On this day in 1993, the 23-year-old actor River Phoenix, who appeared in such films as Stand by Me and My Own Private Idaho, dies of a drug overdose outside a West Hollywood nightclub. At the time of his death, Phoenix was considered one of the most promising actors of his generation and had received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance in 1988’s Running on Empty.
Phoenix, who was born River Jude Bottom on August 23, 1970, had an unconventional childhood. His parents were members of a religious cult and worked as missionaries in South America. Phoenix began acting professionally as a teenager and made his big-screen debut, along with Ethan Hawke, in 1985’s Explorers. Phoenix gained fame in 1986’s Stand by Me. Based on a Stephen King novel, the film was directed by Rob Reiner and co-starred Jerry O’Connell, Corey Feldman and Wil Wheaton. Phoenix went on to appear in such movies as The Mosquito Coast (1986), which co-starred Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren; A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988), in which he played the title role; and Little Nikita (1988), with Sidney Poitier. Also in 1988, Phoenix appeared in Running on Empty, about a family on the run from the FBI for an anti-war bombing the parents had participated in years earlier. The movie was directed by Sidney Lumet and co-starred Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti. Phoenix, who played the couple’s teenage son, lost the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award to Kevin Kline for A Fish Called Wanda.
Phoenix played the young Indy in 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and later starred in the acclaimed independent films My Own Private Idaho (1990), which was directed by Gus Van Sant and co-starred Keanu Reeves, and Dogfight (1991), with Lili Taylor. Phoenix also appeared in the 1992 thriller Sneakers with Robert Redford and Sidney Poitier. In the early hours of October 31, 1993, Phoenix collapsed from a drug overdose outside the Viper Room, a night club partially owned at the time by the actor Johnny Depp and located on the Sunset Strip.
Phoenix’s younger brother Joaquin is also an Academy Award-nominated actor; his movie credits include Gladiator (2000), Walk the Line (2005) and We Own the Night (2007).