River Phoenix: 20 Years Later

Today marks 20 years ago that an incredibly promising acting career was cut tragically short due to drug addiction.

At the age of 23, Oscar nominee River Phoenix collapsed outside the Viper Room in Los Angeles due to a heroin and cocaine overdose. In just an eight year period, Phoenix had earned the status of one of the finest actors of his generation. His first film role came alongside a young Ethan Hawke in Joe Dante’s 1985 cult sci-fi flick Explorers.

By the following year, River really broke out with roles in Rob Reiner’s terrific Stand by Me and alongside Harrison Ford in the well-reviewed The Mosquito Coast.

In 1988, Mr. Phoenix received a Supporting Actor nod for his impressive work in Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty, which is a picture well worth seeking out.

In 1989, Phoenix’s biggest commercial success would come in the opening scenes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where he played a young Indy quite believably.

In 1991, he would costar with Keanu Reeves in Gus Van Sant’s acclaimed My Own Private Idaho, where he won the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actor. That same year he starred with Lili Taylor in the critical favorite Dogfight.

More commercial success would follow in 1992 with Sneakers, in which he played a supporting role alongside heavyweights Robert Redford, Ben Kingsley, and Sidney Poitier.

It’s hard to imagine, but River Phoenix would only be 43 years old if not for the fateful Halloween evening in 1993. There is little doubt that his career would have persisted onwards and upwards alonside contemporaries like Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, and Leonardo DiCaprio.

The family legacy has certainly continued. It was River’s younger brother who placed the 911 call while River fought for his life. Joaquin Phoenix and his brilliant work in Walk the Line, The Master, and his Oscar buzzworthy turn in the upcoming Her carries on the tradition of great acting that his big brother started.

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