River Phoenix was born River Jude Bottom on August 23, 1970 in Metolius, Oregon. His parents, John Lee Bottom and Arlyn Sharon Dunetz, were members of the Children of God cult. In 1979, the family changed their last name to Phoenix. River said that his first name was a reference to the River of Life in "Siddhartha", a novel by Herman Hesse.
River's family was quite poor and he often worked together with his sister to raise money by performing on the street. His whole family converted to veganism after his four-year-old brother Joaquin convinced the family not to eat meat. River developed a very strong sentiment for animals and even reportedly cried when his girlfriend ordered crab at a restaurant. He also refused to wear leather throughout his life since it came from animals.
In 1985, he was cast in the film "Explorers" alongside Ethan Hawke, portraying a character named Wolfgang Mueller. In the film, he helps his friends to build a circuit board that allows them to fly through space. The film was a minor success, but gave him a foot in Hollywood's door.
In 1986, he gave one of his most memorable performances in "Stand By Me". In the film, he portrays "Chris Chambers", who embarks with his three friends on a journey to find the corpse of a local man killed by a train. During the journey, they learn a lot about each other and themselves.
That year, he also starred in "The Mosquito Coast" portraying a boy who goes with his family to Honduras. Harrison Ford, who plays the father, leads his family to the country, where they buy a small town and build an ice factory that uses technology that he invented. However, they soon run into trouble as the father's authoritarian attitude alienates him from his family.
In 1988, he portrayed a son that tries to find out what he wants to do with his life in "A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon". That year, he also starred in "Little Nikita" with Sidney Poitier. His final film that year, "Running on Empty", contains what many consider his most notable performance. In the film, he portrays a young man whose parents are fugitives on the run after blowing up a napalm factory. He has dutifully followed them from school to school, but after falling in love with a girl and getting admitted to a college of music, he must decide whether to change his life or stay on the run. His performance netted him a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor.
In 1989, he portrayed the young Indiana Jones in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade". In 1991, he starred in Gus Van Sant's "My Own Private Idaho", portraying a narcoleptic street hustler. In the film, he is friends with the wealthy son of the Portland, Oregon mayor, portrayed by Keanu Reeves, and the two embark on a journey to find Mike's mom.
In 1992, River starred in Phil Alden Robinson's "Sneakers" alongside Robert Redford, Dan Akroyd, and Ben Kingsley. In the film, he portrays a young genius hacker who joins a group of other hackers that are paid to evaluate the security of corporate networks. In 1993, he starred in Peter Bogdanovich's "The Thing Called Love", which would end up being his final film. He also started dating his co-star in the film, Samantha Mathis.
On the night of October 30, 1993, River was hanging out in the Viper Room, a Hollywood club owned by Johnny Depp, with some friends when tragedy struck. He was reportedly in the bathroom with a bunch of drug dealers and took a speedball, along with some other drugs. After snorting some Persian Brown (a mixture of methamphetamines and opiates), he became ill and stumbled out of the night club and collapsed on the sidewalk. His brother, Joaquin, and some musicians from the Red Hot Chili Peppers followed him out and tried to help him, but he went into a seizure. After his girlfriend called 911, an ambulance took him to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead on October 31, 1993.