Today marks what would have been River Phoenix's 41st birthday: A sad reminder of a lost talent

River-Phoenix

Image Credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images/Time Life Pictures/Getty

For those lucky few who had the opportunity to watch River Phoenix’s film career blossom right in front of their eyes, there’s no doubt it’s the sort of bragging rights they wish they didn’t have. Because for all those who had the chance to experience the young actor’s star-making turns in films like Running on Empty, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, My Own Private Idaho, and of course, Stand By Me, they also had to watch it all come to a sudden end when Phoenix, the eldest brother of Joaquin, passed away at the age of 23 from a drug overdose on October 31, 1993.

Today, August 23, marks what would have been Phoenix’s 41st birthday, and much like the tragic legacy of fallen stars like Heath Ledger and James Dean, he left us far too soon, with a looming, overwhelming sense of what could have been. While his career sadly only lasted a decade, there’s no question that he’d left an indelible mark on screen during his all-too-short time. Having earned a Golden Globe and Oscar nomination for his work as Danny, a talented pianist and son of two fugitives in Running on Empty, all we can do now, sadly, is speculate that he likely would have been up to those podiums plenty times more.

Still, for many fans, the ultimate love letter to Phoenix, and the testament to his talents, was his performance as Chris Chambers in Rob Reiner’s timeless coming-of-age tale Stand By Me. Phoenix played the part of the quietly intense, but devoted pal (who didn’t want a best friend like him growing up?) Chris with an earnestness and effortlessness that actors twice his age couldn’t have pulled off. It’s still nearly impossible to not get a lump in your throat and curse the irony of it all when, at the end of Stand By Me, you find out how his character passed away well before his time: In a tragic, most unfair way.

How do you remember River Phoenix best, PopWatchers? Which performance made you realize he was bound to be a big star?

Read more:
EW Archives: River Phoenix: A Tragic Farewell
EW Archives: River Phoenix’s Film Legacy

Comments (135 total) Add your comment
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  • tracy bluth

    Stand By Me is also my favorite River Phoenix performance as well. All of the kids are fantastic, but River is especially great. And I agree with you about the ironic and heartbreaking ending as well. The fact that he gave that such amazing performances starting at such a young age…yeah, it really makes you wonder.

    • etm

      I love Stand By Me as well. When I saw that movie I was really young and I remember thinking that he died in real life, not just in the movie.

    • Olive

      I’m a single woman. I uploaded my photos to MySingleParentMatch.c0m. Hoping find my true love online, feel free all women with or without child to contact me for more.

  • Danuta Snyder

    I wonder what movies he would have starred in instead of the actors who were in them “in our world”.

    So, in an other parallel dimension where Phoenix had lived, what movies would he have been in from 1993-Today?

    I bet he would have had a lot of Brad Pitt’s parts, he would have been the cool Hollywood guy instead of Clooney or DiCaprio. Maybe he would have been in Titanic.

    Do you guys have ideas?

    • Michelle

      James Cameron admitted in an interview in 1998 that he always admired Phoenix and would have considered him for the role in Titanic.

    • G

      I can see him taking on similar roles that Leonardo DiCaprio does, minus the godawful Titanic. More along the lines of The Departed or Blood Diamond.

      • I think he was set to play . . .

        The Christian Slater role in Interview with a Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles but then the over dose happened.

    • Not Moby

      I see him going more the way of Johnny Depp.

      • Mia1

        He was set to play the interviewer. Christian stepped in and it’s reported that he gave his salary to River’s favorite charity PETA.

  • jp

    Really sad that we never got to see him graduate into a leading man. So much talent there…at least we got a taste of it.

  • Billie72

    Stand By Me is my favorite River Phoenix movie … indeed he left us to soon … but we’ll never forget him …

  • E L

    On the bright side, at least he was spared enduring Joaquin Phoenix’s I’m Not Here “prank”. What a stupid waste of time that was.

    • mydove

      I loved that mockumentary! You’re mistaken!

      • Shiva

        I loved it too. Joaquin is just as talented as River was. I’m sad he hasn’t done more.

  • Mincha

    The first thing I remember seeing him in was a TV movie, Surviving, with Molly Ringwald and Zach Galligan as suicidal teens. He played the guy’s younger brother and did a great job with some heavy material. Had he lived, I’m sure he’d still be turning in incredibly nuanced performances in both mainstream and indie films. He just had a gift.

  • Dani

    I know no one else will name this one but I love d him in Sneakers with Robert Redford. He was so funny and sweet in that role.

    • Lauren

      Loved him in Sneakers! Wondering why they didnt mention that role onthe list.

      • Jlitder

        Me to! I loved him in that movie!

      • Shellibelli

        yep Sneakers is a great movie!

    • Carly

      So loved that movie!! “you can have anything you want and you want MY phone number?!?!?”

    • wtfnyc

      I was going to say that, too! So endearing in that — showed how well he could do goofy and funny, in addition to intense. SUCH a talented artist. He even made his role in “Thing Called Love” work. Of all the “gone too soon” losses, I think River Phoenix is the one that still makes me the saddest.

  • e4ia

    I remember when the news broke on TV. It made no sense to me and thought it had to be a mistake. It’s still (along with Heath Ledger’s death) one of the most tragic losses of a young talent.

    • wtfnyc

      So, do I, e4ia — it was horrible, especially the 911 recording with Joaquin. So desperately sad.

  • Jayne

    grew up loving him, still do. Drugs? Why?,so confused he must have been. So much love, still. Feel for his family & everyone like me. it hurts.x

    • charlotte888

      Statistically, children of molestation turn to HARD alcohol and drug abuse in late adloscence and early adulthood at a rate far above that of the general non-molested public.

      That’s not an “excuse”, it’s just the statistics.

      In addition to being what critics considered the most promising young actor of his time, River’s public pose of healthy living, veganism, animal rights, environmental responsibility and peace issues was 99% sincere.

      It was only the drugs he was unable to control completely.

      • Luca

        There is zero proof that he was ever molested. Why even bring that up.

        The life of a young actor even then was not always an easy one. It was stressful being in the public eye, particularly when you were being pushed as a heartthrob. You had little time to yourself, little say in what your people pushed you into doing.
        Some actors like Christian Bale said hell to the no and declared they didn’t want to be celebs and handled it that way. Some turned to self medication. And of those, some figured out (like Drew Barrymore and Robert Downey Jr) that they could end up killing themselves and got clean. Others like River made a fatal mistake.

  • Jackie

    ‘Sneakers’ and ‘Little Nikita’ are the first ones that come to mind, followed by ‘Stand By Me’ and ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’.

    • Maddy

      Little Nikita was always my favorite of his movies, I even bought it on DVD.

  • Swtndl81

    Running on empty. Great movie and he should have won an Oscar.

    • AA

      I’m with you. I cry every time I watch that movie.

    • jaime

      omg that movie gets me every time …especially when they play “fire and rain”

  • Jayne

    I became vegan for 13 years. it still comes down to drugs, not necessary – he had love & life & career, so silly. drugs always win. so young, so unnecessary. Still happening now – don’t touch drugs . x

    • Flip

      Why did you quit being vegan?? That’s not something you should stop.

      • mark

        actually it’s not something you should even start

      • Moderation

        She can stop being a vegan if she wants. She’s a free human being.

      • Nigel

        If she was vegan for 13 years, and then quit, I guarantee that she was not vegan in the first place. Being vegan is not a phase, and it isn’t a “personal” decision either. That it continues to be described as merely a lifestyle “option” is contemptable. You’ve got to make a choice in life- either you play for the team that makes the world better, or you side with the ‘tards that don’t.

      • Moderation

        What a arrogant, self righteous prick you are, Nigel.

      • Bob

        Hmmm…”Nigel”…that would tend to be a British name, correct? Figures. Not a personal decision? What, are you saying being a vegan is like being gay? You’re born that way??? “Rights of Marriage for Vegans!” Oh, that’s right, vegans already can marry (unless they’re a gay vegan couple, which would limit them to a handful of states). You OK with that, “Nigel”?

      • Nigel

        @Moderation- self-righteous my ass. I get zero, ZERO satisfaction from pointing out the obvious.When a sensible, responsible person is shown that their choices have detrimental effect, they stop making those goddamn choices. Let’s be plain here- @Moderation, you know that animals suffer beyond belief, and you make choices that perpetuate that suffering anyway- you are unmistakeably THE arrogant prick/crunt. Hey @”Bob”, what figures? Where’s my name from? Where do you think “Bob” originates from you dolt? When vegans are described as making that their “personal” choice, it implies that their reason for doing so is not guided by straightforward rational thought, and common sense, but by something “unique” only to them. “Personal”. That’s bulls****! And for reasons unknown, you inject gay marriage. You’re a ‘tard “Bob”.

      • Darren

        Nigel has inspired me to go out and thin the animal population today. Don’t worry, their suffering will lead to my enjoyment.

      • @Nigel

        “Cuckoo!! Cuckoo!!”

      • Hey Nigel…..

        ……have a burger and calm down.

      • Moderation

        Yes, Nigel, you sound very rational. Very soon it will be deer season and I will kill my winter’s (and them some) meat supply, supplementing it with squirrels, rabbit, grouse, turkey, along with the fish I caught this summer and froze and preserved. Not to mention the fish I will catch this winter while ice fishing. Yummy!

      • Ashleigh

        I don’t think one could call 13 years a “phase”. @Nigel, unless you know the poster personally, you canNOT “guarantee that she was not vegan in the first place”. (Assuming the poster is a woman, I’ll use the pronoun ‘she’) Maybe she had health problems, or a baby, and supplementing her diet with eggs or dairy was the best option for her at the time. Really, people, is a blog called “Popwatch” on EntertainmentWeekly.com really the best place to have this discussion?

        I thought River Phoenix was an amazing actor, it is a tragedy that he succumbed to his addictions, and I believe it would have been an honor to see the artist he would have become.

  • Holly

    River Phoenix was a big deal to me when I was a kid. I probably liked him mostly because he was a cute guy in BOP magazine as I was too young to appreciate his other talents. But everyone my age saw Stand By Me. I remember being shaken when he died.

  • the baron

    My own private Idaho. To this day nobody has surpassed his performance in this role. More than any other this movie will show you what could have been.

    • erin

      He was amazing in that movie. That’s probably my favorite of his.

    • kate

      He was brilliant in My Own Private Idaho. He was also hilarously funny in a supporting role (also paired again with Keanu Reeves) in “I love you to death” with kevin Klline. Another great, but overlooked, film is Dogfight.

      • nene

        loved Dogfight, they been showing it alot on cable and I watch it everytime it’s on.

      • plouise

        I agree- Dogfight may be my favorite and it is definitely his most overlooked film.

      • phoebesnow

        I absolutely love Dogfight. River is great in this little gem.

  • jules

    I really liked The Thing Called Love

    • Rachel

      Loved that one! Never out in theaters since he died before release, but I must have watched that movie 50 times!

    • bruno

      thing called love. hands down.

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