Last Night at the Viper Room


At 1.51 am on Halloween 1993, Dr Paul Silka at Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre officially pronounced River Jude Phoenix  dead. He was 23. Just over an hour before, at 12.45 am, he had been given a cup of liquid containing a speed ball of cocaine and heroin. Shortly after, he collapsed inside Johnny Depp’s Hollywood club The Viper Room, before being taken outside, convulsing on the sidewalk before his heart stopped. This is where journalist Gavin Edwards begins and ends his compulsive biography, Last Night at the Viper Room, of movie icon River Phoenix, former child star of The Explorers,  Stand By Me, The Mosquito Coast & Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Edwards has researched his subject thoroughly. River Phoenix was the first born child of two hippies who were members of a religious cult called the Children of God. Run by charismatic leader David Brandt Berg, the spiritual cornerstone of the sect was First Corinthians “All things are lawful to us”. Berg encouraged incest and paedophilia, as well as children having sex both with each other and with adults. Actress Rose McGowan was also a member, her parents escaped with her when the cult began to put pressure on their family to experiment with incest.

In a 1991 interview with Details, Phoenix, by then an established actor, was unusually candid:

Q. Is there anything you did at an early age that you wish you had waited for?

A. Yes- make love.

Q. How old were you?

A. Four.

Q. With whom? Another four year old?

A. Kids. But I’ve blocked it out. I was completely celibate from ten to fourteen.

The Phoenix family grew as they travelled Latin America to escape the sect, until there were five children in tow. As a child River’s first language was Spanish, his obsession was the guitar. The family became passionately vegan, and with little money, River and his brothers and sisters would busk in the street, the family’s main source of income. After the family moved to LA to encourage River’s acting career, his mother “brought her kids to audition for the brassy Iris Burton, one of Hollywood’s leading talent agents for children… Burton’s philosophy: Kids are pieces of meat. I’ve never had anything but filet mignon…My kids are the choice meat…She signed up all the Phoenix offspring. “River was the most beautiful child you’ve ever seen, like a little Elvis.”

River was immediately cast for several TV shows and adverts, before being cast in The Explorers directed by Gremlins Helmer Joe Dante and co starring a young Ethan Hawke. Dante mused years later, “River didn’t have a lot of material knowledge of the world because of the way he had been brought up (having undiagnosed dyslexia and barely any formal schooling.) The meaning of things often had to be explained to him.”

Dying before he could dominate 90s Hollywood, leaving roles open for Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Christian Slater, Matt Damon, and Keanu Reeves, who he starred with in Gus Van Sant’s gay hustler movie My Own Private Idaho, Phoenix was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as a gifted young pianist in Running on Empty. By the time he was taking his final breaths outside the Viper Room, he had already signed on to play the Interviewer in Interview With the Vampire. Christian Slater was eventually cast. He donated his salary to EARTH SAVE and EARTH TRUST, two of River Phoenix’s favourite charities.

It is unknown (except to the guilty party) who gave the speed ball to River that Halloween in LA.

Eleven years earlier, comedy superstar John Belushi had died from an overdose while speed balling… Cathy Smith, the woman who provided him with the drugs and helped inject him, ended up pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter and serving fifteen months in prison. But the Phoenix family, and his girlfriend Samantha Mathis, ducked questions from the police department, not wanting to see anyone prosecuted for River’s death by misadventure. “The bottom line was the family didn’t want anyone to go to jail who was participating with River in ingesting the drugs,” said L.A homicide detective sergeant  Mike Lee. “They said if it was an overdose of drugs, then so be it.”

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