Phoenix died in 1993 (17 years ago, amazing to say it) of “acute multiple drug intoxication.” He collapsed on the sidewalk outside the Viper Lounge in Los Angeles, then became one of many celebs to be declared dead at Cedars-Sinai Hospital. A shocking moment.
Phoenix was a pretty big star at the time. His breakthrough teen role was Stand By Me in 1986. That’s him in the yellow shirt above, with (from left) Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell. River Phoenix was a remarkably young-looking 15 in that photo, assuming it was shot in 1985. Feldman would have been 14, Wheaton 13, and O’Connell 12.
Phoenix was in a string of heavy-hitter films after that: The Mosquito Coast (1986, with Harrison Ford), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989, again with Ford), I Love You To Death (1990, directed by Lawrence Kasdan) and in 1991 My Own Private Idaho, a huge indie hit with Keanu Reeves. His last performance was for director Peter Bogdanovich in The Thing Called Love, with Phoenix playing an aspiring country singer opposite Samantha Mathis and Sandra Bullock.
What if River Phoenix had lived? What roles would he have had in the last 17 years? The Matt Damon role in Saving Private Ryan? (Steven Spielberg had already used Phoenix in The Last Crusade, after all.) Or Damon’s darker role in The Talented Mr. Ripley? Maybe even the lead in The Matrix? (Impossible not to see Keanu Reeves in that role now, but easy to imagine River Phoenix getting the nod back then.)
For that matter, how many of Christian Bale‘s roles would he have stolen?
Phoenix was directed by Gus Van Sant in My Own Private Idaho and made a quickie appearance in Van Sant’s 1993 Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, so it’s reasonable to think he’d have been cast in later Van Sant movies. What about Norman Bates in the Psycho remake? (Sorry, Vince Vaughn.) Or even, dare I say it, Harvey Milk in Milk? I know, I know, Sean Penn won the Oscar… but still.
Well, alas. 23 is very young to go.
(Above: River Phoenix in I Love You To Death. All photos provided by WENN.)