River Phoenix was just 23 years old when he collapsed outside of a Los Angeles nightclub and died in 1993
In the early ‘90s, River Phoenix was one of the most in-demand young actors in Hollywood.
Phoenix began acting as a child before landing his breakout role in the 1986 film Stand by Me. Two years later, at 18, he earned Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for his role in Running on Empty. Phoenix continued to make his mark on Hollywood, appearing in films like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), My Own Private Idaho (1991) and Sneakers (1992) — and by October 1993, he had starring roles in Dark Blood and Interview with the Vampire on deck.
But the promising young actor’s career was cut tragically short on Oct. 31, 1993, when Phoenix collapsed outside of the popular West Hollywood nightclub The Viper Room and died from a drug overdose.
On the 30th anniversary of his death in 2023, his mother, Arlyn “Heart” Phoenix, shared a photo of her late son and honored his caring nature. “From the first song he ever wrote at five years old seeing a kid being bullied … He was a voice for the voiceless and had the courage to use his celebrity to make a difference," she wrote.
Phoenix's sister Rain also posted a video tribute to him, saying of her brother, “He cared so deeply about the planet, the animals and all people. He really believed that one person can make a difference."
Here is a look at what happened the night River Phoenix died and the legacy he left behind.
How did River Phoenix die?
Phoenix’s death was ruled a drug overdose by the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office two weeks after he collapsed outside of a nightclub. He was pronounced dead at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
The official toxicology report showed that the Stand by Me actor had “lethal levels of cocaine and morphine” in his system, according to the Los Angeles Times. Scott Carrier, a spokesperson for the coroner’s office, said the morphine was “believed to be heroin originally," noting that as the body metabolizes heroin, it shows up on drug tests as morphine. Additionally, the tests revealed lower levels of Valium, marijuana and ephedrine present at the time of his death.
“I was told that the cocaine and morphine [levels] were both high enough that either would have been lethal by itself,” Carrier told the Los Angeles Times.
Family members and friends originally disputed the notion that drugs had been the cause of Phoenix’s death. Actress Christine Lahti, who worked with Phoenix on Running on Empty, told the Los Angeles Times that “he was so adamant about clean, pure living.” (The actor was a strict vegan who didn’t eat meat, dairy or eggs or wear any leather products.)
Phoenix’s mother, Arlyn “Heart” Phoenix, reiterated the same belief in a letter published in the L.A. Times. She described his death as a “safe passage” and wrote that “friends, co-workers and the rest of our family know that River was not a regular drug user.”
But Phoenix himself knew that addiction did not discriminate. In 1990, after his Stand by Me costar Corey Feldman was arrested for heroin possession, Phoenix said: “It makes you realize drugs aren’t just done by bad guys and sleazebags; it’s a universal disease.”
When did River Phoenix die?
Phoenix was pronounced dead at 1:51 a.m. on Oct. 31, 1993.
After having multiple seizures on the sidewalk outside of The Viper Room, Phoenix was transported by ambulance to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. When he arrived at 1:34 a.m., the actor was in full cardiac arrest without a pulse or blood pressure. Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful, and he was declared dead at the hospital less than 20 minutes after he arrived.
Fire Captain Ray Ribar, who was part of the team of paramedics treating Phoenix, told reporters that his death appeared to be “the classic cocaine overreaction — it just nails some people and stops the heart.”
Where did River Phoenix die?
Though Phoenix was officially pronounced dead at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the actor spent the night of his death at The Viper Room — an L.A. nightclub on the Sunset Strip that was, at the time, co-owned by Johnny Depp.
Phoenix was reportedly at the iconic nightclub to perform with his rock band Aleka’s Attic; the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Depp’s band P were also scheduled to play. Also with Phoenix at the club were his siblings Joaquin Phoenix and Rain Phoenix and his girlfriend Samantha Mathis.
Shortly before 1 a.m., River was in the men’s room, where he began trembling in front of the sink. Fellow clubgoers splashed cold water on his face in an attempt to stop the shuddering. With River still “acting strangely,” per the L.A. Times, Mathis helped him exit the nightclub.
On the sidewalk outside of The Viper Room, River had multiple seizures. “He looked like a fish out of water,” photographer Ron Davis said.
Rain placed her body on top of River to try and stop his seizures. She also attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, according to Entertainment Weekly. Meanwhile, Joaquin called 911. The Joker actor, then 19, told the dispatcher, “I’m thinking he had Valium or something.”
River was then transported by ambulance to Cedars-Sinai, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea accompanied him on the ride to the hospital, according to the L.A. Times.
How old was River Phoenix when he died?
Phoenix was 23 years old at the time of his death.
What were River Phoenix’s last words?
Also present on the night of Phoenix’s death was musician Bob Forrest, a close friend of the actor. In Forrest’s 2013 memoir Running with Monsters, the Celebrity Rehab star shared a detailed account of the final moments of Phoenix’s life.
Forrest wrote that the actor tapped him on the shoulder while Depp’s band was performing and was a “whiter shade of pale.”
“Bob, I don’t feel so good,” Phoenix allegedly told Forrest. “I think I’m OD’ing.”
Forrest offered to take Phoenix home, but the actor declined — claiming he felt better. Shortly after their conversation, Forrest learned Phoenix had collapsed and was seizing on the sidewalk outside of the nightclub.
“I tried to reassure him. ‘I don’t think it’s an OD. You can stand and you can talk,’ ” Forrest recalled. “I still have guilt that I dismissed his worries so casually.”
How did the public react to River Phoenix’s death?
In the days following Phoenix’s death, fans turned the outside of The Viper Room into a temporary shrine for the late actor. Dozens of lit candles and piles of chrysanthemums, tulips, roses and carnations were placed on the sidewalk where Phoenix had collapsed. The words “The Eternal River” were written in blue and gold chalk on the street.
The Viper Room temporarily closed immediately after Phoenix’s death — but it reopened just over a week later, according to the L.A. Times. The club scene in L.A. was reportedly barely affected by Phoenix’s public overdose, with partiers returning to “business as usual” by the next weekend, according to Cliff Cantor, co-owner of the L.A. nightclub Dragonfly.
“The River Phoenix incident is like the January 1st, I’m-going-on-a-diet syndrome,” one L.A. clubgoer told PEOPLE. “It’s time for a little introspection. You decide to change your ways. And then, you go right back to doing what you always did.”
What happened to Dark Blood, the movie River Phoenix was filming when he died?
At the time of his death in 1993, Phoenix was nearing the end of filming Dark Blood — a Dutch thriller film in which Phoenix played a hermit who takes a couple hostage while preparing for the end of the world. According to Variety, Phoenix had about one month of filming left to complete when he died on Oct. 31, 1993.
The film remained incomplete for nearly 20 years following Phoenix’s death. But in 2012, the actor appeared on the big screen once more when director George Sluizer completed Dark Blood. The film was shown at the Netherlands, Berlin and Miami film festivals, according to The Hollywood Reporter, and in 2018 was released on DVD in Germany.
What legacy did River Phoenix leave behind?
During his life, Phoenix was a dedicated activist, championing animal rights and environmentalism. He frequently attended rallies, performed at PETA events and lived a vegan lifestyle — all to support the causes he was passionate about. In 1992, PETA even presented Phoenix with its Humanitarian of the Year Award for his activist work and fundraising efforts.
Phoenix’s family has kept his legacy alive by creating the River Phoenix Humanitarian Award with PETA in 2015. Phoenix’s brother Joaquin, his sisters Summer, Rain and Liberty and his mother Arlyn were all on hand to present the first-ever award to filmmaker Shaun Monson.
“We’re here to present the River Phoenix Humanitarian Award, named after my brother, who from a young age understood that humans, other animals, and our natural world are all connected,” Joaquin said in 2020 when presenting the award again. “He also believed that those with power have a responsibility to protect the most vulnerable among us.”
Phoenix’s legacy also lives on through his family — and a generation of esteemed actors he influenced. In 2020, Joaquin (who has said that River convinced him to return to acting) and his partner Rooney Mara named their son River in honor of the actor’s late brother. And in Hollywood, several accomplished actors — including Leonardo DiCaprio, James Franco and Jared Leto — credit Phoenix as their inspiration.
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