Date of Birth: August 23, 1970
Date of Death: October 31, 1993 (Age 23)
Born in Madras, Oregon, River Jude Bottom, was the first child of Arlyn Sharon Dunetz and John Lee Bottom. He was named after River of Life from the Herman Hesse novel Siddhartha, his middle name was derived from the hit Beatles' song "Hey Jude," and his last name was changed from "Bottom" to "Phoenix" as a sign of renewal. River's parents made a life-changing decision in 1972 when they joined the “Children of God” religious movement, which led to them living in places such as Texas, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.
As a young child, River learned to play guitar and sing. River and his sister Rain performed on the streets in Caracas, Venezuela, to earn money and pass out literature on their religious beliefs. His parents eventually decided to leave their religious group and return to the United States in 1978. They spent time in Florida where River and his four siblings performed in talent shows and started to attract attention for their musical and acting abilities.
After moving to California when River was 10, his mother decided to make a push into the entertainment industry. Having landed a job as a secretary at NBC, River’s mother was able to find a great agent in Iris Burton, who was willing to represent all her children. River landed a role as the youngest brother on the TV series Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1982) and although it lasted only one season, his talent didn’t go unnoticed. He made numerous guest appearances on TV series and after making his feature film debut with a lead role in Explorers, which led to a career breakthrough in Stand by Me (1986). The film also starred Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell who, in the movie, set out together to find the body of a missing teenager.
River’s rise to fame soon became inevitable. Teaming up with Harrison Ford in Steven Spielberg’s 1989 box office hit Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was just the icing on the cake. Bringing in a whopping $29, 355, 021 in its opening weekend, it came third in the highest opening weekend of 1989, behind Ghostbusters 2 and Batman.
River later co-starred with Keanu Reeves in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, released in 1991. He played as a narcoleptic male prostitute who wants to find his long-lost mother and then later develops a special friendship with fellow prostitute Keanu Reeves. River’s performance in the film earned him critical acclaim.
Coping with fame and success isn’t always easy. After he filmed My Own Private Idaho, friends, family and professionals began to notice a change in River’s personality. Known for being a vegan who strongly supported animal rights, as well as for his innocence and wholesomeness, he seemed to slowly change, probably due to his increasing drug use.
On October 31, 1993, River, his sister Rain and his brother Joaquin (then called Leaf) arrived at Johnny Depp’s club The Viper Room. River was in the club’s washroom doing drugs with several drug dealer friends. When he started violently shaking, a friend offered him valium to calm him down. Staggering over to his sister in the bar, he asked to be taken outside, where he collapsed on the sidewalk. Joaquin, who’d just turned 19 three days earlier, called 911 and the heartbreaking call was later made public.
Ron Davis, a photographer, also called 911 on a nearby pay phone. Davis said, “He looked like a fish out of water. He was thrashing spasmodically, his head was flopping from side to side, and his arms were flailing wildly.” By 1:14 a.m., River was in full cardiac arrest. He was rushed to Cedars Sinai Medical Center but he was pronounced dead at 1:51 a.m.
Cause of death was found to be multiple drug ingestion. River's autopsy report showed high levels of cocaine, morphine, valium, marijuana and ephedrine, the main ingredient in crystal meth.