Autopsy Reveals Little on Death of River Phoenix
The untimely death of actor River Phoenix remained cloaked in mystery Monday as an autopsy failed to address an anguished statement by the young star’s brother that drugs may have contributed to his collapse, authorities said.
Phoenix, who rose to fame as a teen-age actor in the 1986 coming-of-age film “Stand By Me,” fell into a violent seizure and died early Sunday after collapsing outside a crowded West Hollywood nightclub where a Halloween jam session was in full swing. Officials at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center said he arrived in full cardiac arrest, with no pulse or blood pressure.
In a frantic call to paramedics, Phoenix’s brother, Joaquin, who had helped him out of the club only to watch him collapse on the sidewalk, told a 911 dispatcher that the 23-year-old actor may have ingested “Valium or something,” according to a tape of the call. The TV newsmagazine “Hard Copy,” quoting an anonymous hospital source, reported that cocaine and Valium were detected in a routine blood work-up done in the Cedars-Sinai emergency room.
But officials at the hospital refused to confirm that report, and those who knew Phoenix said the reports were difficult to reconcile with his reputation for clean living and dedicated professionalism.
Phoenix’s publicist, Susan Patricola, who spoke for his family in a prepared statement, said: “We’ve heard these last few days many theories and much speculation surrounding the death of River Phoenix. We may never know why we have lost this extraordinary young talent.
“We, his family and friends would like to remember him as he was: giving, caring, hoping and forever.”
Coroner’s spokesman Scott Carrier said an autopsy performed Monday was “inconclusive as to the cause of death” and offered no clues, except for a lack of blockage of major arteries, which would indicate that he did not die of heart disease or massive stroke. Carrier said further toxicological tests should better address the drug question, but those tests will not be available for at least a week to 10 days.
A Sheriff’s Department spokesman said Phoenix’s death is being investigated by homicide detectives, but declined to elaborate.
The actor’s death has affected at least two films that are in production--"Interview With a Vampire,” which he was scheduled to begin shooting in three weeks, and “Dark Blood,” which Phoenix was in the middle of shooting at the time of his death.
Producers of “Dark Blood” said production has been halted until the insurers and financiers can determine whether the movie should be completed.
“Vampire” co-producer Stephen Woolley said Phoenix’s death “won’t have a huge impact on us as far as completing the movie, but it will have a huge impact on the experience of making the movie.”
Known for his dramatic intensity and his natural acting talent, the boyish blond actor became a teen idol after appearing as a scruffy, cigarette-smoking delinquent in “Stand By Me.” By the time he was 17, he had garnered an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor in Sidney Lumet’s “Running on Empty.”
A strict vegetarian who also would not eat dairy products or wear leather, Phoenix was known for his adamant stand on pure living, colleagues said. In Gainesville, Fla., where the Phoenix family lives and where the actor kept a house, Phoenix was active in environmental causes, appearing in public service announcements for animal rights causes and speaking occasionally at local schools on environmental issues, said Bill DeYoung, arts and entertainment editor at the Gainsville Sun.
“Everybody is in a deep state of shock,” said DeYoung, who described Phoenix as “something of a deep thinker.”
The actor’s grandmother, Marjorie Dunetz of Palm Beach County, Fla., said the family is devastated. “He was such a terrific kid, sweet and lovable. . . . He’s natural,” she said. “He watches his weight. He watches what he eats. He doesn’t eat meat. He’s gentle. It’s a mystery.”
Owners of the Viper Room--the Generation X haunt where he spent his last hours--said Phoenix was not a regular on the circuit of salons, nightclubs and coffeehouses that attract so many other twentysomething stars.
“He doesn’t even live in California, and when he comes out, he sees his friends, but he doesn’t hang out on the scene,” said Brent Bolthouse, a club promoter and owner of the trendy Westside restaurant Babylon.
Regulars on the club scene--most of whom were unwilling to give their names--said drugs are a fact of life on the Westside and Sunset Strip circuit. Among the most popular and readily available drugs, club-goers say, are the hallucinogen Ecstasy, heroin, cocaine and--most recently--the synthetic steroid gamma hydroxybutyrate. GHB, as it’s known, gives a feeling of euphoria and relaxation, but has been linked by the Food and Drug Administration to severe heart and respiratory problems.
One woman, who said she was at the Viper Room on Saturday night, said she saw GHB passed among her friends. But the club’s co-owner countered that if such activity had been going on, he would have stopped it immediately.
“If there was anything like that out in the open going on, the guys who work there would not have allowed it,” said actor and musician Johnny Depp, a part-owner of the club who was on stage performing Saturday night when Phoenix became ill.
Chuck E. Weiss, another musician and part-owner of the club, said: “We don’t condone that kind of behavior at all. You can’t control what people do, but we don’t permit any overt drug using at all. . . . We keep a watchful eye for that kind of stuff.”
Eric Greenspan, Phoenix’s longtime attorney, said he is convinced that the young actor did not abuse drugs. “He didn’t have a drug problem to my knowledge, and I never knew River to be part of the club scene.”
A woman who works in the music business and described herself as a friend of Phoenix said the actor had seemed depressed the night he died. Actress Samantha Mathis, his friend and companion that evening, sent word through her agent that she was too distraught to comment.
A number of people at the club that evening said they noticed a young man obviously ill, but few realized that it was River Phoenix. With his recently darkened hair and casual clothes, Phoenix attracted little attention until about 12:45 a.m., when, according to one patron, he began convulsing in a bathroom.
“My boyfriend went in the bathroom and came out and said: ‘Somebody was in there shaking and someone was splashing water on his face,” recounted the young woman who asked not to be named.
Depp said that he had noticed Phoenix earlier in the evening, but had no idea that the man he saw chatting with his friend Flea--a member of the rock group the Red Hot Chili Peppers--was a celebrity. Depp, who was interviewed at a West Los Angeles location where the movie “Ed Wood” was shooting, said he had met Phoenix only once before at a party in April.
“I came off the stage and was told a friend of Flea’s had some kind of seizure. I walked out the door and saw paramedics working on him,” Depp said. It wasn’t until 3 a.m., he added, that he learned the victim was Phoenix.
Authorities and witnesses said Phoenix collapsed on the sidewalk outside the Viper Room after being helped out of the club by Mathis and his brother.
Capt. Ray Ribar, a county paramedic who worked on the actor, said he appeared to be dead when the ambulance arrived, and “was just flat-line EKG.” He was officially pronounced dead within an hour at Cedars-Sinai.
Times staff writers Claudia Eller, Terry Pristin, Richard Simon and correspondents Steve Hochman and Heidi Siegmund contributed to this article.
* UNWANTED PUBLICITY: Death could attract curiosity-seekers to Viper Room. B1