10 Surprising Facts About River Phoenix

River Phoenix in 1988.
River Phoenix in 1988.
George Rose/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

River Phoenix first captivated audiences playing Chris Chambers in 1986’s Stand by Me, and it wasn’t long before avid moviegoers had identified him as Hollywood’s next big thing. They weren’t wrong. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Phoenix delivered a series of compelling performances in films like 1988’s Running on Empty and 1991’s My Own Private Idaho, establishing a solid fan base of film buffs and teenagers that was not unlike Timothée Chalamet’s current crop of devotees. So when he died of an accidental drug overdose at just 23 years old, the world mourned both for Phoenix himself and for the career that could have been. From his namesake to his activism, here are 10 facts you might not have known about River Phoenix.

1. River Phoenix’s parents named him after the river in a novel.

When Arlyn Dunetz (a.k.a. Heart Phoenix) and John Lee Bottom welcomed their first of five children on August 23, 1970, they gave him a name befitting their bohemian lifestyle—River, after the river of life that guides the protagonist in Hermann Hesse’s spiritual novel Siddhartha. Though there’s no evidence that his middle name, Jude, was inspired by The Beatles's "Hey Jude," he was known to sing it from time to time. It’s also worth mentioning that Phoenix's parents didn’t change their own last names, or their children’s, until the late 1970s. So River Phoenix's birth name is technically River Bottom.

2. River Phoenix was discovered while busking in a mall.

The Phoenix family moved around quite a bit during River's early childhood, spending short stints in Florida, Texas, and even Venezuela, where John oversaw a branch of the Church of God (though the Phoenixes defected after its leadership started encouraging the congregation to entice new members with sex). Phoenix taught himself to play the guitar, and he and his siblings passed the time—and earned some extra change—by busking on street corners and in other public places. In 1981, while the Phoenixes were living in California, 11-year-old River and 7-year-old Joaquin (who went by Leaf Phoenix in the early days of his career) were performing in a mall in Century City when Hollywood agent Iris Burton happened to catch the show. She decided to represent the brothers, and soon had them appearing on TV in commercials and other small roles.

3. Without River Phoenix, Stand by Me might have had a much smaller audience.

Phoenix got his big break in Rob Reiner's Stand by Me (1986), but the filmmakers initially had trouble convincing a big-name studio to distribute their low-budget movie. As a last-ditch effort, they asked Columbia Pictures—which had just come under new management—to view it a second time, and head of production Guy McElwaine held a home screening. “He brought all the marketing people and the executives, but the crucial members of the audience were his two daughters,” co-writer/producer Bruce A. Evans told Variety. “About halfway through they were in love with River Phoenix.”

“That’s the only way we got distribution,” fellow co-writer/producer Raynold Gideon added. “Otherwise we would have opened up at the Vista here and the movie would have been gone in a week.”

4. River Phoenix had a reputation for losing himself in his roles.

The borderline belligerent earnestness that won over McElwaine’s daughters (and so many others) in Stand by Me foreshadowed Phoenix’s habit of blurring the lines between himself and his roles. After starring in A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988), Phoenix told journalist Blanche McCrary Boyd that he had easily adopted the personality of his entitled, somewhat asinine character. “I was probably better off the set than I was on film,” he said.

Since Phoenix didn’t gravitate toward cheeky romance roles or predictable blockbuster heroes, his involuntary method acting often took an emotional toll. As Dogfight (1991) cinematographer Bobby Bukowski explained to Esquire in 1994, Phoenix “invited the demons of the role into himself.”

“After Dogfight I remember thinking he was being a real jarhead a**hole," Bukowski said. "It took a month for him to become sweet again. And the street urchin character in [My Own Private Idaho] stayed with him and played into the whole drug thing.”

5. River Phoenix has a Guinness World Record.

When 17-year-old Phoenix earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for 1988’s Running on Empty, he was also halfway to winning a very specific Guinness World Record: first brothers to receive Oscar nominations for best actor. Phoenix, of course, happened to have a brother who also acted, and that brother—Joaquin—got his own Best Supporting Actor nod in 2001's Gladiator. Since no other pair had beaten them to the punch, the brothers hold the record.

But neither clinched the actual Oscar with their first nominations. Joaquin lost to Benicio Del Toro for Traffic, and Kevin Kline’s performance in A Fish Called Wanda earned him the award over the elder Phoenix. There weren’t any hard feelings, though. “I enjoyed the company and I was so glad that I didn’t win. Phew ... relief," Phoenix said in an interview. "Kevin is much more deserving."

It should be noted that River's younger brother has since gone on to earn three more Oscar nods, all for Best Actor—for Walk the Line (2005), The Master (2012), and The Joker (2019). He won his first statuette earlier this year for his role as Arthur Fleck, the soon-to-be Batman villain.

6. River Phoenix was passionate about animal rights.

Phoenix and his siblings had sworn off animal products (including leather) as kids, and he used his platform as a celebrity vegan to advocate for animal rights years before meat-free diets were common. “We’re bombarded from … whenever you start school with this sort of propaganda that if you don’t eat your milk and your eggs and your chicken and your fish and your meat, then, well, you’ll just die and you won’t grow up to be big and strong like your grandfather,” Phoenix said during an appearance on The Phil Donahue Show. He was a spokesperson for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), and the organization founded the annual River Phoenix Humanitarian Award in 2015 with his family’s support.

Phoenix also dedicated himself to environmental activism. To celebrate Earth Day in 1990, for example, he penned an essay for Seventeen that summarized pressing issues—like the greenhouse effect, rainforest destruction, and rising garbage levels—and suggested ways for readers to get involved. “The many recent devastating floods, landslides, and weather changes show the Earth's pain and how out of the balance our ecosystem has become,” Phoenix wrote. “At this point, not only have we polluted the Earth we live on, the waters we drink and swim in, and the air we breathe, but we have even altered the atmosphere itself. We are now in a global emergency.”

7. River Phoenix invested in the original House of Blues.

Phoenix didn’t give up music after his busking days were over. In 1987, he formed a band called Aleka’s Attic with sister Rain, drummer Josh Greenbaum, and a few other friends. They never released an album, but they went on several tours. According to Greenbaum, Phoenix often said that music was his “first love,” while acting was just his day job.

Before the House of Blues became a mega-successful chain of music venues, it was a single nightclub that The Blues Brothers star Dan Aykroyd opened in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1992 as “a temple to the blues.” Among its original investors were the Eagles’ Joe Walsh, actor John Candy, and River Phoenix, who had appeared with Aykroyd in 1992's Sneakers.

8. The Viper Room shut down temporarily after River Phoenix’s death.

The legendary Viper Room on the Sunset Strip.Mike Dillon, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

In the early morning hours of October 31, 1993, Phoenix collapsed outside The Viper Room, a Los Angeles nightclub frequented by voguish young actors and musicians. Joaquin, who was with his brother, called 911 while sister Rain performed CPR, but to no avail—their oldest brother died from what was later ruled an accidental overdose of cocaine, heroin, and other drugs. Though some of his friends and contemporaries had known Phoenix was struggling with drugs, the news shocked many who knew him simply as Hollywood’s brightest up-and-comer (and a clean-eating, clean-living one, at that).

The Viper Room remained closed for several days after his death, and its answering machine greeted any callers with this message: “With much respect to River and his family, The Viper Room is temporarily closed. Thank you.”

9. River Phoenix was supposed to play Daniel Molloy in Interview With the Vampire.

Phoenix died before production had started on his next film, the 1994 adaptation of Anne Rice’s novel Interview With the Vampire, so the role of young reporter Daniel Molloy went to Christian Slater. "That was so tragic, and it was really awkward to be stepping into that kind of scenario,” Slater said in a 2008 interview for Venice Magazine. "But I think I eased my own discomfort by not accepting money for it and donating my salary to his charities."

10. River Phoenix's final film was released nearly 20 years after his death.

Production had begun on Dark Blood, however, a gritty thriller in which Phoenix’s character, consumed with grief and convinced the apocalypse is near, holds an unsuspecting couple hostage in the desert. While most of Phoenix’s scenes had already been filmed when he died, director George Sluizer decided not to try to finish it without him. Ultimately, it was a near-death experience for Sluizer—an aneurysm—that inspired him to return to the film about 15 years later, and he filled the missing scenes with his own recorded descriptions of what should have been there. The film was released in 2012, though Phoenix’s family made it clear that they didn’t endorse it.

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Wa Wa Wee Wa: The Origin of Borat's Favorite Catchphrase

Wa wa wee wa! Sacha Baron Cohen is back in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2020).
Wa wa wee wa! Sacha Baron Cohen is back in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2020).
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

When Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan was released in 2006, a new audience was exposed to Borat Sagdiyev, a “journalist” portrayed by Sacha Baron Cohen who had made frequent appearances on the comedian’s Da Ali G Show.

Soon, in our country there was problem: People mimicked Borat’s catchphrases, "very nice" and “wa wa wee wa,” incessantly. The latter phrase was used to denote surprise or happiness on Borat’s part. While some may have assumed it was made up, it turns out that it actually means something.

Wa wa wee wa is Hebrew, which Cohen speaks throughout the film and which helped make Borat a hit in Israel. (Cohen is himself Jewish.) It was taken from an Israeli comedy show and is the equivalent of the word wow. Reportedly, the expression was popular among Israelis, and they appreciated Cohen’s use of it.

The original Borat also sees Cohen singing a popular Hebrew folk song, “Koom Bachur Atzel,” or “get up lazy boy,” among other Hebrew mentions. It remains to be seen how much of it he’ll be speaking in the sequel, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. It premieres on Amazon Prime Friday, October 23.

[h/t The Los Angeles Times]