In the Gus Van Sant film My Own Private Idaho, River Phoenix delivers a stunning performance as Mike, one half of a pair of male hustlers living on the streets of Portland. Roaming the city with Scott, played by Keanu Reeves, the two men engage in illegal activity, do illicit drugs, and sell themselves to men and women alike. Mike is gay and in love with Scott. Scott, however, insists that he is not gay. Abandoned as a child, Mike is determined to find his estranged mother, convincing Scott to go on a journey to locate her. The two men travel from Portland to Idaho, and ultimate end up in Italy. As their travels unfold, so does their relationship with one another and they discover more about themselves throughout the process.
Born in Oregon, River Phoenix was an actor, musician, and political activist who tragically passed away at a young age. Describing his parents as “hippie-ish,” Phoenix and his siblings lived much of their early lives in poverty, as their mother and father had joined the Children of God religious movement. Their father had become “Archbishop of Venezuela and the Caribbean,” but the family was offered no financial support of any kind. As a result, River Phoenix would often play music on the street, begging for money from passers-by.
Disillusioned with the church, the family eventually left and took a cargo ship back to the United States. Once in Florida, they officially changed their last name from Bottom to Phoenix, symbolic of their family’s new beginning.
Despite having no formal education at all, River Phoenix pursued acting, taking on commercial roles at the age of 10. His talent was soon recognized and the young actor began getting cast in many Hollywood productions, making River Phoenix the teen sensation of his day.
On October 31, 1993, however, Phoenix tragically died from a drug-related heart attack while attending the Johnny Depp-owned Viper Club to see his friend Flea (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) perform on stage.
A career cut short by drug-induced heart failure, River Phoenix still managed to build an impressive legacy. His earliest film was Explorers, which he starred in at the age of 15. The project led him to the incredible coming of age drama Stand By Me in 1986 and My Own Private Idaho in 1991, a film that won the actor the prestigious Volpi Cup from the Venice Film Festival.
Phoenix managed to appear in 24 films and television shows before his unfortunate passing in 1993. His other film credits include The Mosquito Closet, Running on Empty, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, I Love You to Death, Sneakers, and The Thing Called Love.