Published October 31, 2013
Today is the 20th anniversary of the untimely death of River Phoenix. The talented actor was only 23 when he died of an overdose on the sidewalk outside The Viper Room, a hip bar owned by Johnny Depp. Acclaimed journalist Gavin Edwards vividly describes Phoenix's unusual upbringing and career in 'Last Night at the Viper Room.' He spoke to FOX411 about the book.
FOX411: What made you want to write a book about River Phoenix?
Gavin Edwards: A long time ago I'd seen a very late night showing of 'My Own Private Idaho' and it just sort of stayed with me like a fever dream. I didn't know that much about his life when I started looking into it. I just always had this vision of a lonely soul.
FOX411: What surprised you about him?
Edwards: I didn't know that much about his childhood. I was not aware that his family had been in a cult. I knew he had a bohemian upbringing. You could tell that from the kids names - River, Leaf, Rain, but I had no idea to the the extent that they were outside society, living in Venezuela, busking for change in the streets.
FOX411: So it's pretty ironic that they go to the modern day version of Sodom and Gomorrah, Hollywood.
Edwards: The industry is particularly awful for children. River acted alongside people like Corey Feldman who came out very damaged. But again and again I heard stores from people that even when he was in awful situations, the best qualities in him would come through. When he was in a contentious situation on a movie set he was the peacemaker. Even in drug situations he wasn't the addict with narrowed eyes saying, 'You're not going to take my stash.' He always showed a generosity of spirit. No matter how bad things got. That's why there was a lot of push and pull for Hollywood with him. It was compelling and awful and even when it was awful he showed his best self.
FOX411: When did his addiction become serious?
Edwards: He was using recreationally at a relatively young age but the turning point everyone seems to feel was on 'My Own Private Idaho.' He went down the rabbit hole of pursuing that character. It was possibly the best thing he ever did but it came at a very high personal cost.
FOX411: When he started convulsing at the Viper Room no one called 911.
Edwards: This is the horrible celebrity drug calculus. 'Can I wake this guy up and walk him around? Maybe he's having a bad half hour and he's going to be fine.' Everyone around him was trying to avoid calling an ambulance because they didn't want to deal with the consequences. He'd been in 'Idaho' but he definitely wanted a more wholesome image. Getting busted for drugs was not in the plan.
FOX411: Did his family ever do an intervention?
Edwards: I think if there was one they haven't talked about it. I think they were in denial about how bad it was and hopeful that it would work itself out.
FOX411: And he was the primary breadwinner for his large family.
Edwards: Yes, I'm sure even if that wasn't consciously coloring their decision you have to wonder on some level if that was how they were approaching it.
Also as vividly at people remember him I think his star has faded a little bit. Going through and finding these gems of movies that nobody ever talks about. He was nominated for an Oscar for 'Running on Empty,' 'Dogfight' is a wonderful film. Culturally we seem to have room in the 90's for one beautiful dead blonde boy and Kurt Cobain ended up getting that slot. I'm hopeful that there will be a River Phoenix renaissance and people will rediscover what he did.