River Jude Phoenix (August 23, 1970 - October 31, 1993) was an American actor, most remembered for playing the 13-year-old Indiana in the adventure film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He was also an accomplished guitarist and songwriter.
A dedicated animal rights activist and environmentalist, he was an active member of PETA. He died from a drug overdose when he was just 23.
He was born River Jude Bottom in Oregon, to Arlyn Sharon and John Lee Bottom. His mother was Jewish and his father a lapsed Catholic from California. By the time River was born, his parents had joined the religious cult 'The Children of God'. This group, now known as the 'Family International', was born from the Jesus movement of the late 1960s.
His parents moved to South America, where they worked as missionaries; John Bottom served as the sect's Archbishop of Venezuela. The family adopted the name Phoenix in 1972, after they left the religious group and returned to America.
River had 4 siblings, brother Joaquin and sisters Rain, Summer, and Liberty. He also had a half-sister, Trust, from his father's previous relationship.
His family moved to Los Angeles when he was 9 years old. In order to support his family, River, along with his siblings, used to play popular songs on the streets of Westwood, LA. The children had a natural flair for acting, which earned them several roles in commercials and TV shows.
River taught himself to play the guitar at a very young age, and when he was 17, formed the band Aleka's Attic, with his sister, Rain. The band's first release was "Across the Way". It was released in the album "Tame Yourself", a benefit album for PETA.
Though music was his first love, River started doing commercials to earn money for his family. When he was 12, he got his first break to play a lead role in the American musical television series, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which ran from September 19, 1982, to March 23, 1983.
His younger brother, Joaquin Phoenix, also made a guest appearance in this series. In the next two years, River gave powerful performances in ABC Afterschool Special, It's Your Move, Hotel and the movie, Robert Kennedy & His Times.
Encouraged by his parents to pursue a career in Hollywood, Phoenix's first role was in Joe Dante's Explorers (1985), a science fiction film. He came into public prominence after playing the part of Chris Chambers in the 1986 adventure drama film Stand By Me, directed by Rob Reiner.
He gave performances in movies like The Mosquito Coast (1986), A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988), and Little Nikita (1988).
Phoenix, at the age of 18, was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Supporting Actor category, for his role as Danny Pope in Sidney Lumet's 1988 film, Running on Empty. He also won the Best Supporting Actor award for this film from the National Board of Review.
In the next year, he co-starred with Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where he played the 13-year-old Indiana.
River Phoenix earned critical acclaim for the independent picture, Dogfight (1991), directed by Nancy Savoca. He portrays Eddie Birdlace, a marine who, on his way to Vietnam, falls in love with a young woman. In 1991, he received the Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival for Gus Van Sant's film My Own Private Idaho.
In this film, he plays Mike, a gay street hustler who befriends Scott, also a street hustler, played by Keanu Reeves. The story revolves around the journey that the two friends undertake in search of Mike's mother.
In 1992, he acted in the film Sneakers directed by Phil Alden Robinson. It was an espionage thriller, which also starred Robert Redford and Ben Kingsley. Phoenix plays James Wright, an up-and-coming actor, in Peter Bogdanovich's The Thing Called Love (1993). His last completed picture before his death, it also stars Samantha Mathis and Sandra Bullock.
"If I have some celebrity, I hope I can use it to make a difference. The true social reward is that I can speak my mind and share my thoughts about the environment and civilization itself."
River Jude Phoenix was not only an actor, but he was also an animal rights activist. He used his celebrity status to campaign for animal rights and environmental issues. In 1990, he won PETA's Humanitarian of the Year award, which was given in appreciation for his support.
Though acting consumed most of his time, he continued singing and composing songs. He worked with several musicians, including, John Frusciante, the guitarist of Red Hot Chili Peppers.
River Phoenix once said, "I don't want to die in a car accident. When I die it'll be a glorious day. It'll probably be a waterfall." Phoenix was just 23 when he died from a drug-induced heart failure, on October 31, 1993.
He was supposed to perform onstage at the Viper Room, a popular Hollywood nightclub, with Michael Balzary, the bassist of Red Hot Chili Peppers, the evening before he died. His brother Joaquin, sister Rain, and girlfriend Samantha were by his side at the time of his death.