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River Phoenix Collapses, Dies; Actor Was 23

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

River Phoenix, who gained fame as a teen-age actor in the film “Stand By Me” and became one of Hollywood’s rising young stars, died early Sunday morning after he suffered seizures and collapsed in front of a trendy West Hollywood nightclub.

The 23-year-old actor was helped out of the Viper Room on the Sunset Strip about 1 a.m. after “acting strangely,” according to Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies. Authorities said the cause of death was unknown pending a coroner’s examination expected today.

Paramedics responded to a 911 emergency call from his distraught brother, Joaquin, who reported that Phoenix was suffering severe seizures and had lost consciousness. Phoenix arrived at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in full cardiac arrest, with no pulse or blood pressure, hospital spokeswoman Peggy Frank Shaff said. She confirmed that a drug test was done as a standard procedure for any young person admitted in that condition. The medical center would release no further information.

The boyishly handsome, blond actor had been working in television since he was a child. It was the 1986 coming-of-age film, “Stand By Me,” that won him critical praise and the status of teen idol to young girls who plastered his pictures on their bedroom walls and traipsed after him in hotel lobbies on movie locations.

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Colleagues who had worked with Phoenix were stunned by the news. Unlike other twenty-something stars branded with bad-boy and bad-girl images, Phoenix was described as the model of good health, clean living, and professional dedication--a cleaned-up ‘90s James Dean. He was known as a vegan, or ultra-vegetarian, who would not eat meat or dairy products or wear leather.

“I drank a Diet Coke once and he was furious with me,” said actress Christine Lahti, who worked with Phoenix in the 1988 film “Running on Empty,” which earned him an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor. “He was so adamant about clean, pure living.”

According to sheriff’s deputies and witnesses, Phoenix spent his last hours at the small music club--which is owned partially by actor and musician Johnny Depp--accompanied by actress Samantha Mathis, 23, and his 19-year-old brother, Joaquin, an actor who is also known as Leaf Phoenix.

Celebrity photographer Ron Davis said he was outside the club when he saw River Phoenix, his hair colored dark, being assisted out the Sunset Boulevard door of the club by Mathis and a young man.

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“They dumped him on the sidewalk on his back and that’s when the seizures started,” Davis said. “Samantha Mathis and this guy, when it first started, they were arguing loudly. The doorman said, ‘Call 911!’ The guy yelled back, ‘He’s fine! He’s fine!’ ”

Davis said he watched in horror. “He was seizuring so badly he looked like a fish out of water,” the photographer said.

Another woman tried to steady Phoenix, Davis said, but no one else tried to help. “People just walked by, no crowd formed,” said Davis, appalled that passersby treated the crisis as nonchalantly as “a Hollywood Halloween freak show.”

Davis said he ran into a nearby liquor store and asked for someone to call 911. He then flagged a passing sheriff’s deputy’s car, Davis said.

When paramedics came and loaded Phoenix onto a gurney, Davis said, the rock musician Flea--bass player for the Red Hot Chili Peppers--ran out of the club. “He came out yelling, ‘I’m going with him! I’m going with him!’ and he rode in the front of the ambulance,” Davis said.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers were scheduled to perform at the Viper Room on Saturday night, as were Depp’s band and Phoenix’s group, according to Davis.

Davis, who frequents Los Angeles clubs shooting pictures, said he had never seen Phoenix on the club circuit. He took no pictures of the incident. “The only thing on my mind was making sure that he lived,” Davis said.

Naomi Foner, who wrote the screenplay for “Running on Empty,” said Phoenix was so committed to his lifestyle that “he turned down lucrative commercials for jeans that had leather pieces on the back pockets.”

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Foner, who had not talked to the actor in nearly two years, said she still felt a deep connection with Phoenix and has stayed in touch with his mother.

“He was a true innocent and a remarkable actor,” said Foner. “His emotions you see on screen are absolutely, totally genuine.”

Phil Alden Robinson, who directed Phoenix in last year’s “Sneakers,” called him terrific to work with and extremely talented. “There are two rivers flowing through him--one is the adventurous young man, and the other is a very old-fashioned, gentlemanly, kind soul,” Robinson said.

The adventure, said Robinson, was in his acting: “He loved to take chances with his work.”

Phoenix’s upbringing had become a nearly legendary part of his press bio. He was born of bohemian ‘60s wanderers, John and Arlyn Phoenix--strict vegetarians who were, at one time, missionaries in South America for Children of God, a controversial Christian sect that now calls itself the Family.

All the Phoenix children were given ethereal names. Associated Press reported that River, who was named after the river of life in the Herman Hesse novel “Siddhartha,” once explained to an interviewer: “I was born in Oregon, my sister, Rain, was born in Texas, my brother, Joaquin Rafael, alias Leaf, was born in Puerto Rico, my other sister, Liberty, is a native of Venezuela, my other sister, Summer, was born in Florida, my mother in the Bronx, N.Y., my father in Fontana, Calif.”

People who worked with him on movies remember Phoenix getting visits from his brother and sisters--most of whom are actors--as well as his mother and grandmother. “His diet was so restricted to healthy meals, his mother would come on the set and whip him up tofu scrambles,” Foner said. The Phoenix family lives in Florida.

“They were a very caring family,” Foner said. “They were a lot like the family in ‘Running on Empty,’ ” the tale of ‘60s-era activists hiding underground. “Maybe not that political, but there was a natural understanding on River’s part of what that family was like.”

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The family issued a statement through Phoenix’s publicist, Sue Patricola, that said: “Our heartfelt thanks goes out to all of you who have been a friend and support to our darling son, brother, grandson and lover, River, who lives on in all our lives. His beauty, gentleness, compassion, vulnerability and love is a gift for all eternity.”

Phoenix, born Aug. 23, 1970, began his acting career at 7 and made the rounds on various television shows. He appeared on the short-lived TV series “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” in 1981. His big break came in 1986, when he played the grubby, cigarette-smoking Chris Chambers in “Stand By Me,” a hit directed by Rob Reiner.

Phoenix was essentially spared the cutesy teen-ager roles that other young actors often draw. Instead, his resume runs across a range of more thoughtful films, including “The Mosquito Coast” and, in 1991, the well-received “My Own Private Idaho,” a story of male prostitutes living in Portland, Ore., which starred Phoenix and Keanu Reeves. His other credits include “Little Nikita” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”

Family spokeswoman Patricola said Phoenix was three weeks away from finishing “Dark Blood” with Judy Davis and Jonathan Pryce. He was to begin filming soon for “Interview with a Vampire,” the planned screen version of Anne Rice’s novel.

Phoenix was also a serious musician who played guitar in a band called Aleka’s Attic. “He loved rock ‘n’ roll,” Robinson said.

The Viper Room, located in a building that until recently housed the Central club, has become a gathering spot for young celebrities and other fans of such rockers as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Pearl Jam, both of whom played there.

Depp, the star of “Edward Scissorhands” and a music star before he became an actor, had just restyled the club in the mode of a vintage Hollywood speak-easy. The opening last August was attended by such celebrities as director Tim Burton, actress Rebecca De Mornay and actor Crispin Glover.

A message on the Viper Room’s phone answering machine Sunday said: “We are madly in love with each other here. Please join us.” The club’s owners could not be reached for comment.

Outside the club at midday Sunday, the only unusual signs were a passel of news cameras and, on a windowsill, offerings of flowers. Later in the day, a young woman left two red roses.

“I heard about it this morning, but I didn’t think it was true,” said the woman, who called herself a friend of Phoenix but declined to give her name. “It’s just unreal though, it’s just so unreal.”

Funeral arrangements were not announced. In lieu of flowers, the family requested that donations be made to Phoenix’s favorite charities: Earth Save in Santa Cruz and Earth Trust in Malibu.

Times staff writers Teresa Ann Willis and Psyche Pascual contributed to this story.


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