River Phoenix Biography

River Phoenix was an American actor, musician, and activist. Check out this biography to know about his childhood, family life, achievements and fun facts about him.

River Phoenix
Quick Facts

Birthday: August 23, 1970

Nationality: American

Famous: Actors American Men

Died At Age: 23

Sun Sign: Leo

Born in: Madras, Oregon, United States

Famous as: Actor

Height: 5'10" (178 cm), 5'10" Males


father: John Lee Bottom

mother: Arlyn Phoenix

siblings: Joaquin Phoenix, Jodean Bottom, Liberty Phoenix, Rain Phoenix, Summer Phoenix

Died on: October 31, 1993

U.S. State: Oregon

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River Phoenix was an American actor, musician, and activist. Born in Oregon, River began his career at the age of ten, appearing in commercials. As a teenager, he played a main role in the science fiction film 'Explorers'. Directed by Joe Dante, the film was much loved by the audience and received a cult status. However it was a commercial failure. A few years later, he played a significant role in the drama film 'Running on Empty', which was directed by Sidney Lumet. Though the film failed to be a commercial success, his performance won him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He also had a huge passion for music. A talented guitar player, he, along with his sister Rain, formed a band named Aleka's Attic. They worked on a self-titled album which was never released due to River's untimely death. As an activist, River was involved with animal rights as well as environmental and political issues. He was an active spokesperson for the organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The young man had a lot to offer to the world but his promising career was cut short by his untimely death at the age of 23. During the time of his death, River was working on the film 'Dark Blood'. The film was eventually released after a period of nearly twenty years.

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River Phoenix
Childhood & Early Life
  • River Jude Phoenix was born on 23rd August 1970 in Madras, Oregon, in the United States to Arlyn Dunetz and John Lee Bottom. He was named after the ‘river of life’ from a spiritual novel by Herman Hesse named ‘Siddhartha’, which was based on the famed Indian ascetic ‘Gautam Buddha’, who founded Buddhism.
  • River was raised in Micanopy, a small town in the state of Florida. He was the eldest of five siblings. The family struggled financially, and sometimes River, along with his sister, used to sing for money on the streets. Because of their poverty, he never received formal schooling.
  • The family soon joined a controversial Christian movement named ‘Children of God’, which stationed them as missionaries in Caracas, Venezuela. However, a few years later, the family developed a strong dislike for the organization due to their unethical activities. Thus they went back to the US, where Arlyn began working for NBC and John as an architect.
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  • River Phoenix initially started appearing in commercials for corporations such as Mitsubishi, Ocean Spray and Saks Fifth Avenue. His first significant work on TV was his role in the TV show ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’, which aired on CBS from September 1982. Though it ran only for a single season, it received a nomination for the Emmy Award.
  • After playing roles in several shows, as well as in TV movies including ‘Celebrity’ and ‘Surviving: A Family in Crisis’, he made his film debut in 1985 in the American sci-fi movie ‘Explorers’. The film was a commercial failure. However, it was loved by the critics.
  • The following year, River played the lead role in the drama film ‘Stand by Me’. Directed by Rob Reiner, the film did well commercially. It was also nominated for several significant awards including an Oscar.
  • He starred in several other films such as ‘The Mosquito Coast’ (1986), ‘A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon’ (1988) and ‘Running on Empty’ (1988). His performance in ‘Running on Empty’ earned him a nomination for an Oscar in early 1989.
  • In 1989 he appeared in the hit movie ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’. The film, which was directed by renowned film director Steven Spielberg, was a huge commercial success and also won an Oscar.
  • In 1991, River Phoenix played the lead role in the film ‘Dogfight’, which was directed by Nancy Savoca. He also played the lead role in the adventure film ‘My Own Private Idaho’ which won him multiple awards. The following year, he played a supporting role in the film ‘Sneakers’ which was directed by Phil Alden Robinson. The film was a commercial hit.
  • The last films in his career were ‘That Thing Called Love’ (1993) and ‘Silent Tongue’ (1993). At the time of his death, he was working on the film ‘Dark Blood’ which was directed by George Sluizer. The film was eventually released in the year 2012, nearly 20 years after the untimely death of Phoenix.
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Major Works
  • ‘Running on Empty,’ a 1988 drama film, which earned River Phoenix a nomination for the Oscar, is undoubtedly one among his major works. Directed by Sidney Lumet, the film also starred Christine Lahti, Judd Hirsch, Martha Plimpton, and Steven Hill. Though the film was appreciated by critics, it was a commercial failure. The story revolved around a fugitive couple on the run from the FBI. It also touched on how their children struggle to escape from the fugitive lifestyle.
  • Another one of River’s significant works was his role in Steven Spielberg’s action-adventure film ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’. The film starred Phoenix in a supporting role, along with actors Harrison Ford, Denholm Elliot, Alison Doody and Julian Glover. The film was the third one of the Indiana Jones franchise. The story takes place in the late 1930s and revolves around the character Indiana Jones who is searching for his father whom the Nazis had kidnapped. The film was a commercial success and won an Oscar.
  • ‘My Own Private Idaho’, another one of River’s successful films, was released in 1991. Directed by Gus Van Sant, the film starred him in the lead role along with actors, such as Keanu Reaves, James Russo and Rodney Harvey. The film, which was about two friends on a journey of personal discovery, was critically acclaimed and received multiple awards. It was also a commercial success. .
Awards & Achievements
  • Due to his unique talents, River Phoenix has been ranked on several lists numerous times. He stood at No. 64 on a ‘Greatest Movie Stars of All Time’ poll, which was conducted by Channel 4 television in the UK. He also stood at No. 86 in ‘Empire’ magazine’s 1997 list of ‘The Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time’.
  • River Phoenix was nominated for an Oscar for his brilliant performance in the movie ‘Running on Empty’.
  • He had won several awards in his career. Some of them were a ‘Young Artist Award’ for ‘Exceptional Performance by a Young Actor’ for his role in the film ‘Explorers’ and an ‘Independent Spirit Award’ for ‘Best Male Lead’ for his role in ‘My Own Private Idaho’.
Personal Life
  • Phoenix had been romantically involved with several women. He had dated Samantha Mantis, Suzanne Solgot, and Martha Plimtpon at different points of time.
  • A lifelong vegan, River is remembered for his contribution to animal rights and environmental issues. He was an active spokesperson for PETA, and in 1992, he also won their Humanitarian award for his fund-raising efforts.
  • Not only he provided financial aid to several environmental organizations such as Earth Save and Earth Trust, but he also bought 800 acres of endangered rainforest in Costa Rica.
Death & Legacy
  • River Phoenix suffered a drug overdose on the morning of October 31, 1993 and collapsed. It was due to a cocktail of drugs he had taken the previous evening. His siblings called the paramedics who immediately arrived on the scene and transported River to Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre, where he was declared dead.
  • His sad and untimely death was mourned by his friends and family, as well as his fans. After the memorial service, his ashes were scattered at the family’s Florida ranch.
  • Despite his untimely death at the young age of 23, he is known as one of the most successful actors of the twentieth century. He also proved to be an inspiration for several stars, such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Dylan O’Brien.

1. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

  (Adventure, Fantasy, Action)

2. Stand by Me (1986)

  (Drama, Adventure)

3. Running on Empty (1988)

  (Drama, Romance, Music, Crime)

4. Dogfight (1991)

  (Drama, Comedy, Romance)

5. My Own Private Idaho (1991)


6. Sneakers (1992)

  (Mystery, Comedy, Crime, Thriller, Drama)

7. The Mosquito Coast (1986)

  (Thriller, Adventure, Drama)

8. Explorers (1985)

  (Comedy, Romance, Sci-Fi, Family, Adventure)

See the events in life of River Phoenix in Chronological Order

How To Cite

Article Title
- River Phoenix Biography
- Editors, TheFamousPeople.com
- TheFamousPeople.com
Last Updated
- August 23, 2017

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