Phoenix was born River Jude Bottom on August 23, 1970, in Madras, Oregon, the first child of Arlyn Sharon Dunetz (born 1944) and John Lee Bottom (born 1947). Phoenix’s parents named him after the river of life from the Hermann Hesse novel Siddhartha, and he received his middle name from the Beatles’ song “Hey Jude”. In an interview with People, Phoenix described his parents as “hippieish”. His mother was born in the Bronx, New York, to Jewish parents whose families had emigrated from Russia and Hungary. His father was a lapsed Catholic from Fontana, California, of English, as well as German and French, ancestry. In 1968, Phoenix’s mother left her family in New York City and travelled across the United States, meeting John Lee Bottom while hitchhiking in northern California. They married on September 13, 1969, less than a year after meeting. While living in Crockett, Texas, their second child, Rain Joan of Arc Bottom, was born on November 21, 1972. In 1973, the family joined a controversial Christian new religious movement called the Children of God as missionaries. Their third child, Joaquin Rafael Bottom, was born on October 28, 1974, in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The family had settled in Caracas, Venezuela, where the Children of God had stationed them to work as missionaries and fruit gatherers. Although John Bottom was later designated the group’s “Archbishop of Venezuela and the Caribbean”, his family received no financial support and lived in poverty. Phoenix reflected later in life that the missionary work was undertaken “not out of choice, but was more like a desperate situation”. On July 5, 1976, Phoenix’s sister Libertad Mariposa Bottom was born. Phoenix often played guitar while he and Rain sang on street corners for money and food to support their ever-growing family. Arlyn and John eventually grew disillusioned with the Children of God; Arlyn would later tell a journalist that she and her husband were opposed to the group’s practice of “Flirty Fishing”, stating: “The group was being distorted by the leader, David Berg, who was getting powerful and wealthy. He sought to attract rich disciples through sex. No way.” Fearing the group was moving in a negative direction, the Bottom family left the group and stayed for a period with a church in Venezuela. It was during their last years in South America that the entire Phoenix family became vegans. The family eventually made the trip back to the United States on a cargo ship. Upon their return, they moved in with Phoenix’s maternal grandparents in Florida. On December 10, 1978, River’s sister Summer Joy Bottom was born in Winter Park, Florida. On April 2, 1979, the family officially changed their name to Phoenix, after the mythical bird that rises from its own ashes, symbolizing a new beginning. Phoenix never attended formal school. Screenwriter Naomi Foner later commented, “He was totally, totally without education. I mean, he could read and write, and he had an appetite for it, but he had no deep roots into any kind of sense of history or literature.”
Back in the United States, Arlyn began working as a secretary for an NBC broadcaster and John as an exteriors architect. Top kids agent Iris Burton spotted River, Joaquin, and their sisters Summer and Rain singing for spare change in Westwood, Los Angeles, and was so charmed by the family that she soon represented the four siblings. River started doing some commercials for Mitsubishi, Ocean Spray, and Saks Fifth Avenue, and soon afterward he and the other children were signed by casting director Penny Marshall from Paramount Pictures. River and Rain were assigned immediately to a show called Real Kids as warm up performers for the audience. In 1980, Phoenix began to fully pursue his work as an actor, making his first appearance on a TV show called Fantasy singing with his sister Rain. In 1982, River was cast in the short-lived CBS television series, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, in which he starred as the youngest brother, Guthrie McFadden. River, who arrived at the auditions with his guitar, promptly burst into a convincing Elvis Presley impersonation, charming the show producer. By this age, Phoenix was also an accomplished tap dancer. Almost a year after Seven Brides ended in 1983, Phoenix found a new role in the 1984 television movie Celebrity, where he played the part of young Jeffie Crawford. Although he was only onscreen for about ten minutes, his character was central. Less than a month after Celebrity came the ABC Afterschool Special: Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia. River starred as a young boy who discovers he has dyslexia. Joaquin starred in a small role alongside his brother. In September, the pilot episode of the short-lived TV series It’s Your Move aired. Phoenix was cast as Brian and only had one line of dialogue. He also starred as Robert Kennedy’s son, Robert Kennedy, Jr., in the TV movie Robert Kennedy and His Times. After his role in Dyslexia was critically acclaimed, Phoenix was almost immediately cast as a major role in his next made-for-TV movie, Surviving: A Family in Crisis. He starred as Philip Brogan alongside Molly Ringwald and Heather O’Rourke. Halfway during the filming of Surviving, Iris Burton contacted him about a possible role in the film Explorers.
In October 1984, Phoenix secured the role of geeky boy-scientist Wolfgang Müller in Joe Dante’s large-budget science-fiction film Explorers alongside Ethan Hawke, and production began soon after. Released in the summer of 1985, this was Phoenix’s first major motion picture role. In October 1986, Phoenix co-starred alongside Tuesday Weld and Geraldine Fitzgerald in the acclaimed CBS television movie Circle of Violence: A Family Drama, which told the tragic story of domestic elder abuse. This was Phoenix’s last television role before achieving film stardom. At the age of 15, Phoenix had a significant role in Rob Reiner’s popular coming-of-age film Stand By Me (1986), which made him a household name. The Washington Post opined that Phoenix gave the film its “centre of gravity”. Phoenix commented: “The truth is, I identified so much with the role of Chris Chambers that if I hadn’t had my family to go back to after the shoot, I’d have probably had to see a psychiatrist.” Later that year, Phoenix completed Peter Weir’s The Mosquito Coast (1986), playing the son of Harrison Ford’s character. “He was obviously going to be a movie star,” observed Weir. “It’s something apart from acting ability. Laurence Olivier never had what River had.” During the five-month shoot in Belize, Phoenix began a romance with his co-star Martha Plimpton, a relationship which continued in some form for many years. Phoenix was surprised by the poor reception for the film, feeling more secure about his work in it than he had in Stand By Me. Phoenix was next cast as the lead in the teen comedy-drama A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988), but was disappointed with his performance: “It didn’t turn out the way I thought it would, and I put the blame on myself. I wanted to do a comedy, and it was definitely a stretch, but I’m not sure I was even the right person for the role.” In 1988, Phoenix starred in Little Nikita (1988) alongside Sidney Poitier. During this time, the Phoenix family continued to move on a regular basis, moving over forty times by the time Phoenix was 18. After completing his sixth feature film, Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty (1988), Phoenix purchased his family a ranch in Micanopy, Florida, near Gainesville in 1987, in addition to a spread in Costa Rica.
In early 1989, Phoenix was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (as well as for a Golden Globe), and received the Best Supporting Actor honor from the National Board of Review for his role in Running on Empty. Phoenix jumped to his feet during the ceremony when Kevin Kline beat him for the Oscar. “I had to stop River from running to hug Kevin,” recalled his mother Arlyn. “It never crossed his mind that he hadn’t won.” That year he also portrayed a young Indiana Jones in the box-office hit Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade directed by Steven Spielberg. In 1990, Phoenix was photographed by Bruce Weber for Vogue and was spokesperson for a campaign for Gap. In 1991, Phoenix filmed an acclaimed independent picture called Dogfight co-starring Lili Taylor and directed by Nancy Savoca. In the romantic coming-of-age drama set in San Francisco, Phoenix portrayed a young U.S. Marine on the night before he was shipped off to Vietnam in November 1963. Taylor remarked that Phoenix suffered because he could not distance himself from his character: “He also hadn’t gotten into any [drugs] – he was just drinking then, too. It was different… That was actually a hard part for him, because it was so radically different from who he was. He was such a hippie, and here he was playing this marine. It actually caused him a lot of discomfort. I don’t think he enjoyed that, actually, getting into that psyche.”
Phoenix met actor Keanu Reeves while Reeves was filming Parenthood with Phoenix’s brother, Joaquin. The two starred together for the first time (along with Kevin Kline, Tracey Ullman and Joan Plowright) in 1990’s I Love You to Death and again in Gus Van Sant’s avant-garde film My Own Private Idaho. In his review for Newsweek, David Ansen praised Phoenix’s performance: “The campfire scene in which Mike awkwardly declares his unrequited love for Scott is a marvel of delicacy. In this, and every scene, Phoenix immerses himself so deeply inside his character you almost forget you’ve seen him before: it’s a stunningly sensitive performance, poignant and comic at once”. For his role in My Own Private Idaho, Phoenix won Best Actor honors at the Venice Film Festival, the National Society of Film Critics and the Independent Spirit Awards. The film and its success solidified Phoenix’s image as an actor with edgy, leading man potential. In that period Phoenix was beginning to make use of drugs like marijuana, cocaine and heroin with some friends. In the book Gus Van Sant wrote about Phoenix, “Pink”, the director said clearly that Phoenix was not a regular drug user but only occasionally, and that the actor had a more serious problem with alcohol. Phoenix had always tried to hide his addictions because he feared that they might ruin his career as they did his relationship with Martha Plimpton. Phoenix teamed up with Robert Redford and again with Sidney Poitier for the conspiracy/espionage thriller Sneakers (1992). A month later he began production on Sam Shepard’s art-house ghost western Silent Tongue (which was released in 1994); he also was beaten out for the role of Paul by Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It. He made a cameo appearance in Van Sant’s Even Cowgirls get the Blues (1993), co-starring his sister Rain. Phoenix then starred in Peter Bogdanovich’s country music-themed film, The Thing Called Love (1993), the last completed picture before his death. Phoenix began a relationship with co-star Samantha Mathis on the set.
Although Phoenix’s movie career was generating most of the income for his family, it has been stated by close friends and relatives that his true passion was music. Phoenix was a singer, songwriter, and an accomplished guitarist. He had begun teaching himself guitar at the age of five and had stated in an interview for E! in 1988 that his family’s move to Los Angeles when he was nine was made so that he and his sister “… could become recording artists. I fell into commercials for financial reasons and acting became an attractive concept …” Prior to securing an acting agent, Phoenix and his siblings tried to forge a career in music by playing cover versions on the streets of the Westwood district of LA, often being moved along by police because gathering crowds would obstruct the pavement. With the first fruits of his film success, Phoenix saved $650 for his prize possession, a guitar on which he wrote what he described as “progressive, ethereal folk-rock”. While working on A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon in 1986, Phoenix had written and recorded a song, “Heart to Get”, specifically for the end credits of the movie. 20th Century Fox cut it from the completed film, but director William Richert put it back into place for his director’s cut some years later. It was during filming that Phoenix met Chris Blackwell of Island Records, this meeting would later secure Phoenix a two-year development deal with the label. Phoenix disliked the idea of being a solo artist and relished collaboration; therefore he focused on putting together a band. Aleka’s Attic were formed in 1987 and the line up included his sister Rain. Phoenix was committed to gaining credibility by his own merit and maintained that the band would not use his name when securing performances that were not benefits for charitable organizations. Phoenix’s first release was “Across the Way”, co-written with band mate Josh McKay, which was released in 1989 on a benefit album for PETA titled Tame Yourself. In 1991, Phoenix wrote and recorded a spoken word piece called “Curi Curi” for Milton Nascimento’s album TXAI. Also in 1991 the Aleka’s Attic track “Too Many Colors” was lent to the soundtrack of Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho which included Phoenix in a starring role. In 1996, the Aleka’s Attic track “Note to a Friend” was released on the 1996 benefit album In Defense of Animals; Volume II and featured Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers on bass. Phoenix had collaborated with friend John Frusciante after his first departure from Red Hot Chili Peppers and the songs “Height Down” and “Well I’ve Been” were released on Frusciante’s second solo album Smile from the Streets You Hold in 1997. Phoenix was an investor in the original House of Blues (founded by his good friend and Sneakers co-star Dan Aykroyd) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which opened its doors to the public after serving a group of homeless people on Thanksgiving Day 1992.
On the evening of October 30, 1993, Phoenix was to perform with his close friend Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers onstage at The Viper Room, a Hollywood nightclub partly owned at the time by actor Johnny Depp. Phoenix had returned to Los Angeles early that week from Utah to complete the three weeks of interior shots left on his last project Dark Blood, a film that was finally completed in 2012. His younger sister Rain and brother Joaquin had flown out to join him at the Hotel Nikko (now the SLS Hotel) on La Cienega Boulevard. Phoenix’s girlfriend, Samantha Mathis, had also come to meet him. All were present at the scene of Phoenix’s death. During the early morning hours of October 31, 1993, Phoenix suffered a drug overdose, and collapsed outside and convulsed for over five minutes. When his brother Joaquin called 9–1–1, he was unable to determine whether Phoenix was breathing. His sister Rain proceeded to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. During the episode, Johnny Depp and his band P (featuring Flea and Phoenix’s friend Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers) were onstage. According to Haynes, the band was in the middle of their song “Michael Stipe” while Phoenix was outside the venue having seizures on the sidewalk. When the news filtered through the club, Flea left the stage and rushed outside. By that time, paramedics had arrived on the scene and found Phoenix turning dark blue, in full cardiac arrest and in a flatline state. They administered medication in an attempt to restart his heart. He was rushed to the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, accompanied by Flea, via an ambulance. Further attempts to resuscitate Phoenix were unsuccessful. He was pronounced dead at 1:51 am. PST on the morning of October 31, 1993, at the age of 23. The following day the club became a makeshift shrine with fans and mourners leaving flowers, pictures and candles on the sidewalk and graffiti messages on the walls of the venue. A sign was placed in the window that read, “With much respect and love to River and his family, The Viper Room is temporarily closed. Our heartfelt condolences to all his family, friends and loved ones. He will be missed.” The club remained closed for a week. Depp continued to close the club every year on October 31 until selling his share in 2004. Prior to his death, Phoenix’s image—one he bemoaned in interviews—had been squeaky-clean, owing in part to his public dedication to his various social, political, humanitarian, and dietary interests not always popular in the 1980s. As a result, his death elicited a vast amount of coverage from the media. Phoenix was described by one writer as “the vegan James Dean,” and comparisons were made regarding the youth and sudden deaths of both actors. Phoenix’s autopsy, signed November 15, 1993, reads as follows in the section entitled “Opinion” by Christopher Rogers, MD: “Toxicology studies showed high concentrations of morphine and cocaine in the blood, as well as other substances in smaller concentrations.” The cause of death was “acute multiple drug intoxication”, including cocaine and morphine. Joaquin’s call to 911 was recorded and broadcast by several radio and TV shows. Following the death of River and the invasive, disrespectful attitude of the media in his private life (a reporter broke into the Milam funeral home and took a picture of the body of Phoenix that was sold to the National Enquirer), Joaquin walked away from Hollywood for the second time.
- August, 23, 1970
- Madras, Oregon
- October, 31, 1993
- West Hollywood, California
Cause of Death
- acute multiple drug intoxication