Phenomenally talented and also famously caring, river Phoenix’s fatality shocked the world. His girlfriend Samantha Mathis talks for the an initial time about that horrible night, and the man behind the myth



On the night the 30 October 1993, river Phoenix, his girlfriend, the actor Samantha Mathis, and his siblings leaf (now known as Joaquin) and also Rain, walked into the Viper Room, the LA society owned by Johnny Depp. Mathis assumed they were there just to drop turn off his little brother and sister, “but when we arrived he said to me: ‘Oh, there space some world playing music tonight in the club who desire me to play through them – it is OK, right?’” she says.

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It wasn’t OK v her: she believed they would be going straight to she house. “I knew something was wrong that night, something ns didn’t understand. Ns didn’t see anyone doing drugs but he to be high in a means that do me feel uncomfortable – i was in method over my head,” she says. But she knew he want to stay, and thought it i will not ~ be lengthy – after all, several of his stuff was in the tribe of her car. Instead, she says, starting to cry: “Forty-five minute later, he was dead.”

Next mainly is the 25th anniversary of that night, when the young actor who had constantly taken care to eschew every the normal celebrity cliches passed away the most cliched death of all, on Sunset Boulevard in ~ the period of simply 23. Phoenix had constantly hated fame yet considered its one potential benefit was that he might use it for an excellent and readjust the world, talking urgently in every interview about vegetarianism and also the environment. That is a template many have tried come copy, yet none succeeded prefer Phoenix, due to the fact that he believed in his ideals much more intensely than many people think in anything.

This to be the young who as soon as ran the end of a restaurant in tears due to the fact that his girlfriend, the actor and activist Martha Plimpton, bespeak seafood. He was never entranced through the glitz the his own celebrity; when he was nominated for an Oscar in 1989, for his power in running on Empty, a reporter on the Oscars red carpet said to him: “It’s basic to get recorded up in the Hollywood hoopla, no it?” “Mmm, not for me, the isn’t,” that replied, looking a small surprised by the question. Yet reacting against success deserve to be as risky as embracing it, due to the fact that it can elide into self-loathing and confusion.


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Comforting Wil Wheaton in his breakout performance in was standing By Me, 1986. Photograph: Allstar/COLUMBIA PICTURES“I wish I might go someplace where nobody knows me,” he sobbed in his breakout power in was standing By Me. After he died, his mom Arlyn (known as Heart) told Esquire magazine the her son common that sentiment: “As flow grew, the did become an ext and more uncomfortable being the poster young for all good things. He frequently said that wished he could just it is in anonymous. But he never ever was. When he no a movie star, he was a missionary. Yes sir a beauty in the – the guy with the cause, the leader – however there’s likewise a deep loneliness.”

Unlike most stars who die young, Phoenix isn’t just connected with early death but additionally precocious talent. Every young actor, indigenous Leonardo DiCaprio come Timothée Chalamet, who shows beforehand promise gets contrasted to Phoenix.

I knew his father had problems with alcohol or something, i knew there were troubles there“When River come in to audition, that was noticeable that the was just an amazing, impressive talent. He might play instruments, he was so bright and also brilliant, he could do anything, really,” states Rob Reiner, that directed Phoenix in was standing By Me. Yet together talented together he was, Reiner had actually to coax the climate 15-year-old to show his pain rather of bottling it inside.

“I said to him: ‘I desire you come think around a time once someone, an adult that is vital to you, let you down.’ the nodded and also went away to think because that a few minutes. The next take, in which he is crying, is the one that’s in the movie. He never ever told me what that thought about – ns assumed maybe among his parents, but I don’t know. And also when i watch the movie now, once he disappears at the end, it’s just very, really sad,” states Reiner.

Of the four child actors in the movie, only two – Wil Wheaton and also Jerry O’Connell – obtained to adulthood unscathed. Phoenix and Corey Feldman – who has said he was sexually abused by someone in the film industry – were less lucky. I ask Reiner if he think that shows the fate of son actors in general, the there’s a 50/50 opportunity they will rotate out OK.

“I don’t know if the reflective of son actors exactly, but an ext about whether kid actors have sufficient of a familial foundation to resist the difficulties. As soon as I observed Leonardo DiCaprio in This Boy’s Life and What’s eat Gilbert Grape? i thought: ‘Wow, this child is insanely talented, if he doesn’t have some type of familial moorings, he is going to autumn off the deep end.’ So once we make The wolf of wall surface Street, i told the I’d to be worried around him. He said: ‘Even despite my parental divorced, I always had a great relationship v both the them.’ for this reason he had actually that certain foundation,” states Reiner.


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With Keanu Reeves in My own Private Idaho (1991). Photograph: Warner Bros Inc.Phoenix likewise seemed to have actually a solid family link during stand By Me, for this reason Reiner no worry around him. “He had actually his mother there through him, and also all his siblings, they were all there,” Reiner says, then pauses. “But i knew his dad had troubles with alcohol or something. Ns knew over there were problems there.”

It is constantly a failure to confuse an actor with his roles, yet it is difficult not to notification that all of Phoenix’s ideal performances involved him play a character v a complicated family background. In My very own Private Idaho, probably his best performance, he played Mike, a street hustler trying to find his mother, that says: “If I had actually a regular family, and also a an excellent upbringing, then ns would have been a well-adjusted human being … Didn’t have a dog or typical dad anyway, yeah. That’s alright. Ns don’t feel sorry because that myself. Ns mean, ns feel choose I’m, you know, well-adjusted.” climate there was to run on Empty, around a lonely teenager trapped in his family’s off-grid lifestyle. In The Mosquito Coast, he play the kid of a man identified to build a utopia in main America. In stand By Me, his personality resented being defined by his family’s reputation.

Back in the 1980s, it was well-known that Phoenix had actually an eccentric childhood, but, in retrospect, the feels together if few appreciated just exactly how extraordinary that was. His parents, John and also Arlyn were travelling counter-cultural hippies and when river was just three, the family members joined the kids of God, a Christian cult that believed, among other things, the sex without boundaries was a kind of love (Rose McGowan was likewise raised in the cult). The family members moved from Venezuela come Mexico to Puerto Rico to spread the indigenous of the cult, and also Phoenix was sent out as a kid to busk come raise money for food. He was also, he later said in an interview, sexually abused when he was four years old. Phoenix practically never disputed the youngsters of God, yet his mom quoted him as saying: “They’re disgusting. They’re destroying people’s lives.”

The family was so entrenched in the cult that john was designated “the Archbishop the Venezuela”, yet eventually lock left it and moved earlier to the US. Phoenix never went come school; instead, his mother contacted the casting director in ~ Paramount, and also Phoenix began working at the age of eight. His siblings, Rain, Joaquin, Liberty and also Summer, soon adhered to suit.


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With Samantha Mathis in The Thing referred to as Love, 1993. Photograph: Alamy stock Photo“We kinda miss out on sometimes, absent our friends, however when us go some ar we obtain to accomplish other people. However then you have to say goodbye to them,” the 13-year-old Joaquin told a reporter in 1987, as soon as a TV crew went to the household home in Florida.

“I think the opportunities are simply amazing, the points they’ve acquired to do and gotten confidence. I think castle pretty lot children,” smiled Heart.

The family was loving and close, but John was complicated. In picture of the from the 1980s, he is the spitting photo of Joaquin, and also River reportedly saw him much more as a little brother than a head figure. John had troubles with alcohol and, from really young age, Phoenix felt together if he, not his father, had actually to assistance the family.

“River said to me in that last year: ‘I just need to make one an ext movie to placed away sufficient money so my youngest sister deserve to go to college,’” Mathis recalls. “I don’t understand if the was true, however I mental him speak that.”

Mathis is talk to me top top the call from her apartment in brand-new York. Therefore much has actually been written about Phoenix end the years, however Mathis, that was v him once he died, has actually never spoken about that in depth before. “Except to my therapist,” she says, through a rueful laugh. Partly this has been out of respect to others who loved him, and partly because she to be so traumatised through his death that she blocked the end a lot of memories. But she recently saw, because that the very first time since Phoenix died, The Thing dubbed Love, in which castle co-starred and his last completed film, and also it got her thinking around things she hadn’t thought around in decades. So once she gained a post from me soon afterwards saying I want to talk to her, that felt, she says, “like the universe wanted me to talk around him.

“We met once we were both 19, and also he bummed a cigarette off me in one LA club. This sounds extremely cheesy yet I knew I would certainly be with him one day. It simply felt fated between us, and there to be such chemistry,” she says. Three years after ~ that very first encounter, Mathis’s premonition come true once they were cast in The Thing referred to as Love.


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Phoenix v his brothers Joaquin and mother Arlyn, 1988. Photograph: brand-new York daily News/NY everyday News via Getty Images“I think we recognised miscellaneous in each other,” she says. Mathis had been raised by a solitary mother and also had to be acting since she to be a teenager. “We come from very different families, yet perhaps there to be some broken parts in each various other we recognised. We discovered safe harbour.”

After Phoenix died, various world who knew him talked about how they had actually seen the famously clean-living actor slipping right into drug abuse end the years. Mathis, however, remembers his last year as very basic and happy, recalling the times they remained with his household in Florida and Costa Rica, wherein they played music and cooked vegetarian food. “We just hung out v his siblings and also got to it is in kids,” she says, crying again. “He to be so an excellent at hanging out.”

Perhaps in the absence of a father figure, Phoenix fill his life with quasi huge brothers who tried to assist him: Dermot Mulroney was one, Dan Aykroyd another, and also Phoenix and Mathis stayed with the last for a time at his ar in Canada. Aykroyd had actually lost his ideal friend, man Belushi, come a drug overdose simply over a decade earlier, and he supposedly urged Phoenix to stay away indigenous drugs. Michael Stipe to be another. “We met with my sister,” says Stipe. “She’d relocated to Florida and became acquainted with the totality family. I would certainly visit her and also hang out v them, and I have actually two sisters who I love very much, yet River was prefer my tiny brother. We’re exactly 10 years apart and also he really did feel prefer a brothers to me.”

Phoenix’s mother had actually moved the children to Florida together they became an ext successful to save them away from the seedier elements of LA life. However Phoenix still observed it together his function to conserve people, and also as he started hanging out with various creative people in Los Angeles, he tried to help them come off heroin, going therefore far as to get one details individual into rehab. “But as soon as he required help, lock didn’t aid him. In fact, in some cases, it was the opposite,” states Mathis. She claims Phoenix was – as far as she to know – sober throughout their time together, “but i was very young then. In the days before he died, though, i knew something was going on.”

I knew he was high the night, yet the heroin that eliminated him didn’t happen until he was in the Viper RoomAccording to the 2013 book, Running v Monsters, through Phoenix’s girlfriend Bob Forrest, Phoenix had spent the previous job on a substantial drugs binge through Red hot Chili Peppers’ guitarist, man Frusciante: “ remained with john for the next few days, and probably didn’t get a minute of sleep. The drug program stayed pretty continual for all of us. First, smoke cracked or shooting coke straight into a vein for the 90-second, electrical brain-bell jangle. Then shoot heroin to get a grip and also come down sufficient to be able to carry ~ above a conversation because that a couple of minutes prior to you start the bike again,” Forrest wrote.

On the night of 30 October 1993, as soon as Mathis establish Phoenix want to continue to be at the Viper Room, she visited the bathroom. “I knew he was high that night, however the heroin that eliminated him didn’t take place until he was in the Viper Room. I have actually my suspicions about what was going on, yet I didn’t check out anything,” she says. As soon as Mathis came out of the toilet she observed what she believed was Phoenix in a scuffle with another man, and the two of them being driven out of the club’s side door by a bouncer. When she went the end on come the street after them, she experienced Phoenix drop to the ground and also go right into convulsions ~ above the pavement. Thankfully, this was prior to the paparazzi had became ubiquitous so no one took photos, but it additionally meant no one was roughly to help.

“What have you done? What space you on?” Mathis shouted in ~ the other man. “Leave him alone, she spoiling his high,” he retorted.

Mathis desperately tried come get earlier into the club to get help, however the next door to be firmly shut. Therefore she ran roughly to the key door, searched with the club for Phoenix’s siblings and they every dashed outside.


With Martha Plimpton in running On Empty, 1988. Photograph: Alamy stock PhotoJoaquin called 911 for aid in a phone call that would virtually immediately it is in leaked to news stations: “He’s having seizures! get over here please, please, ’cause he is dying, please,” sobbed the 19-year-old. Phoenix had currently flatlined by the moment the paramedics arrived and also was pronounce dead at the hospital. The had passed away from an overdose the cocaine and also heroin.

After that died, everyone had actually a theory around how the beautiful boy v such good aspirations had gone so wrong. Today, Mathis remembers him together “sensitive and also obsessive. That felt things on his heart an extremely deeply.” Plimpton claimed after that died: “He was simply a boy, a really good-hearted boy who was very fucked up and also had no idea how to carry out his great intentions.”

Phoenix was younger than James Dean as soon as he died and his fatality was at least as seminal because that his generation. Before he died, the looked like even an ext of a certain success than Tom Cruise, and also his absence made room for various other young actors to arise – DiCaprio, most obviously.

“Leo called me he saw River the night he died, before he checked out the Viper Room,” says Reiner. “And that might have been , because Leo never ever before got into drugs.” DiCaprio ended up play at the very least two functions that had actually been intended because that Phoenix, taking the lead in The Basketball Diaries and also Total Eclipse.

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But the reason Phoenix is tho revered this day is not since of his absence but since he still feels therefore present. He to be such a natural actor that his job-related remains amazingly undated and while gift a missionary/actor might have price him personally, to a very huge degree he prospered in his mission. Among the greatest ironies about Phoenix is the he hated celebrity and tried to reshape it, but in doing so he inadvertently coined plenty of of the cliches the now define it: rare is the celebrity this particular day who no talk about vegetarianism and the environment. He also made gift an actor through a side project – his band, Aleka’s Attic – watch cool instead of indulgent, since it suggested his creativity might not be contained in one artform. That is virtually impossible come imagine, say, kurt Cobain, who passed away the year after ~ Phoenix, in today’s celebrity world, but it is exceptionally easy to imagine Phoenix life on a ranch in Idaho or California, acting in occasional indie movies, urging every one of us to look increase from ours phones and also think that the land, the sea and also the sky.

“I’m looking in ~ a picture of that now, five wow …” Mathis says, briefly rolling off. “I think if river was tho here, i think he’d be acting, directing, conserving the environment, just living and hanging out. Oh gosh, wouldn’t that be nice?”