Brothers River and Joaquin Phoenix shared a remarkable upbringing. Born into an infamous cult, they both blossomed into iconic young actors, garnering widespread fame and attention for their sharp dramatic instincts and dreamy blue eyes. But on October 31, 1993, their stories tragically diverged when River, aged just 23, died on Los Angeles’ Sunset Boulevard. And, for almost three decades since that fateful night, Joaquin remained largely silent about his brother’s death – until now.
Certainly, River was one of the most exciting actors of his generation. After his breakout role in the 1986 film Stand by Me, the teenager went on to become, just two years later, an Oscar nominee for his performance in Running on Empty. The young star was a household name by the early nineties, when the devastating news of his untimely death hit the headlines. But in the outpouring of grief that followed, Joaquin remained mostly quiet. Only now, 27 years later, has he finally opened up, offering a heartbreaking confession about his late brother.
The story of the Phoenix brothers actually starts a long way from Hollywood. River, the older of the pair, was born to parents John Lee Bottom and Arlyn Dunetz in August 1970. They lived a bohemian lifestyle and joined the Children of God religious cult two years later. Then, with John Lee and Arlyn working as missionaries for the group, the family found themselves living in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas.
During his time in Venezuela, River – along with his sister Rain – performed on the streets of Caracas for money. Ever the entertainer, River was able to sing and play the guitar from a young age. But in 1978 the prospect of a future as a street artist in Caracas disappeared for the boy. That’s when John Lee and Arlyn, disillusioned with the Children of God, moved the family back to the United States.
It was at this point that River’s family changed their surname from Bottom to Phoenix – in order to symbolize their fresh start. They settled in Florida, where River and some of his siblings – Rain, Joaquin, Liberty and Summer – took a shine to acting. The children’s talents began to attract attention, and the family subsequently moved to California so that they could pursue careers in dramatics.
River started his career starring in commercials, but his first break came after he appeared in an adaptation of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in 1982. Three years later, he went on to star in the TV movie Surviving and also bagged his first cinematic film role – appearing in Explorers alongside Ethan Hawke.
However, it was River’s second movie that would give him his breakout role. In 1986 he starred in Stand by Me. It’s a coming-of-age film that tells the tale of four boys who go in search of the body of a missing youngster. In the movie, River plays the troubled teen Chris Chambers, who comes from a family with a reputation.
River’s performance in Stand by Me earned the young actor rave reviews and set him on the path to stardom. And for his next flick, he starred alongside Harrison Ford in The Mosquito Coast. Then, in 1988, River appeared in the critically acclaimed movie Running on Empty, with his performance earning him an Oscar nomination.
Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, too, River appeared in a number of movies. This allowed him to showcase his skills in a diverse selection of genres spanning action, comedy and drama. Off-screen, meanwhile, the actor used his newfound fame to highlight some of the causes he was passionate about – including animal rights and environmentalism.
River, you see, had been a vegetarian since the age of eight. Later in life, the actor then became a strict vegan. And in a 1989 interview with The New York Times, he explained his rationale behind this decision. He said, “When I was old enough to realize all meat was killed, I saw it as an irrational way of using our power – to take a weaker thing and mutilate it.”
Music also formed a large part of River’s life, and the actor was in the band Aleka’s Attic with his sister Rain. He wrote for the group and recorded a few songs, but they never made an album. River combined his passions for acting and music in the 1993 film With The Thing Called Love, which saw him play an up-and-coming singer in Nashville.
So at the time of River’s death, the 23-year-old had the world at his feet. He was working on the movie Dark Blood alongside Judy Davis and Jonathan Pryce. The actor was also dating fellow film star Samantha Mathis. And on a break from filming in October 1993, the couple visited the L.A. nightclub the Viper Room alongside River’s sister Rain and, of course, young Joaquin. That night, while leaving the club, River died due to a lethal drug overdose.
And, after maintaining her silence for 25 years, Samantha finally opened up about the night River died in an interview with The Guardian in 2018. She said, “I knew something was wrong that night – something I didn’t understand. I didn’t see anyone doing drugs, but he was high in a way that made me feel uncomfortable. I was in way over my head.”
Over the course of the night, it seems that River had consumed a fatal cocktail of drugs. He later collapsed on the sidewalk outside of the Viper Room and began to convulse. Samantha witnessed the scene and went to get River’s siblings. It was Joaquin who called the emergency services – while Rain attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
After an ambulance arrived on the scene, paramedics tried to resuscitate River – but they were unable to do so. The young actor was subsequently transported to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and was declared dead at 1:51 a.m. on October 31, 1993. River’s legacy, however, continues to this day.
On the anniversary of River’s death, October 31, fans continue to pay tribute to the late star. Furthermore, many famous actors have cited River as an inspiration. These include James Franco, Jared Leto and Leonardo DiCaprio. And in the immediate aftermath of River’s death, his Indiana Jones co-star Harrison Ford also paid tribute.
River had most recently starred alongside Harrison in the 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in which he played the Young Indy. Paying tribute to his late co-star, Harrison told The New York Times, “He once played my son. And I came to love him like a son and was proud to watch [him] grow into a man of such talent and integrity and compassion.”
And, 20 years on from River’s death, the actor’s legacy was explored in Gavin Edwards’ book Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind. In 2013 the biographer told USA Today that River’s power was in his ability to connect with people.
Gavin said of River, “In this world of teen idols – where everyone feels polished – he was a beautiful boy and wonderful actor. But there was a degree of eccentricity and sense of being an outsider. People bonded with him; they thought he was trying to make the world a better place and not trying to book his next job.”
Another person upon whom River had a lasting impact was – perhaps unsurprisingly – his brother, Joaquin. The younger sibling would follow in his brother’s footsteps to Hollywood, becoming one of the most celebrated actors of his generation. To date, Joaquin has four Oscar nominations under his belt, including one win for his role in 2019’s Joker.
Yet while River wouldn’t live to see his younger brother’s success in the acting world, it seems he had foreseen Joaquin’s talents. In 2020, following an interview with Joaquin, journalist Anderson Cooper told 60 Minutes Overtime how River would tell his sibling, “You’re going to be a more successful actor than I am. You’re going to be better known than I am.”
This 60 Minutes interview took place in January 2020 in the run up to the Oscars – when there was already a buzz around Joaquin’s performance in Joker. And during the conversation, Joaquin revealed how he’d connected to his disturbed character, Arthur Fleck, in the film.
Admitting that he had mixed feelings towards his Joker character, Joaquin explained to Anderson, “There were times where I really felt for him… And there were times where I was disappointed and repulsed by his behavior, right?” However, it was this complexity to Arthur that attracted Joaquin to the role.
But while Joaquin had emerged as one of the most revered actors of his time, he admitted that he was often “petrified” on set. He revealed, “There are so many things that I want to express when I take on a role. And [when] I go through the script – [I’m] just full of ideas. I guess I’m just nervous that I’m not gonna be able to find the right kinda space to express that.”
Before getting the actor to open up, though, Anderson had warned viewers in a voiceover that Joaquin “has a reputation for being difficult during interviews.” Yet while Joaquin’s career provided plenty of talking points during his 60 Minutes appearance, the star also gave a rare insight into his personal life. In fact, Joaquin appeared mostly happy to talk.
The only stumbling block Anderson ran into was when he tried to quiz Joaquin about what he got up to in his spare time. The actor replied, “What do I do? I, um, I think I do normal things. I like to cook… I really don’t want to talk about what I do.” However, the interview remained an incredibly personal affair for Joaquin.
In fact, the actor was joined by his sisters, Rain, Liberty and Summer, his mother, Heart (previously known as Arlyn), and his stepfather, Jeffrey. And while Joaquin has been reluctant to talk about River in the past, he finally opened up about his late sibling’s death and legacy.
Explaining the influence that River had on him, Joaquin revealed how his brother had shown him Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film Raging Bull. And it was seeing Robert De Niro’s Oscar-winning performance in the movie that really ignited a passion for acting within Joaquin. He told 60 Minutes Overtime, “I think it just… awakened something in me.”
Joaquin said of River, “I could suddenly see it through his eyes.” He added, “There’s a part in Raging Bull where De Niro meets a girl in between a chain-link fence. And he, you know, shakes her pinky, and it’s like this just beautiful little detail. It’s this wonderful moment. And I think that in some ways [that] is what I’m always looking for.”
During his appearance on 60 Minutes, Joaquin also opened up about River’s fame and how that impacted on their family. However, while River was one of the biggest stars on the planet prior to his untimely death, it seems that the rest of the Phoenix clan were unaware of just how much attention he was receiving.
Joaquin said of his family, “We were so removed from, kind of, the entertainment world. We didn’t watch entertainment shows. We didn’t have the entertainment magazines in our house. You know… River was a really substantial actor and movie star, and we didn’t really know it.”
Following River’s untimely death, though, Joaquin and the rest of the Phoenix family became all too aware of how much public interest there was in him. In fact, the late actor received such extensive media attention, Joaquin revealed, that it had hindered the family’s grieving process.
Recalling the aftermath of River’s death, Joaquin explained, “During that time in which you’re most vulnerable, there are helicopters flying over. There are people that are trying to sneak onto your land. Certainly, for me, it felt like it impeded on the mourning process, right?”
Joaquin’s interviewer, Anderson, is no stranger to tragedy himself – having lost his brother Carter Vanderbilt to suicide in 1988. And while talking to the Phoenix family on 60 Minutes, Anderson revealed how he’d struggled with grief following the death of his brother as well. It seemed that this was something that Joaquin could relate to.
Addressing Anderson, Joaquin said, “You had said that, you know, for years you’d find it difficult to say your brother’s name, or to just talk about him. I really identify…” This emotional confession may go some way to explaining why Joaquin had been reluctant to discuss River publicly for much of his career.
But while Joaquin had preferred to keep his thoughts and feelings around River and his death private, he chose to honor his brother in other ways. Revealing how he felt his brother’s presence in his work, Joaquin revealed, “I think in virtually every movie that I made there was a connection to River in some way.”
Joaquin then took the opportunity to pay tribute to River when accepting his Best Actor Oscar at the 92nd Academy Awards in February 2020. After delivering an impassioned speech on animal rights and equality, the actor turned his attention to his late sibling. He simply said, “When he was 17, my brother [River] wrote this lyric. He said, ‘Run to the rescue with love and peace will follow.’”
And while it seems that River has never been far from Joaquin’s mind in all those years after his passing, the Joker star also credits his mom and sisters with keeping his brother’s memory alive. His family established The River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding – which aims to continue the late actor’s activism and commitment to making the world a better place.
But while Heart had been able to channel River’s legacy into something positive, the mom admitted that she still mourned her son. She told 60 Minutes, “The grieving process happens out of nowhere, you know? I’ll be driving and all of a sudden I will feel it and I’ll just welcome it.”
So it would seem that River continues to live on not only through his lasting legacy, but through the bonds that he shared with his family. Joaquin explained, “There’s always been a presence in all the work and the path that we took individually and collectively… I think that we’ve all felt his presence and guidance in our lives in numerous ways.”