Drug Overdose Killed Phoenix, Coroner Says
River Phoenix, the promising young actor who collapsed this month outside a West Hollywood nightspot, died from heavy overdoses of cocaine and morphine, the Los Angeles County coroner’s office reported Friday.
Ending nearly two weeks of speculation over the cause of the popular 23-year-old actor’s death, a spokesman for the coroner’s office issued a statement saying toxicology tests showed that Phoenix died of “acute multiple drug intoxication . . . lethal levels of cocaine and morphine.”
“I was told that the cocaine and morphine (levels) were both high enough that either would have been lethal by itself,” said Scott Carrier, public information officer for the coroner’s office.
Carrier said the morphine is “believed to be heroin originally. As the body metabolizes (heroin), it shows up as morphine.” Tests also found lower levels of Valium, marijuana and ephedrine, a substance found in cold medications, Carrier said. No alcohol was detected.
Phoenix’s death has been ruled accidental, he said. The county Sheriff’s Department, which had assigned homicide investigators to the case, also announced Friday that it had concluded its probe of Phoenix’s death.
“The detectives have determined at this point of their investigation that there was no evidence of foul play,” a department spokesman said.
The death stunned fans of the former child actor who shot to teen idol stardom as a rebellious character in the hit 1986 coming-of-age film “Stand By Me.” It shook the entertainment industry and cast a bright, harsh light on the drug-laced Hollywood club scene.
Susan Patricola, a spokeswoman for the actor and his family, said late Friday that “this latest news has deeply sadden his family and friends. His death reminds us that no one is immune from the dangers of recreational drug use.”
Phoenix’s longtime agent, Iris Burton, said she “really had no comment. I’m in the same amount of pain no matter how he died,” she said.
Phoenix suffered seizures, collapsed and was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center early Nov. 1 after being helped out of the Viper Room, a trendy Sunset Strip nightclub. Cedars-Sinai officials said the handsome, boyish star was in full cardiac arrest when he arrived at the hospital, with no pulse or blood pressure.
Phoenix had been “acting strangely” in the club, according to sheriff’s deputies. Authorities were summoned by a frantic 911 emergency call from Joaquin Phoenix, the actor’s brother, in which Joaquin told a dispatcher: “I’m thinking he had Valium or something, I don’t know.”
Speculation was fueled that Phoenix died from a drug overdose by that call and by reports from regulars in the club scene that drugs such as heroin, cocaine, the hallucinogen Ecstasy and a new synthetic steroid dubbed GHB are widely available.
But some friends and colleagues insisted that drug use was inconsistent with Phoenix’s strict vegetarianism and healthful living. Actress Christine Lahti, who worked with Phoenix in the 1988 film “Running on Empty,” recalled Phoenix being “adamant about clean, pure living.”
The mystery was extended when the autopsy after his death failed to establish the cause of death.
As news spread late Friday in the entertainment world and the ugly, official reality set in, friends struggled for explanations. Some began to speak more frankly of suspicions of Phoenix’s troubled side and of putting his “clean living” image in its proper perspective.
“I wouldn’t say that I was shocked,” said actor Corey Feldman, who worked with Phoenix on “Stand By Me” and was himself arrested in 1990 on drug-related charges, spending nine months in a rehabilitation program.
After hearing rumors that Phoenix was using heroin, Feldman said he called his friend last March “feeling around the topic,” but not directly confronting him. “We talked for a while,” Feldman said. “He didn’t sound very good. He just sounded out of it. My first impression was that there was some validity to the rumors, but he never said that.”
Phoenix called back a week later and appeared to be “reaching out,” Feldman said, when he left a taped message saying he appreciated the earlier conversation and hoped that they could get together “as soon as possible.” But the two stars, who had known each other since they were adolescent actors competing against each other for parts, were never able to hook up.
Feldman said he was talking about Phoenix because he wanted to hammer home the devastation of drugs.
“This is a disease that kills everybody,” Feldman said. “Drugs kill, period. . . . You can get lucky and get arrested and have your life destroyed and have to rebuild it. Or the other thing that can happen is what happened to River.”
Patricola, Phoenix’s publicist, said she could not comment on any possible drug use because “I did not see that side.” However, she suggested that Phoenix not eating meat and other animal products was being misread. “It wasn’t about cleaning living . . . that’s not what it was about for him. It was not killing living animals, not killing any living thing,” she said.
Screenwriter Naomi Foner, who wrote “Running On Empty,” a film in which Phoenix earned an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor, said: “I think it’s a tragedy and a terrible waste.
“I think we have to do something about this in our society. There was so much in front of this kid and so much possibility. Hollywood has been lethal to a lot of people--especially young people who don’t have the muscles to handle what’s asked of them.”
Foner spoke with Phoenix’s mother in Gainesville, Fla., before the coroner’s report was released.
“She was quite remarkable,” Foner said. “She seemed to see all this in a larger context, which is helping her to get through it.”
News of the drug overdose came the same evening that Phoenix’s latest film, Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Thing Called Love,” opened exclusively at the Uptown Cinema in Seattle. A small but devoted crowd lined up to see the story of the romantic trials of two aspiring country musicians in Nashville--played by Phoenix and Samantha Mathis, who was with him the night he died.
Karen Kapscady, 24, who works in a Seattle music store, said: “I came out tonight because I’m kind of freaked out about it. . . . It’s like a James Dean of the ‘90s.”
Bill McConnaughey, 29, of Seattle flew to Los Angeles last weekend to take flowers to the spot where Phoenix collapsed.
The news of the overdose did not affect McConnaughey’s view. “I’m just disappointed that he died, period. The reason doesn’t matter.” Carrier, of the coroner’s office, said he did not know how long before the collapse the drugs were taken. Everyone metabolizes drugs at different rates, he said. It also was not clear how the drugs were taken, he said. “We don’t believe (they were) injected. There were no tracks found on his person.” Carrier said the drugs apparently were ingested or inhaled.
Phoenix’s friends have planned a private memorial service Thursday on the Paramount studio lot.
Times correspondents Doug Conner in Seattle and Steve Hochman in Los Angeles contributed to this story. Connell and Hall reported from Los Angeles.