‘Last Night at the Viper Room’: The Life and Death of River Phoenix

Exclusive excerpt from new book by Rolling Stone contributor Gavin Edwards

Via Rolling Stone Magazine
‘Last Night at the Viper Room’ by Gavin Edwards
Courtesy of Harper Collins

‘Last Night at the Viper Room’ by Gavin Edwards

October 22, 2013 9:00 AM ET

It’s been 20 years since the death of River Phoenix at age 23. In Last Night at the Viper Room, out today, Rolling Stone contributor Gavin Edwards tells the story of the actor-musician’s brief life and tragic death. This exclusive excerpt from the chapter “If the Sky That We Look Upon Should Tumble and Fall” recounts Phoenix’s experience on the set of Stand by Me, the coming-of-age movie that made him a star, featuring interviews with co-star Corey Feldman, director Rob Reiner and more. 

“Chris Chambers was the leader of our gang, and my best friend. He came from a bad family, and everybody just knew he’d turn out bad – including Chris.” That was how Richard Dreyfuss, narrating as the adult Gordie Lachance, described the character in Stand by Me that made River Phoenix a star.

River had been treating acting as a lark – he enjoyed doing it, but music remained his first love. After wrapping Explorers, however, he was fooling around on a motorcycle, racing it in a dirt field, and he took a spill, tearing up a tendon in his left knee. The injury gave him plenty of time to sit on the couch, thinking about life. River had an epiphany: acting in movies was not just a fluke detour in his life, it was important to him, and he wanted to do it well. Before he was fully healed, he went on an audition for Stand by Me. “I kind of limped in,” River said, but he thought that the injury ultimately helped him land the part. “I had this tragic air to me ’cause I was bummed out by the accident.”

River’s character was tough, sensitive, and just a little goofy. In blue jeans and a white T-shirt, sporting a short Fifties haircut, he looked like a screen star of the past – one in particular. Director Rob Reiner said, “He was a young James Dean and I had never seen anybody like that.”

Wil Wheaton, who played the 12-year-old Gordie, said that the movie worked, in large part, because the four young actors starring in it matched their characters so well: he was nerdy and uncomfortable in his own skin; Jerry O’Connell was funny and schlubby (looking nothing like the chiseled hunk he became as an adult); Corey Feldman was full of inchoate rage and had an awful relationship with his parents. “And River was cool and really smart and passionate,” Wheaton said. “Kind of like a father figure to some of us.”

At first, Wheaton  was intimidated  by River, who was 14 to his 12. He explained, “He was so professional and so intense, he just seemed a lot older than he was. He seemed to have this wisdom around him that was really difficult to quantify at that age.” He was smart, he was musically talented, and he was one of the kindest people Wheaton had ever met. In other words: “He just seemed cool.”

Stand by Me, based on the Stephen King novella The Body, is the story of four boys in small-town Oregon in 1959. Just before junior high school begins, they hike 20 miles down the train tracks to the spot where they have heard the corpse of a missing kid lies, and come home older and wiser.

Production began on The Body (as it was then known) in June 1984. Reiner, most famous for playing “Meathead” on All in the Family, had already directed This Is Spinal Tap and The Sure Thing. He didn’t think a coming-of-age period piece had much commercial potential, but it was the sort of movie he wanted to make.

Reiner gave his stars tapes of late-Fifties music and made sure they learned the slang of the era. More importantly, he summoned his four young leads one week early to Brownsville, Oregon (about a hundred miles west of where River was born, on the other side of the Cascade Mountains). Reiner led them in games drawn from Viola Spolin’s book Improvisations for the Theater: River and the other boys mimed each other’s gestures as if they were mirror images, told collaborative stories, and took turns guiding each other blindfolded through their hotel lobby. “Theater games develop trust among people,” declared Reiner, who needed his four actors to become friends – quickly.

Feldman had known River a long time – they had become friendly on the L.A. audition circuit. “Whenever we saw each other on auditions,” Feldman remembered, “we would hang out or play outside while everyone else was sitting in the room waiting for their shot.”

The quartet soon bonded. When The Goonies, starring Feldman, was released that summer, they went to see it together; a few weeks later, they all went to Explorers. Wheaton’s family organized weekend white-water rafting trips for the cast and crew. At the end of one outing, they found themselves at a clothing-optional hot springs that was hosting a hippie fair; some of the cast got to juggle with the Flying Karamazov Brothers.

At the hotel, the actors were testing their limits. When River found out Wheaton was adept with electronics, he encouraged him to monkey with a video-game machine so they could play for free, promising that he’d take the blame if they got caught. They soaked Feldman’s wardrobe in beer; after his clothes dried, he smelled like a wino. And they threw the poolside chairs into the hotel pool – the closest four well-meaning young adolescents could get to acting like the Who.

Kiefer Sutherland had a supporting role as the quartet’s nemesis, a juvenile delinquent named Ace Merrill. Sutherland was almost four years older than River, and spent most of his time on set in character, so the two actors didn’t get to know each other very well. Nevertheless, on a day when River was in a destructive mood, he bombarded Sutherland’s car with large dirt clods until it was covered in muck. “The other guys dared me to do it,” River explained. “They knew it was Kiefer’s car – I didn’t. When I found out, I was scared for my life.”

Soon after, Sutherland spotted River at a local restaurant and called him over to his table. Terrified, River blurted out, “Kiefer, I’m really sorry.”

Sutherland was confused; he was just saying hello. When River explained he was the culprit behind the dirt-clod fusillade, Sutherland laughed and said, “Don’t worry about it. It’s a rental car – they washed it off.”

River was relieved, having conflated Sutherland with his character:  “I didn’t know if he was going to pull out the switchblade and slit my throat.” Feldman and River checked out a local underage nightclub. Feldman said, “There was no alcohol served there or anything, but of course, all the kids were drinking anyway.” The locals offered booze to the visiting Hollywood actors and, with the lightest touches of peer pressure, got them to take their first drinks.

“Kids never got along with me,” River said. The experiences that had made his life extraordinary had also made it impossible to find common ground with regular teenagers. “These kids, because this was Oregon and not L.A., and because we were actors and they admired us or whatever, they’d do anything to appease us. So they got me a forty-ouncer of beer, which I drank straight down just to show them. The only other thing I remember about that night was laying on the railroad tracks with everything spinning all around me.”

Feldman said that he and River also had their first significant marijuana experience together. They were hanging out in another hotel room, this one occupied by one of the movie’s technicians. When the two kids spotted a bong in his closet and asked what it was, he not only explained its purpose and workings to them, he (with what seems an astonishing lack of adult responsibility) let them try it out. Feldman recalled, “We both coughed a lot and had sore throats – but even though we were kind of bouncing off the walls of the hotel, neither of us seemed to be affected by it. It didn’t change our state of mind in any way.”

The coda: Some months later, when the Stand by Me cast stayed in a New York City hotel for the movie’s press junket, a distinctive aroma was wafting from River’s room. “I could smell the pot coming all the way down the hallway,” Feldman said. River laughed it off, saying it was somebody else’s.

River turned 15 while shooting Stand by Me, and seemed determined to grow up just as decisively as the movie’s characters. The four young actors talked about sex all the time, despite (or because of) their lack of experience. “Sex was nearly all that River could think about,” Feldman said.

River had a major crush on a friend of the family, an older teenager; the feeling was apparently mutual, since she propositioned him. “He decided it was time to end his self-imposed ‘second virginity’ and get on with his first teen sexual encounter,” Feldman said. River and his friend went to his parents to get their blessing – Arlyn and John not only consented, they pitched a tent in the backyard of their rented house and decorated it to enhance the mood.

“It was a beautiful experience,” Arlyn said later.

“A very strange experience,” River said. “I got through that, thank God.” He wasn’t just relieving his teenage hormones: he was attempting to have a mature sex life uncolored by his experiences with the Children of God. His emotions may have been mixed, but he was outwardly overjoyed: the next day on the set, he was telling the news to anybody who would listen. He even wrote a letter to Explorers director Joe Dante, who knew about River’s unslaked teenage lust, with the caps-lock on his handwriting: “WELL IT HAPPENED. IT FINALLY HAPPENED.”

Although the cast and crew remember the idyllic shoot of Stand by Me as the best summer ever, they were also making a quiet little movie that would turn out to be a masterpiece. The movie is saturated with issues of mortality – even if the boys treat their journey like an impromptu camping jamboree, they are looking for a dead body – but the flip side is that it has an unusually warm, generous sense of what it means to be alive. Stand by Me is full of quotable lines (“Mickey Mouse is a cartoon. Superman’s a real guy. There’s no way a cartoon could beat up a real guy”), but the foundation of the movie is the friendship between Wheaton’s Gordie and River’s Chris.

The defining scene for Chris comes when, late at night by a campfire, he confesses his fear that no matter what he does, the town will always think of him as “one of those low-life Chambers kids.” On the night the scene was shot, River delivered the monologue, telling the story of how he stole milk money from his school and then had moral qualms and returned the cash to a teacher – only to have her keep the money for herself, letting him take the blame and a three-day suspension.

Reiner wasn’t satisfied with River’s performance – it seemed emotionally flat. Sometimes he would act out dialogue himself so his young performers could hear what he was looking for, but this time Reiner had a quiet word with River, asking him, “Is there a moment in your life where you can recall an adult letting you down, and betraying you in some way? You don’t have to tell me who it is. I just want you to think about it.”

River walked away from the camera, replaying memories in his mind. A few minutes later, he returned and told Reiner he was ready to try again. This time his performance felt like an open wound: River wept while anger and pain roiled him. After the scene, Reiner went to River, who was still crying, gave him a big hug, and told him he loved him.

“It took him a while to get over it,” Reiner said. “Obviously, there was something very hurtful to him in his life that he connected with to make that scene work. You just saw that raw naturalism. I’ve seen the movie a thousand times – and every time I see that scene, I cry.”

Although River always praised the finished film (which changed titles from The Body to Stand by Me when marketers at Columbia Pictures worried that audiences would think it was a bodybuilding movie or a horror flick), he wasn’t so happy with his own performance. “Personally, I didn’t think my work was up to my own standards,” he said. Perhaps he felt that by drawing on his wellspring of pain and betrayal, he had exposed his secrets to the world. “I was going through puberty and I was hurting real bad,” he said of his emotional nakedness. “It’s not easy watching yourself so vulnerable.”

River Phoenix the last 24 hrs – Documentary

River Phoenix last 24 hrs – Documentary

Using archive footage, dramatic reenactment and interviews, this DVD details the last hours of River Phoenix’s life and the events that led to his tragic death in
the city of Los Angeles.

This compelling documentary series unlocks the psychological flaws and events that result in the tragic deaths of famed notorious and the iconic. Every episode maps out the final 24 hours of a different famous person’s life. The series weaves the star’s back-story with events from their last day, which lays bare the threads of fate that led inextricably from childhood to the moment of death. These are no ordinary biographies. They’re psychological detective stories attempting to uncover the mystery of why the celebrity died.

Academy-award nominee for Best Supporting Actor, River Phoenix’s work encompassed 24 films and television appearances, including the science fiction adventure film Explorers, the coming-of-age film Stand By Me, the action sequel Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the independent adult drama My Own Private Idaho. He appeared in diverse roles, making his first notable appearance in the 1986 film Stand by Me, a hugely popular coming-of-age film based on a novella by Stephen King.

Phoenix made a transition into more adult-oriented roles with Running on Empty (1988), playing the son of fugitive parents in a well-received performance that earned him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor nomination, and My Own Private Idaho (1991), playing a gay hustler in search of his estranged mother. For his performance in the latter, Phoenix garnered enormous praise and won a Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival, along with Best Actor from the National Society of Film Critics. He was listed by John Willis as one of twelve promising new actors of 1986.

Although Phoenix’s movie career was generating most of the income for his family, it has been stated by close friends and relatives that his true passion was music. Phoenix was a singer, song writer and an accomplished guitarist. He had begun teaching himself guitar at the age of five and had stated in an interview for E! in 1988 that his family’s move to L.A. when he was nine was made so that he and his sister “… could become recording artists. I fell into commercials for financial reasons and acting became an attractive concept …”

Prior to securing an acting agent, Phoenix and his siblings had attempted to forge a career in music by playing cover songs on the streets of the Westwood district of LA. Phoenix disliked the idea of being a solo artist and relished collaboration; therefore he focused on putting together a band. Aleka’s Attic were formed in 1987 and the line up included his sister Rain. Phoenix was committed to gaining credibility by his own merit and so he maintained that the band would not use his name when securing performances that were not benefits for charitable organizations. Phoenix’s first release was “Across the Way”, co-written with band mate Josh McKay, which was released in 1989 on a benefit album for PETA titled Tame Yourself.

In 1991 River wrote and recorded a spoken word piece called “Curi Curi” for Milton Nascimento’s album TXAI. Also in 1991 the Aleka’s Attic track “Too Many Colors” was lent to the soundtrack of Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho a film which included Phoenix in a starring role. In 1996 the Aleka’s Attic track “Note to a Friend” was released on the 1996 benefit album In Defense of Animals; Volume II and featured Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers on bass.

Phoenix had collaborated with friend John Frusciante after his first departure from Red Hot Chili Peppers and the songs “Height Down” and “Well I’ve Been” were released on Frusciante’s second solo album Smile from the Streets You Hold in 1997. The title track may also be an ode to Phoenix. Phoenix was an investor in the original House of Blues (founded by his good friend and Sneakers co-star Dan Aykroyd) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which opened its doors to the public after serving a group of homeless people on Thanksgiving Day 1992.

Phoenix was a dedicated animal rights, environmental and political activist. He was a prominent spokesperson for PETA and won their Humanitarian award in 1992 for his fund-raising efforts. Also in 1990, for Earth Day, Phoenix wrote an environmental awareness essay targeted at his young fan base, which was printed in Seventeen magazine. He financially aided a slew of environmental and humanitarian organizations and bought 800 acres (320 ha) of endangered rainforest in Costa Rica.

At war with his own dark demons, on October 31, 1993, Phoenix collapsed and died of drug-induced heart failure on the sidewalk outside the West Hollywood nightclub The Viper Room. He was 23 yrs-old at the time of his death. Prior to his death, Phoenix had been in the middle of filming the currently unreleased Dark Blood (1993).

In 24 hours his darkness consumed him and he was dead. Using archive footage, dramatic reenactment and interviews with his closest friends, companions, this documentary details the last hours of River Phoenix’s life and the gripping events that led to his tragic death in L.A.

R.I.P. Sweet Soul

Related post: Actor & Musician River Phoenix’s Final Film ‘Dark Blood’ Gets September Premiere

Actor & Musician River Phoenix’s Final Film ‘Dark Blood’ Gets September Premiere

River Phoenix.
Pictures: DCI | Nancy R. Schiff/Getty Images

On Sept. 27, Dutch director George Sluizer will unveil a finished version of Dark Blood, the film River Phoenix was working on when he died in 1993, at a Dutch film festival (it’s unclear whether it will ever get a theatrical or DVD release). Here’s an excerpt from our story about the movie’s tangled history.

Around 3 a.m., the phone in director George Sluizer’s hotel room rang. It was River Phoenix’s agent, sharing the news of what would become one of the saddest, most shocking pop ­culture milestones of the ’90s. While ­hanging out at the Viper Room club in Los Angeles, Phoenix had ingested a ­dangerous combination of cocaine and heroin. He went into convulsions on the ­sidewalk outside the club. The 23-year-old actor was ­pronounced dead at 1:51 a.m.

Sluizer and Phoenix were in the middle of filming a movie called Dark Blood, and it was now up to the director to inform his movie’s cast and crew of the tragedy. “I was devastated,” says Sluizer, now 80. “It was a terrible sadness.” Sluizer and his crew had spent about seven weeks shooting in the Utah desert, and then decamped to L.A. to film interiors. There were roughly 11 days left on the schedule when ­Phoenix died. Now the movie was in limbo. After the initial shock wore off, Sluizer, the film’s producers, and the company that insured the production had to figure out what to do. Was there some way to salvage the movie? Or would all of their work — and Phoenix’s final onscreen performance — be lost forever?

Convinced that there was no cost-effective way to salvage Dark Blood, the insurance company made the call to abandon the project and pay out the claim to the original investors, at which point the insurers became the owners of the film. Dark Blood sat in storage until 1999, when Sluizer heard some disturbing news. The insurance company didn’t want to pay to warehouse his film anymore — and was planning to destroy it. “That’s when I said, ‘No, no, I’m going to save it from destruction,’ ” says ­Sluizer. So he did, although he won’t explain exactly how he got his hands on the footage. “I have good assistants, if I can put it this way, and some ­people who are clever in finding the right key,” he says with a laugh. “I am an enterprising person.”

On Christmas Day, 2007, Sluizer was on vacation in eastern France, riding ATVs around the foothills of the French Alps with his family, when he suddenly collapsed. Acting fast, his son called the fire brigade, who evacuated him to a local hospital. From there an ambulance drove him five hours to a cardiovascular hospital, where he underwent surgery that saved his life. It turned out he had suffered an acute ­aortic dissection. “Normally within five minutes you’re dead,” says the director. “I’m in that sense a miracle.”

Sluizer spent more than a year in physical therapy, relearning how to sit and then stand and walk. During that grueling period of recovery, he finally reached a ­decision: He needed to complete Dark Blood. “I had the feeling that I had to finish the creative work which hundreds of people had done together,” he says, “so that it would be there for anyone who wanted to see it.” Sluizer was still in very poor health, and his doctors told him he might not have long to live. “I said, I want to finish the film before whatever happens. At least I will finish my job as best as I could.”

In the film, Phoenix plays Boy, a young widower living on a nuclear testing site in the desert. While he waits for the end of the world, Boy carves Katchina dolls that supposedly contain magical powers. His life is disrupted when a Hollywood jet-set couple traveling across the desert become stranded after their car breaks down. Boy rescues the couple and then takes them prisoners because he desires the woman and wants to create a better world with her. Dark Blood also stars Judy Davis, Jonathan Pryce and Karen Black.

River Phoenix

Phoenix was a dedicated animal-rights activist, an environmentalist and a die-hard vegan—he wore no leather and cared so much about the diminishing rain forest that he bought acres and acres of it in Costa Rica to save it from development.

Aleka’s Attic Band

But by the time Phoenix had co-starred in hits such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, he was changed. Moody and restless, he had all but abandoned acting, moved back to Florida to be near his family and, with his sister Rain, formed the rock band Aleka’s Attic. But through it all, he always insisted that he believed in clean living: “I don’t see any point or any good in drugs that are as disruptive as cocaine. I never tried heroin. I tried alcohol and most of the others when I was 15, and got it out of the way—finished with the stuff.”

Sluizer is best known for his 1988 thriller Spoorloos, remade as The Vanishing (1993), starring Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland. Phoenix received an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty (1988), played the young Indy in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and also starred in such films as Stand by Me (1986) and My Own Private Idaho (1991). He was the brother of two-time Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix.

In addition to the Dark Blood premiere, the 2012 Netherlands Film Festival also will screen a retrospective of Sluizer’s work and will publish a book on the director’s life.

Dark Blood Trailer

River Phoenix and the Aleka Band

This is a song by Patty Loveless performed by
River Phoenix in “The thing called love”.

Related post: River Phoenix: The Last 24 hrs – Documentary