River Phoenix plaque presented to the Madras-Jefferson County Chamber
Metolius-born River Phoenix would have turned 50 on Aug. 23.
At this time in 1993, Phoenix was a young actor with a rocket-pack strapped to his back. "Discovered" while singing on a street corner before he was a teenager, Phoenix had just turned 23 when he died, but he'd already been nominated for an Oscar, had establishing himself as a musician and songwriter, and he was forging an impressive reputation in the fields of combating animal and child abuse.
He was becoming an iconic star for his generation.
Yet, it's often for how he died — of an overdose of a variety of drugs, including morphine and cocaine, in October of that year — that Phoenix is most remembered.
For his fans, though, that bad choice on one night does not diminish his brilliance. They remember him for his stellar youth roles in movies like "Stand by Me," "Dogfight," "A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon," "This Thing Called Love" and "My Own Private Idaho."
By the early 1990s, Phoenix was arguably the most respected, in-demand male actor of his age group. He was a huge star.
His story — from its humble beginning, to enduring poverty, to superstardom to tragic end — is amazing, that of an American legend.
Born to farm workers
Aryln Dunetz and John Lee Bottom had met in California, when Aryln was hitchhiking around the country. The two, both into the counter-culture lifestyle of the late 1960s, married and found work as migrant farmers. In the summer of 1970, they found themselves in Metolius, and Aryln was pregnant. In late August, she had a baby boy, born at the house they were living in. They named him River.
The young family left soon after the baby was born. They would eventually join a cult, the Children of God. The cult would send them to South America. Phoenix would eventually have four siblings, three sisters and one brother: Rain, born in '72, Leaf, (who later changed his name to Joaquin) born in '74, Liberty, in '76, and Summer, in '78.
The young family endured much poverty while living within the cult. In fact, River would play guitar and sing on street corners for money for his family to eat. He would never attend regular school.
In the late 1970s, the family moved in with Aryln's parents, in Florida, and officially changed their name to Phoenix, in recognition of their new beginning, a rebirth, for the family.
While at once the Phoenix kids performed on the street for money to survive, it was playing music on a street corner as siblings that got them "discovered." River was playing guitar and singing with his brother and sisters when famous child-talent scout Iris Burton saw them and eventually signed to represent them. Phoenix got parts in advertisements, then television roles, then in 1984, landed his first movie role, in "Explorers."
In 1986, at age 15, he was cast into the Rob Reiner movie "Stand by Me," which was filmed in Southern Oregon. The movie was a huge hit, remains an iconic film, and Phoenix's performance earned rave reviews.
In 1988, in just his sixth movie, he would earn an Oscar nomination for supporting actor in "Running on Empty."
At 20, he filmed "My Own Private Idaho," with Keanu Reeves. Phoenix played a gay hustler with drug problems. His powerful performance earned him a Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival and the National Society of Film Critics and the Independent Spirit Awards. The movie solidified his place as an edgy, leading man for a generation coming into adulthood in the 1990s.
But being a moving star didn't swallow his life — it allowed him to live it to its fullest.
As his movie star career was taking root, when he was just 17, Phoenix had purchased a ranch for his family in Micanopy, Florida, and also purchased a spread in Costa Rica, largely to protect rain forest country. At that point, the Phoenix family had moved 40 times since decamping from Metolius in 1970.
While other young actors may have been looking to land spots on magazine covers, Phoenix used his new fame to become a powerful advocate for animal rights and environmental causes.
Gone so young
By the time he'd reached 20, and the years shortly after, Phoenix had taken on very edgy roles, several involving drug-addiction. But he was not considered a hard-partying Hollywood star, instead more known for his social cause activism, his talent for music and song-writing — he had a band, Eleka's Attic — and his vegan lifestyle. However, many of the friends he had made, in both the acting and music worlds, were into the drug scene.
While on a break from filming a movie in Utah, Phoenix went to Los Angeles. Along with his girlfriend, Samantha Mathis, and brother and sister, he went to the Viper Room, a nightclub in Hollywood. Mathis later said that Phoenix did not particularly want to go to the club that night, that they were only going to drop off his siblings, but he decided at the last minute to stay when he was asked to perform with the band. The performers on stage included fellow actor-musician Johnny Depp and Red Hot Chili Peppers' bassist Flea.
While there, Phoenix ingested various drugs. He had told a friend at one point that he wasn't feeling well and needed to leave, even said he thought he was having an overdose, but he changed his mind and stayed. Later, according to Mathis, Phoenix got into a scuffle with another man, was told to leave the club, and once outside he collapsed on the sidewalk. His sister, Rain, gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Paramedics were called in but Phoenix was in full cardiac arrest. He was taken to Cedars-Sinai Hospital, but in the early morning hours of Oct. 31, 1993, River Phoenix was pronounced dead.
He had once said acting was like "putting on a Halloween mask," and ironically, he perished on that day.
The wrong narrative
In death, Phoenix became an icon for his generation, as James Dean, who died at age 24 in a car wreck, was for those who were raised in the 1950s.
Upon his death, there was some local reporting about his connection to Metolius, how he was born there "to hippy parents" that had soon departed. The director of the Madras-Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce at the time, Rob Fuller, considered seeking Phoenix family involvement in naming a potential outdoor auditorium in Madras after the actor.
However, the auditorium effort didn't materialize and no other memorial or connection ever took root. There hasn't been a publicized effort from the Metolius community to recognize or enshrine him in any way, that has materialized either.
A primary element blocking local recognition in Metolius or the county seat of Madras? The cause of death, the involvement of drugs, an overdose.
But approximately a year ago, a Pennsylvania woman, Antoinette Marie — who was inspired by Phoenix's life more as a social activist than of his acting — made a sojourn to his birthplace, the small Jefferson County hamlet. There, she stayed at Sweet Virginia's Bed and Breakfast, owned by Tryna Muilenburg. After a long conversation, the two eventually decided to work together to create some tribune to the actor to be showcased in the area of his birth. They wanted to celebrate and honor his amazing life and all he endured as a youth — and all that he achieved — which they contended far outweighed the mistakes made that cost him his life.
Marie is also motivated to "change the narrative" behind Phoneix's death. She contends there were several nefarious circumstances involved the night he died. In the various reports on the night, Phoenix was given a drink that included various drugs. After drinking it, he immediately became very sick. He was eventually ushered out of the club and he collapsed and went into cardiac arrest on the sidewalk.
Along with family and his girlfriend, the people at the club in Phoenix's circle that night included Red Hot Chili Peppers' guitarist John Frusciante, Flea and part-owner of the club, Johnny Depp. In his 2013 book, "The Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind," Gavin Edwards accused Frusciante of giving Phoenix the drink that killed him.
Marie, who says Phoenix "was murdered," contends there was a coverup and that "powerful people" kept the full truth about the evening from emerging.
Marie is a friend of William Richert, a writer and film-maker who produced "A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon," which Phoenix starred in. Richert, a Portland resident, also acted in "My Own Private Idaho" with Phoenix. Phoenix and Richert were good friends, according to Marie, and Richert has been a consistent voice that the overdose was certainly accidental if not forced upon Phoenix. Richert's insight was also a key part of Edwards' book.
Frusciante, recognized as a brilliant rock guitarist but with severe drug problems, and Phoenix were indeed friends, and reportedly partied together often. According to his own Wikipedia page, Frusciante has never publicly commented on circumstances surrounding Phoenix's death.
Phoenix's mental and physical state in late October 1993 is difficult to establish, other than he was reportedly and understandably tired on Oct. 30. He had been filming in Utah steady for weeks before going to Los Angeles for a brief visit, and Marie says Richert told her Phoenix "had been sober for months."
"The narrative that he was a drug addict is not correct," said Marie.
Marie was visiting Richert in Portland when she decided to make the journey to Metolius to see the small town where Phoenix was born, and it was then that she met Muilenburg and that their process of honoring Phoenix began.
Marie arranged to have a plaque made. The plaque includes a photo of Phoenix, notes his place of birth as Metolius (erroneously listed as Madras on Wikipedia and other websites), and under his photo, the plaque lists Activist, Humanitarian, Musician and Actor, in that order.
It notes how Phoenix was indeed a legendary actor, but more importantly, was an impactful humanitarian for such a young age. A strict vegan, he founded a vegan coffee company and stipulated that profits would go to feed homeless people. He was a staunch environmentalist and recycler. He planned to establish a farming community where abused animals and children could go to heal.
The plaque notes Phoenix "... loved with his entire soul, giving every molecule of himself to make this world a better place to live. River's goal was to leave only a footprint. He did not succeed. He left us with so much more; the blueprints on how to help the less fortunate, how to love each other unconditionally, and how to protect this magnificent world we call Earth."
Marie and her mom, Jayne Reese, traveled back to Jefferson County and were here on Aug. 23, which would have been Phoenix's 50th birthday. On Monday, Aug. 24, they were at the Madras-Jefferson County Chamber office presenting the plaque, which will be showcased there.
"I want to change the narrative of him and his last night. He needs to be remembered for his generosity in this world. He is still making a difference even though he is gone," said Marie. "I would someday like to establish a retreat in Metolius, a writer's retreat" where Phoenix's ideals could be celebrated and his spirit could inspire.
Joaquin Phoenix followed in his brother's footsteps to become a great actor in his own right. His many roles have included starring as Johnny Cash in "Walk the Line" and winning a Best Actor Oscar for "The Joker." Joaquin concluded his acceptance speech at the Oscar's by reflecting back on River.
"When he was 17, my brother wrote this lyric. He said, 'Run to the rescue with love and peace will follow.'"
That quote marks the final words on the plaque.
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