Remembering River Phoenix 30 Years After His Death (Guest Column)

“Hollywood is mourning the loss of two of its own today,” the radio newscaster announced 30 years ago.  My ears perked up, perhaps a bit more than the average listener’s would. “Federico Fellini,” he continued, “is dead at the age of 73.”

“Ah, well,” I thought. “He’s been ill for some time.”

“And in Los Angeles,” the newscaster said, “actor River Phoenix…” A sudden rush of adrenaline made my heart race and I felt as if I’d been punched in the stomach.

Five years earlier, I had spent the afternoon of River’s 18th birthday with him. At the time, I was working on a daily radio network program where I chatted with stars of new movies.  Of the hundreds of actors I’ve interviewed (before, during, and since that show), River easily made it to my personal “Top 10 Favorites” list.

River – accompanied by his mom – came to our studio, just off Times Square, to speak about his latest film, “Running on Empty,” for which he later received an Oscar nomination. His parents were played by Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti, and his on-screen girlfriend was portrayed by his real-life sweetheart at the time, Martha Plimpton, who I had already interviewed earlier in the day.

I knew it was River’s birthday. Since the movie was about anti-war activists during the Vietnam era, I brought him a present: a collection of essays about the 1960s. River seemed genuinely moved by the gesture.

It was two years after his star-making turn in “Stand By Me,” but River was unaffected by the acclaim.  In fact, he told me “the fame that comes along with this isn’t appealing to me. What feels good is working and doing good stuff you can really get into.”

The conversation was punctuated by laughter: first, when River couldn’t suppress a yawn, explaining he’d been out late the night before — “I was at the Village Gate, listening to salsa jazz” – and several times when he gave playful responses to my questions, before lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper and saying “OK, let’s get real serious now!”

The actor told me about his family’s unusual saga: “I was born in a log cabin in Oregon in 1970. It really was a fun time; you should have been there!” he joked. River’s parents, once described as “free spirits of the 1960s,” had joined a cult called “Children of God” in 1972, and spent years as missionaries in Mexico, Puerto Rico and South America.

I’d read that River and his siblings had sung on street corners in Caracas for money. “Yes, that’s among my earliest and fondest childhood memories,” he confirmed. “We’d sing in squares and plazas and draw hundreds of people.  It was a nice way to grow up; kind of a humble existence. Thriving off of a crowd and feeling the energy is rooted in me. It kind of affected me in terms of the entertainment business, maybe.”

River and his siblings (including actor Joaquin) moved constantly during their young lives, much like the teen he played in “Running on Empty.”

“I think it helped me relate to this character in many ways. But you can’t cross your own perspective with your character’s, otherwise you get a weird mumbo jumbo mixup. You gotta get the signals straight,” he explained.

Our conversation veered off into various directions, from his love of music (“I like playing guitar in my garage, plucking away with friends. It really is therapy for me, and a nice creative outlet”) to his skyrocketing popularity (“I don’t let it affect me.  But I get a lot of letters that are real personal and show a lot of interest in the work I’ve done. That’s really flattering”).

After the interview, the network photographer came in to take the obligatory publicity picture, and – as a longtime autograph collector – I asked River to sign a full-page photo of himself from a movie magazine. He did so, then said “Wait, I want to write something else.” Grabbing a nearby Post-It note, he penned “To Steve, Thanks for chatting – and for the gift. I’ll get into it. Until next time. Peace and love, River Phoenix.”

I was pleasantly surprised at how articulate and easy to talk with River was. But, there was one more surprise still to come.

The author, Steve North, and River Phoenix after their interview (Courtesy: Steve North)
The author, Steve North, and River Phoenix after their interview (Courtesy: Steve North)

As we were saying goodbye, I mentioned I was going to the Plaza Hotel to interview River’s co-star Christine Lahti. His mother, Arlyn, said they were heading there also, and immediately invited me to join them in their limo. During the ride, Arlyn asked if I knew of any vegetarian restaurants in the area.

“Well, I’ve been to a kosher vegetarian place on the East Side called Greener Pastures,” I replied.  River looked puzzled.  “What’s kosher?” he asked.

I started to enlighten this former member of the church-based “Children of God” when Arlyn broke in. “Kosher,” she began, “is the Jewish dietary laws about what foods are forbidden, and how certain foods should be prepared.” I listened with astonishment to her detailed explanation, then asked how she knew all this. “Are you kidding? I’m Arlyn Dunetz from the Bronx.” River was intrigued by the discussion, and I was fascinated with the revelation that according to Jewish law, he was Jewish.

I ended each interview in this series with the question ”What’s the best thing about being an actor?”  River gave a thoughtful response. “The variety. The change. The details that you can get into, as far as the roles that you play. There are a lot of things that are really attractive to me about it, not to sound pretentious, but having to do with art.  It also helps me with myself, I think.  It gives me a break from me.”

He concluded by saying, with a big smile, “I can skip around and feel like I’m in Halloween-land all the time, constantly changing costumes. It’s fun, it really is fun.”

Five years later, I was deeply shocked and saddened to hear of River’s drug overdose death outside a West Hollywood nightclub. I shut off the radio and happened to glance at a calendar.

It was October 31. Halloween.

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