On the 23rd August 1970, an extraordinarily talented, remarkable and unconventional young man was born. Today would, or rather, should have been his 45th birthday. I remember the day River Phoenix died as if it were yesterday. It seems impossible that almost 22 years have passed since he left us. A dirty sidewalk outside a club wasn’t supposed to be where he would die. Another young life lost to drugs, another family devastated, and a world left shocked and empty at the loss of one of the worlds most gifted actors, and a warm, gentle human being. I, along, no doubt, with countless thousands worldwide, cried on the day the worlds most gentle River stopped flowing..
I was first introduced to River’s films by way of “Stand By Me”. I had probably seen his earlier film “Explorers”, but if I had, it had no particular impact on me. “Stand By Me” did. Arguably the best Coming of Age drama since François Truffaut defined the genre with the stunning “Les Quatre cents coups”. River’s performance stood out among an already impressive cast. Here was a truly talented young man. Devastatingly good looking, sensitive, River exuded a quiet awe, both in his performance and in his life.
Later, River gave notable performances alongside actors such as Harrison Ford, Sidney Poitier, and Helen Mirren, to name a few. His role as Danny Pope in “Running On Empty” earned him an Academy Award nomination, but it was probably his role as narcoleptic gay hustler “Mike Waters” which gave him the opportunity to put his talents to the test, and to give the audience a taste of what he was capable of. He was also a talented musician.
Until his death, River had always lead a clean, if somewhat unconventional life. Brought up as a member of the “Church of God”, River was a teetotal vegetarian, a member of PETA, with a passion for animal welfare. The morals he lived by, and his quiet, unassuming dignity made his death all the more shocking….
River Phoenix died aged 23, on a sidewalk outside the now infamous “Viper Club” on the 23rd October 1993. His death was unpleasant, probably painful and was witnessed by members of his family as well as friends. It serves as a shocking reminder, were it needed, that drugs KILL. If one young person learns from River, and stays away from drugs, his death will not have been completely in vain. A line from Stand By Me comes to mind, literally as I write this – “We never had any friends like the ones we had when we were twelve. I doubt we ever will”. I’m not sure why those words are floating around in my head, but there is probably a lesson in there somewhere. The world is an emptier place without him. He never got to explore life, discover his full potential. His future was decided on a sidewalk in 1993. The River had run dry, only flowing on in his films and in our hearts.
23rd Augst 1970 - 31st October 1993
And now the winter clouds it glow so coldly
Beneath the grayness of the morning sky
The autumn leaves are melting into soil
It seems less often that I wonder why
I might have walked with you a little farther
And on the bus I would have held your hand
I might have said to you "come on my brother
Let's get going home"