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River Phoenix's Eccentric Upbringing, Tragic Death


The 1980s and early '90s produced a generation of talented male actors known for taking on complicated, sometimes even controversial roles. Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Ethan Hawke - they all went on to become huge stars. But the legend of one member of that generation stands out, despite his early death - River Phoenix. Here he is in a 1986 classic "Stand By Me."


WIL WEATON: (As Gordie) You want to be the Lone Ranger and the Cisco Kid - walk and talk and - Jesus, where'd you get this?

RIVER PHOENIX: (As Chris) Hawked it from my old man's bureau. It's a .45.

WEATON: (As Gordie) Let me see that. Is it loaded?

PHOENIX: (As Chris) Hell, no. What do you think I am?


WEATON, PHOENIX (As Chris, Gordie) Jesus! Let's get out of here. C'mon.

MARTIN: Just a few years after starring in that film at the age of 18, River Phoenix was nominated for an Oscar, for his performance in "Running on Empty." Phoenix was a young man with everything ahead of him when he died of a drug overdose. This Halloween marks the 20th anniversary of the night he died outside the LA nightclub The Viper Room. Phoenix was 23 years old.

Gavin Edwards' new biography, "Last Night at the Viper Room," explores the young actor's bizarre upbringing in a famously eccentric family. Edwards says that for the first years of River's life, his family belonged to a highly controversial religious group.

GAVIN EDWARDS: The Children of God was a Christian sex cult. They believed that sex was a sacrament, and that sort of everyone should be engaged in it. And this, you know, extended to sort of partner swapping, and it also extended to encouraging children to, you know, engage with each other. So at an early age, River was busking on street corners, trying to spread the word and proselytize for the cult. But if he didn't bring home enough loose change that day, the family wasn't going to eat. So it was a lot of weight in a lot of different ways, on a very young child.

MARTIN: It was through the Children of God that River and his siblings found their way into show business. Can you describe how that happened?

EDWARDS: River and his sister got used to performing. So when River was still young, the family left the cult. They decided it had gotten too seamy. But the kids had the bug, and River and Rain started entering talent shows. And what really sort of spurred the change from talent shows and music to acting was River's mother had grown up in the Bronx with Penny Marshall, who was then the star of "Laverne and Shirley"; and sent a letter saying - you know - we have these kids, they're very talented, what do we do? And it got sort of fobbed off to the Paramount casting department, and said, well, if you're ever in town you can come by. And so the family just packed everything up and said, OK. We're driving across the country.


MARTIN: Through your research, were you able to discern if River Phoenix was a happy person?

EDWARDS: You know, somebody asked him if he had a happy childhood; and he's just like, well, it was interesting. But I think he was happy - I mean, even though these, you know, horrible, traumatic things happened to him when he was a child. And you wouldn't begrudge or judge anybody who has said, you know what? I'm going to be antisocial and crawl up in, like, the fetal position for the rest of my life. But, you know, instinctively, that wasn't who he was. And so, you know - carried around that weight with him, but it didn't define who he was.

MARTIN: So there was a lot of media attention given to River Phoenix's death. He died outside the Viper Room. Can you walk us back to that night? What happened?

EDWARDS: So that night, he had got back into town. He had been making a movie called "Dark Blood." They had been filming in the Utah desert. And he almost didn't go out that night. But like, he had his brother and sister in town and they wanted, like, we're young, we're in Hollywood, let's go out. So at the last minute, he grabs his guitar, and they go off to a party in the Hollywood Hills where Leonardo DiCaprio was there. Then they head off to the Viper Room. And he had not been there long, and he got offered a drink. And it turned out to be a speedball, which is a mix of heroin and cocaine. And, you know, River had done drugs, so it was not the first time this had ever been in his system. But in this case, he had a really bad reaction and pretty quickly they get him outside, try to get him some fresh air. And then he starts having seizures on the sidewalk, and they call 9-1-1. You know, he was declared dead shortly after at Cedars-Sinai, but he really passed away on the sidewalk outside the Viper Room.

MARTIN: Why did you want to write this book?

EDWARDS: I wanted to write this book for two reasons. One was that I hadn't been president of the River Phoenix Fan Club but I did see "My Own Private Idaho" when he was still alive. And it was almost this, like, fever dream I had had; that, you know, it's a very sort of intense, emotional movie. And sort of at, like, 2 a.m., I almost felt like I had hallucinated it. And for many years, I didn't want to go back and find out more about it. But finally I just like, wanted to sort of poke at it and find like, who was this guy?

And the other thing was just early on, I found out all the people who were present the night that he died at the Viper Room - aside from River Phoenix and aside from, you know, his brother Joaquin and aside from his sister Rain, and he also brought his girlfriend, Samantha Mathis. On stage, there was Johnny Depp, who was playing in his band, P; Gibby, from the Butthole Surfers, was in the band; Flea, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, was there; Al Jourgensen, from Ministry; Benmont Tench, who was Tom Petty's keyboard player, was there; Christina Applegate, the actress, was in the audience. And I said, how did this moment happen? It seemed just like all these people at what turned out to be a historic night, but which they all just thought was like another Saturday night out in Hollywood.

MARTIN: Gavin Edwards - his new book is called "Last Night at the Viper Room." He talked to us from our studios at NPR West. Gavin, thanks so much.

EDWARDS: Thank you. It was a real pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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