Jewish Actors, Playwrights, Comedians, Musicians
River Jude Phoenix (August 23, 1970 October 31, 2021) was a Jewish born American film actor, musician, and activist. He was the oldest brother of fellow actors Rain, Joaquin, Liberty, and Summer Phoenix. Phoenix's work encompassed 24 films and television appearances, including the science fiction adventure film Explorers, the coming-of-age film Stand By Me, the action sequel Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the independent adult drama My Own Private Idaho.
Phoenix began acting at age 10 in television commercials. He appeared in diverse roles, making his first notable appearance in the 1986 film Stand by Me, a hugely popular coming-of-age film based on a novella by Stephen King. Phoenix made a transition into more adult-oriented roles with Running on Empty (1988), playing the son of fugitive parents in a well-received performance that earned him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor nomination, and My Own Private Idaho (1991), playing a gay hustler in search of his estranged mother. For his performance in the latter, Phoenix garnered enormous praise and won a Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival, along with Best Actor from the National Society of Film Critics. He was listed by John Willis as one of twelve promising new actors of 1986.
TRAILER FOR DARK BLOOD THE
On October 31, 1993, Phoenix collapsed and died of drug-induced heart failure on the sidewalk outside the West Hollywood nightclub The Viper Room. Prior to his death, Phoenix had been in the middle of filming the currently unreleased Dark Blood (1993).
Phoenix was born as River Jude Bottom on August 23, 1970, in Madras, Oregon, the first child of Arlyn Sharon Dunetz and John Lee Bottom. 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. 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 one year after meeting. In 1973, the family joined a religious cult called the Children of God as missionaries. While living in Crockett, Texas, their second child Rain Joan of Arc Bottom was born on November 21, 1972. Their third child was born on October 28, 1974, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, as Joaquin Rafael Bottom.
On July 5, 1976, Phoenix's sister Libertad Mariposa Bottom was born, after 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 cult's "Archbishop of Venezuela and the Caribbean", their family received no financial support from the group and lived in poverty. 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 cult'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 cult 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 the last years in South America that the entire Phoenix family converted to veganism, encouraged by River and Joaquin, who had witnessed local fishermen's methods of killing their catch.
The family eventually made the trip back to the United States by stowing away on a cargo ship. Upon their return, they moved in with Phoenix's maternal grandparents in Florida. On December 29, 1977, 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.
In Los Angeles, John Phoenix was working for a casting agent at NBC. He managed to secure his talented brood a meeting with top kids' agent Iris Burton, who was so charmed by the family that she agreed to take on all five Phoenix children. 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 NBC short-lived TV 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.
Almost a year after Seven Brides for Seven Brothers ended in 1983, River found a new role in the 1984 made-for-TV movie Celebrity, where he played the part of young Jeffie Crawford. Although he was only on screen for about ten minutes, his character was a central role. 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. River 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 River's role in Dyslexia was critically acclaimed, he was almost immediately cast as a major role in his next made-for-TV movie, Surviving: A Family in Crisis. River 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, River was informed that he had been cast as the geeky boy-scientist Wolfgang Mόller in Joe Dante's large-budget science-fiction film Explorers and production began soon after. Released in the summer of 1985, this was River'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 he filmed before achieving feature film stardom. He had significant roles in Rob Reiner's coming of age picture Stand by Me (1986) which first brought Phoenix to public prominence; Peter Weir's The Mosquito Coast (1986), where Phoenix played the son of Harrison Ford's character; A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988); and Little Nikita (1988) alongside Sidney Poitier. During this time, the Phoenix family continued to move on a regular basis and moved over forty times by the time Phoenix was 18. After completing his sixth feature film, Sidney Lumet's Running on Empty (1988) the family made their last move to Micanopy, Florida, near Gainesville, Florida in 1987. In early 1989, Phoenix was nominated for an Oscar 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. That year he also portrayed a young Indiana Jones in the box-office hit Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In 1989 reportedly Phoenix wanted the role of Neil Perry, the main character of Dead Poets Society, but the role was instead given to Robert Sean Leonard.
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. Just prior to My Own Private Idaho, he filmed an acclaimed independent picture called Dogfight co-starring Lili Taylor and directed by Nancy Savoca, in which Phoenix portrayed a young U.S. Marine on the night prior to his being shipped off to Vietnam in November 1963. Phoenix teamed up with 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 then appeared in Peter Bogdanovich's country music-themed film, The Thing Called Love (1993), the last completed picture before his death.
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, song writer 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 had attempted to forge a career in music by playing cover songs on the streets of the Westwood district of LA, often being moved along by police because of the gathering crowds who obstructed the pavement.
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 so he 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 River 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 a film 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. The title track may also be an ode to Phoenix.
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.
Phoenix was a dedicated animal rights, environmental and political activist. He was a prominent spokesperson for PETA and won their Humanitarian award in 1992 for his fund-raising efforts. Also in 1990, for Earth Day, Phoenix wrote an environmental awareness essay targeted at his young fanbase, which was printed in Seventeen magazine. He financially aided a slew of environmental and humanitarian organizations and bought 800 acres (320 ha) of endangered rainforest in Costa Rica.
Prior to his death, Phoenix's image one he bemoaned in interviews had been squeaky-clean, owing in part to the public discussion of 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 at the time.
On the evening of October 30, 1993, Phoenix was to perform with his close friend Michael "Flea" Balzary from the Red Hot Chili Peppers onstage at The Viper Room, a Hollywood night club 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 (and, as of late 2011, unfinished) project Dark Blood. 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, and all would be present at the scene of Phoenix's death.
At some point in the evening, Phoenix went to the bathroom to take drugs with various friends and dealers. It is frequently reported that an acquaintance or dealer offered him Persian Brown (a combination of heroin and methamphetamine, which is commonly snorted); however, his autopsy report revealed lethal doses of cocaine and morphine (which is what heroin metabolizes into and shows up as in the blood). His blood also contained diazepam, ephedrine and marijuana. Soon after consuming a combination of heroin and cocaine he became ill, and somebody reportedly gave him diazepam, as it is commonly used to counter-act the effects of a stimulant overdose. However, because he had consumed heroin the treatment is thought to have been counter productive, as diazepam further enhances the effects of heroin. During the early morning hours of October 31, 1993, Phoenix collapsed outside the club from a drug overdose of heroin and cocaine (known as a speedball) further amplified by the administration of diazepam. He convulsed for five minutes. When his brother Joaquin called 9-1-1, he was unable to determine whether River was breathing. Sister Rain Phoenix proceeded to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, to no avail.
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", which includes the line "but we didn't have a part, not a piece of our heart, not Michael, River Phoenix or Flea or me", 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. Paramedics had arrived on the scene and found Phoenix in a flatline state, and they administered drugs 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 a.m. PST on the morning of October 31, 1993.
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. Phoenix was described by one writer as "the vegan James Dean", and comparisons were made regarding the youth and sudden deaths of both the actors.
Unrealized film projects
Phoenix's sudden death prevented him from playing various roles for which he had already been cast:
References in popular culture
River Phoenix's status as a teen idol, a promising young actor and subsequent premature death made him a frequent subject in popular culture media. He first gained references in music with Brazilian singer Milton Nascimento writing the song "River Phoenix: Letter to a Young Actor" about him after having seen Phoenix in The Mosquito Coast (1986). The song appears on the 1989 release Miltons. Phoenix's friends, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, wrote a few lines for him in the song "Give It Away" from the 1991 album Blood Sugar Sex Magik: "There's a River born to be a giver, keep you warm won't let you shiver, his heart is never gonna wither..."
Phoenix has been the subject of numerous tributes in song and other media. The band R.E.M. dedicated their album Monster to Phoenix, and their song "E-Bow the Letter" from 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi is said to have been written from a letter Michael Stipe wrote to Phoenix but never sent because of the actor's death. Musician Sam Phillips has the dedication "For River" on her album Martinis & Bikinis. Again, Red Hot Chili Peppers, paid tribute with the song "Transcending" on 1995's One Hot Minute being written about him. Other songs inspired by Phoenix include Dana Lyons' "Song For River Phoenix (If I Had Known)," Grant Lee Buffalo's "Halloween," Natalie Merchant's "River" for her 1995 album Tigerlily, Ellis Paul's song "River," found on his 1994 release Stories, Rufus Wainwright's "Matinee Idol", Nada Surf's "River Phoenix" and Stereophonics's "Chris Chambers." In her 1996 album Woman & A Man, Belinda Carlisle referenced River in the song "California". The song opens and closes with the line "I remember I was in a tanning salon, when I heard that River Phoenix was gone." In Jay-Z's album, Kingdom Come, the lyrics of "Hollywood" list him as one of the many fatalities of the pressures of Hollywood. New York band Japanther featured a song on their album Skuffed up my Huffy (2008) entitled "River Phoenix," which is about certain events in his life and delivers the chorus "River Phoenix didn't mean it". In the song "The Viper Room," Wesley Willis takes an abrupt turn from an otherwise glowing account of the club by noting Phoenix's death, stating that he "...collapsed and died like a Doberman."
The Family Guy episode "Three Kings", which was parodying Stand by Me ended in a synopsis of what the actors who originally played the characters in the movie went on to do. When he gets to Quagmire, who was parodying the character who was originally played by Phoenix, the narrator states, "Quag grew up to become a famous Hollywood actor. Unfortunately, about a week ago, he took an overdose of designer drugs at the Viper Room. He died, on the curb outside. And now we are left with a harelipped reminder of what might have been. " A picture of Joaquin Phoenix, River's brother, fills the screen, accompanied by a Benny Hill-style trumpet sound. After the commercial break, Peter's first line is, "Joaquin Phoenix, if you are still watching, you're a good sport, and a trooper. And you passed our test. And you can be our friend." On the controversial episode, "I Dream of Jesus," Jesus says he raised Phoenix from the dead, only to have him overdose again in front of the Viper Room.
Gus Van Sant, with whom Phoenix worked in the film My Own Private Idaho, dedicated his 1994 movie Even Cowgirls Get The Blues as well as his 1998 novel Pink to him. Experimental Santa Cruz filmmaker Cam Archer also produced a documentary called Drowning River Phoenix as part of his American Fame series. During performances on November 13 and November 15, 1993, and February 12, 1994, and one of Nirvana's last USA shows in Seattle on January 7, 1994, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana dedicated the song "Jesus Don't Want Me For a Sunbeam" to Phoenix (among other celebrities who died young), just a few months before Cobain's death. Tom Petty dedicated "Ballad of Easy Rider" to Phoenix when he played in his and Phoenix's hometown of Gainesville, Florida in November 1993.
The British band Manic Street Preachers mentions River in their song "Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart" (from the album The Holy Bible, 1994) in the following line:"...I'm thinking right now of Hollywood tragedy; big mac; smack; Phoenix.R; please smile y'all..." Phoenix was the subject of a controversial song by Australian group TISM. Titled "(He'll Never Be An) Ol' Man River" the single originally featured a mock-up of River Phoenix' tombstone as its cover art in 1995. The chorus features the line, "I'm on the drug that killed River Phoenix." On the song "Love Me, Hate Me" by rapper Ja Rule, he numerates different ways he could die as a celebrity, and one of the lyrics says "I might OD in a club off drugs like River Phoenix". In the 1997 musical, The Fix, Phoenix is alluded to in the song "Mistress of Deception" in the lines, "Hot young actor died last night at an L.A. club./ecstasy and booze/and too much nyquil./had the sweetest face,/warm and shy and innocent; sexy in that careless kinda way./the newsman said his heart just stopped like that...." The Hugh Cornwell song 'Rain on the River' from his 2009 album Hooverdam is directly about the death of Phoenix,as his sister Rain sits over her dying brother on the sidewalk outside The Viper Room.
A lesser known reference to River Phoenix was Final Fantasy VIII's main protagonist Squall Leonhart. Tetsuya Nomura, the lead character designer for the game, stated he modeled Squall on River's visage during development, and even gave Squall the same birthdate.
Honors and rankings
Phoenix has been ranked numerous times on a number of lists recognising his talent and career. He was listed as one of twelve "Promising New Actors of 1986" in "John Willis' Screen World" (2004). Phoenix was voted at #64 on a "Greatest Movie Star of All Time" poll by channel 4 television in the UK. The poll was made up wholly of votes from prominent figures of the acting and directing communities. He was ranked #86 in Empire Magazine's "The Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time" list in 1997.
His life and death has been the subject of an E! True Hollywood Story, an A&E Biography and an episode of Final 24, which contains a dramatic reconstruction of his final hours and death. He was also referred to as "This Century's James Dean" in episode 10 (Mi Casa, Su Casa Loma) of the first series of Being Erica. His death was listed as #16 in the top 101 events in E! Television's "101 Most Shocking Moments in Entertainment". In 2010, Phoenix was voted by GQ Magazine as one of the "50 Most Stylish Men of the Past Half Century".
In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, any copyrighted work in the Jew
Watch Library is archived here under fair use without profit or payment to those
who have expressed a prior interest in reviewing the included information for
personal use, non-profit research and educational purposes only.
If you have additions or suggestions
Email Jew Watch