuela. Along the way, three more children were born: Rain, Joaquin Rafael (who grew up to be actor Joaquin Phoenix), and Libertad Mariposa. Though John Bottom had been designated the "Archbishop of Venezuela and the Caribbean," he and his family received no missionary funds from their church and lived in poverty; Phoenix and his siblings often sang and performed on street corners for food. His family hit their lowest point when Phoenix was seven and the penniless brood was forced to move into a beach hut until a local priest showed mercy and arranged for them to be stowed away on a Florida-bound freighter. The crew discovered the family during the voyage but treated them kindly. Shortly after their arrival in Florida in 1978, the family legally changed its name to Phoenix to commemorate their new lives. While the family was in Florida, another child, Summer Joy Phoenix, was born.
River Phoenix had originally wanted to be a musician and did not become interested in acting until 1979, when he and Rain were spotted in a talent show and invited to audition at Hollywood's Paramount studios. Believing that the opportunity was worth more than the possible risks involved, the Phoenix family headed West in a battered station wagon. Their arrival in Burbank was disappointing, as the Paramount people reneged on what the family had believed to be an offer to audition the children. Once again the family was destitute and the children returned to busking for change. Matters improved when agent Iris Burton entered their lives and started finding work for Phoenix in television commercials (a venue he hated) and in series such as Real Kids, for which he and Rain worked as a warm-up act. Phoenix's first real break came when he won a leading role in the TV series Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. From there, he made guest appearances on such television series as Family Ties and in such TV movies as Robert Kennedy: The Man and His Times, in which he played Robert Kennedy Jr.
Phoenix made his feature-film debut as a young genius in Explorers (1985). The film, which also starred a then-unknown Ethan Hawke, was not a tremendous box-office success, but Phoenix received favorable notices. He earned even more acclaim in Rob Reiner's adaptation of Stephen King's bittersweet coming-of-age story, Stand By Me (1986). The same year, he played opposite Harrison Ford in The Mosquito Coast (1986). By the late '80s, Phoenix found himself a top-ranked teen idol, having added films like Running on Empty (1988), Little Nikita (1988), and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) to his resumé. His breakthrough as an adult actor came when he was cast as a narcoleptic street hustler opposite Keanu Reeves in Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991). Allegedly, it was during production of that film that Phoenix started taking drugs. Before his death, he won further acclaim for roles in Dogfight (1991) and Sneakers (1992). The year that he died, he starred in The Thing Called Love and had a number of other films in the works. Phoenix died in the company of his sister, Rain, his reported girlfriend Samantha Mathis, and his brother Joaquin (then known as Leaf) after taking cocaine, heroin, and other drugs at Johnny Depp's Viper Room. He was only 23.