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River Phoenix's Family Remained Unaware of His Imminent Death until It Was Too Late

Edduin Carvajal
Oct 06, 2021
11:20 A.M.

River Phoenix sadly passed away in his early 20s, but he told his friends he was not feeling good shortly before dying. When they paid attention to him, it was already too late.

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Joaquin Phoenix's older brother, River Phoenix, was a promising actor and musician whose life was cut short due to a drug overdose. Here's what River did in his final 24 hours.

River Phoenix in his 20s and and River with Joaquin Phoenix as kids | Photo: Getty Images

River Phoenix in his 20s and and River with Joaquin Phoenix as kids | Photo: Getty Images

HIS LAST SCENE

Born in August 1970, River spent his last weeks alive doing what most people loved him for: acting. He started working in the film "Dark Blood" in 1993 and stayed sober during the two months of filming.

However, director George Sluizer noticed a difference in River's behavior on October 30, the last day of filming. The young actor had a hard time judging the distance, was walking strangely, and sat in a chair without standing up for about one hour.

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He admitted that it was obvious the star of his film had taken drugs the previous night. River had been trying to kick his drug addiction for some time, and according to friend Matt Ebert, he was in "bad shape" at the time.

Joaquin and River Phoenix in Los Angeles, California, circa 1985 | Photo: Getty Images

Joaquin and River Phoenix in Los Angeles, California, circa 1985 | Photo: Getty Images

Although the actor was committed to complete the project, he was not physically ready to do so due to the pressure of the role and his detox attempt. Ebert added that it was a "difficult" time for River.

One of the people who put even more pressure on River while working on the movie was his co-star Judy Davis, who seemed determined to mess with their scenes together.

Sluizer pointed out that Davis was "very difficult" to work with as she would whisper instead of talk and chose not to help even when she could. River complained about working with her several times, but they still needed to complete the film.

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In the final hours that River spent on set, he shot a love scene with Davis. When it was over, and the lights were out, he stood still in front of some candles that were part of the set.

According to cinematographer Ed Lachman, it was like River was in a church. He then approached the camera and stayed there for a few seconds before it was turned off.

[River] found heroin and cocaine in powder form and took both.

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HIS FINAL PARTY

River eventually left the set emotionally drained, but hours later, he and some friends and family — including brother Joaquin, sister Rain, and girlfriend Samantha Mathis — started drinking and partying in his hotel room.

At that time, River showed no signs of the stress he faced earlier on set. He also wanted to stay away from drugs as later that night, he was supposed to play at The Viper Room with Red Hot Chili Peppers' bassist Flea, Johnny Depp's band P, and other musicians.

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Flea and River had been very good friends for about three years, and it was after meeting the bassist that River's drug issues spiraled out of control.

He tried to get clean for good several times, but after staying sober for weeks and even months, he would relapse by taking almost as much as he did before.

River's friend Ebert explained that human bodies adapt and increasingly build up a tolerance to drugs. Tolerance levels decrease after not using it for a long time, and the same quantity of drugs needed to get you high before could actually be lethal.

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Back at the Viper Room, Flea had bad news for his friend. Shortly after River, his siblings, and his girlfriend made it to the club (just past midnight), Flea told him he couldn't play that night because there were too many musicians already.

The actor had stayed sober the entire night to prove he was a talented musician and to play with his friend and idol, so when that opportunity slipped through his hands, he was understandably disappointed.

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Joaquin [Phoenix], who had just turned 19, called 911.

River left the stage and started looking for drugs around the club. He found heroin and cocaine in powder form and took both — a combination commonly known as Speedball. Ebert described it as a Russian roulette because if something goes wrong, you die.

According to a different version of the events, River downed a cup of liquid Speedball from a friend without even asking what was in it. Without knowing it, River had taken a "massive overdose."

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A toxicology report showed that he had eight times the lethal amount of cocaine in his system. However, his life could have been saved had he sought help quickly, but he didn't.

HIS DEATH

After taking the drugs, River ran into his friend Bob Forrest, the former frontman of Thelonious Monster, and said he didn't feel good. "I think I'm OD'ing," River told Forrest, but since he walked back into the crowd, Forrest just ignored him.

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River then returned to the booth where his friends and family were drinking, and he was in bad shape. They didn't pay too much attention to him until he started throwing up and passing out a few minutes later.

Joaquin and Rain then took River outside to catch some fresh air, but he started having seizures. It is unclear why, but nobody — his family and friends, the people nearby, and the club included — knew what to do at the time.

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River's then-girlfriend, Samantha Mathis, shared a different version of the story. She said River was in a scuffle with another man, and as soon as a bouncer kicked both of them out of the club, River's seizures began.

Five minutes after that, Joaquin, who had just turned 19, called 911. By the time the ambulance arrived four minutes later, the seizures had stopped. River was still alive, but his heart was compromised and not pumping enough blood.

Although paramedics did everything they could to save him, including performing CPR and giving drugs to reanimate his heart, River was pronounced dead at 1:51 a.m. on October 31, 1993. He was just 23.

Years after his passing, Joaquin revealed that the mourning process was more difficult because of River's fame as people tried to sneak into the family's properties and helicopters kept flying over. Rest in peace.

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