To some, River Phoenix was the epitome of the live fast, die young lifestyle. But those closest to the actor – who tragically died shortly after his 23rd birthday – remember a very different personality. Now, on the eve of the 25th anniversary of his death, Phoenix’s former girlfriend has painted a new picture of the tortured artist’s final hours.
To say that River Phoenix had a difficult upbringing would be an understatement. Born to hippie parents, the future star lived at the mercy of the cult Children of God. Through the sect, Phoenix endured a life full of nomadic uprooting, bouts of poverty and – most alarmingly – sexual abuse.
Eventually, Phoenix’s parents decided to leave the group, but normalcy was still far from reach. Due to their father’s alcoholism, Phoenix and his siblings – which included future acclaimed actor Joaquin – busked on the streets of LA to earn a living. And instead of enrolling her son at school, Phoenix’s mother signed him up to a talent agency at age 8.
After years of commercials and bit parts, Phoenix finally got his breakthrough in 1986’s Stand by Me. Like art imitating life, he played a character with a difficult background and the actor’s real-life experiences clearly shone through on-screen. Indeed, Phoenix admitted to The Chicago Tribune in 1988 that he “identified so much with the role” that a longer film shoot would have sent him to “a psychiatrist.”
Following Stand by Me’s success, Phoenix was heralded as one of Hollywood’s most promising young stars. Alongside other up-and-coming thespians like Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio, the actor received acclaim in almost every role he played. He even gained Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations in 1989 for his part in the previous year’s Running on Empty.
But despite his talent and fame, Phoenix was fiercely sensitive. After seeing his Explorers co-star’s performance in 1991’s My Own Private Idaho, Ethan Hawke commented to W magazine that he had been concerned for Phoenix. “[His performance] was such a brilliant light, but it was so delicate,” the actor explained.
This sensitivity spilled over into the actor’s personal life. A strict vegan and environmentalist, Phoenix once walked out of a dinner date with girlfriend Martha Plimpton after she requested shellfish. And as his Running on Empty co-star Christine Lahti once remarked to The Los Angeles Times, “I drank a Diet Coke once and he was furious with me. He was so adamant about pure, clean living.”
Nevertheless, Phoenix’s spotless public image would be swept away by his tragic demise. On 30 October 1993 the actor, along with siblings Joaquin and Rain and girlfriend Samantha Mathis, arrived at The Viper Room, a Hollywood club partially owned by Johnny Depp. Shortly thereafter, he was lying flat on the sidewalk outside after having suffered a drug overdose.
While his sister desperately tried to administer CPR, Phoenix’s younger brother called the emergency services. But by the time an ambulance arrived at the scene, it was already too late. Having suffered a heart attack moments after going into convulsions, the 23-year-old actor flatlined and he was officially declared dead on the morning of October 31.
Afterwards, an autopsy discovered that a toxic mix of substances including cocaine and heroin had resulted in the young star’s death. And while his fans were shocked by the news, some of those closest to him saw his overdose as somewhat inevitable. “People talk about him having such a clean life,” his publicist Sue Patricola told The Washington Post. “That’s not right…This place, Los Angeles, is poison, especially for someone [like him].”
In the years since Phoenix’s passing, fans have wondered why the supposedly straight-edge star fell off the rails. But generally speaking, those present that night have stayed silent. The actor’s younger brother, for example, once told a journalist to “take a hike” when the subject came up in a 2005 interview. But earlier this year, Phoenix’s former-girlfriend Mathis finally came forth with her own version of events.
During an October chat with The Guardian, Mathis explained that her first encounter with Phoenix came aged 19, when the latter asked her for a cigarette. “This sounds incredibly cheesy but I knew I would be with him one day,” the actress admitted. “It just felt fated between us, and there was such chemistry.”
After later working together on 1993’s The Thing Called Love, the pair finally became an item. Yet though the two spent countless hours “hanging out” and holidaying together, Mathis apparently never saw her partner’s descent into drugs. However, she could tell that something wasn’t quite right with him. “I knew there was something going on,” she recalled.
And when the pair entered the Viper Room that fateful night, Mathis worked out that Phoenix had taken something. “I knew he was high,” she revealed. And though the pair had originally been there to make a cursory appearance, Phoenix soon said he wanted to stay longer. “I didn’t see anyone doing drugs, but he was high in a way that made me feel uncomfortable,” she said.
Following Phoenix’s request, Mathis retreated to the restroom. And it was during this time that she surmised her partner had taken the lethal dose of heroin. “I have my suspicions about what was going on,” she stated. After re-entering the bar area, Mathis witnessed her partner and another person being ejected from the building by security.
Chasing after them, the actress witnessed Phoenix collapsing to the ground. Frantic, Mathis implored the unidentified man to help, but he merely chastised her for “spoiling his high.” Eventually, she found her way back into the club where she got Phoenix’s siblings’ attention.
As alleged in Bob Forrest’s 2013 memoir Running with Monsters, Phoenix’s final days were spent indulging in narcotics with friends. And while she never saw these binges, Mathis agreed that her partner’s entourage could have pushed him off the rails. “When he needed help, they didn’t help him,” she bemoaned. “In fact, in some cases, it was the opposite.”
At just 23 years of age, Phoenix left behind a tragically short legacy. Often compared to actor James Dean – who died at a similarly young age – the star carved a path for other young actors to follow. Indeed, his friend Leonardo DiCaprio – who accepted multiple roles intended for Phoenix following his passing – arguably owes the star a debt.
Meanwhile, younger brother Joaquin has done his part to carry on Phoenix family’s acting legacy. With three Academy Award nominations under his belt, the Walk the Line star is one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed actors. And an upcoming role as Batman’s iconic nemesis The Joker will further enhance his popularity in future.
Today, Phoenix is remembered as a troubled man whose demons drove him off the edge. But Mathis will always recall a different version of the star. “He was just a boy,” she opined. “A very good-hearted boy who… had no idea how to implement his good intentions.” And after imagining a world where Phoenix would still be with us, the actress sighed, “Wouldn’t that be nice?”