River Phoenix died 29 years ago, but his death continues to loom over Hollywood

River Phoenix poses in 1988. (Photo: George Rose/Getty Images)
River Phoenix poses in 1988. (Photo: George Rose/Getty Images)

River Phoenix died on Oct. 31, 1993, and he's now been gone for longer than the 23 years that he lived. And yet, 29 years after he fatally overdosed on a combination of cocaine and heroin, the Oscar-nominated actor and rocker continues to loom over Hollywood.

Just last week, actor Michael J. Fox recalled that Phoenix had been kind to him when he was filming his 1991 movie Doc Hollywood in Florida.

"River Phoenix and his brother [Joaquin Phoenix] had a place there, and River would take us out," Fox told People. "He used to come and scoop us up and take us to his place and have a barbecue. It's funny because that was an act of kindness that was built on an act of kindness."

He explained that the two connected when Phoenix appeared in a 1985 episode of Fox's hit TV show, Family Ties. Phoenix — who was nine years younger than Fox — seriously impressed the cast member, but he was struggling with a scene.

"So I went up to him and I said, 'What's the problem?' And he said, 'I feel like a d***,'" Fox recalled to the magazine. "And I said, 'You feel like a d***? Why?' He said, 'I feel goofy, I feel like a d***.' And I said, 'Welcome to the business. That's it. That's the highest level of accomplishment you'll get is to feel like a d***.' It's stupid. It's a stupid thing to do for a living. We pretend we're other people for a living. We use things that we're not really using and we eat things that we're not really eating and we stand in a place because the light's better there and it's all goofy, but if you stick with it, you can find a way to tell a story that other people can't."

Fox thought that Phoenix's hospitality later was repayment for his advice.

'It always seems to be the really talented guys who go down'

Friends alum Matthew Perry reflected on Phoenix, his co-star in the 1988 movie A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon, in his new memoir, Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing.

"River was a better actor than me; I was funnier. But I certainly held my own in our scenes — no small feat, when I look back decades later," wrote Perry, who was born just one year before the Stand by Me star. "But more important, River just looked at the world in a different way than we all did, and that made him fascinating, and charismatic, and, yes, beautiful, but not in a Gap ad kinda way (though he was that, too) — in a there-is-no-one-else-in-the-world-like-him kind of way."

Matthew Perry co-stars in River Phoenix's 1988 movie
Matthew Perry co-stars in River Phoenix's 1988 movie A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon. (Photo: Everett Collection) (Courtesy Everett Collection)

Perry controversially added, and has since apologized for it: "It always seems to be the really talented guys who go down. Why is it that the original thinkers like River Phoenix and Heath Ledger die, but Keanu Reeves still walks among us?"

Although Perry said he "chose a random name," Reeves was close to Phoenix, having starred alongside him in the critically acclaimed, 1991 drama My Own Private Idaho. Sweetly, Reeves was nearly reduced to tears while talking about his late friend in a Nov. 2021 interview. Reeves said it's still "weird speaking about him in the past."

Two months before Perry's comment, on Aug. 23, 2022, the day that would have been Phoenix's 52nd birthday, his actress sister, Rain Phoenix, wished him a happy birthday with a quote from poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau: "On the death of a friend, we should consider that the fates through confidence have devolved on us the task of a double living, that we have henceforth to fulfill the promise of our friend's life also, in our own, to the world."

'If River was still here... '

And Phoenix's name has come up regularly over the years. In Nov. 2020, Ethan Hawke, who co-starred with him in the 1985 movie Explorers, which was Hawke's first, told the Guardian that Phoenix's death had greatly affected him.

"He was the brightest light and this industry chewed him up, and that was a big lesson to me," Hawke said. "If I had to put a single reason on why I never moved to L.A., it would be I think it's too dangerous for an actor like me to be in that kind of climate."

Ethan Hawke, left, and River Phoenix co-starred in 1985's
Ethan Hawke, left, and River Phoenix co-starred in 1985's Explorers. (Photo: Everett Collection) (©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Samantha Mathis, Phoenix's co-star in that year's The Thing Called Love and his real-life girlfriend when he died, speculated what he would be doing if he lived.

"I think if River was still here, I think he'd be acting, directing, saving the environment, just living and hanging out," she told People in Oct. 2018. "Oh gosh, wouldn't that be nice?"

Among the many other times Phoenix has been remembered was in Feb. 2020 when his younger brother, Joaquin, who's credited River with setting him on the acting path and was notably the person who called 9-1-1 on the night his brother died, accepted the best actor Oscar for his performance in the movie Joker.

"When he was 17, my brother wrote this lyric, 'Run to the rescue with love, and peace will follow,'" Joaquin said emotionally in a rare public comment, that comes at 1:10 in the video below. The audience cheered.