River Phoenix and sister Rain performing for money on the streets of Westwood, California, 1982
River, Rain and Abigail B. singing in Cararcas, Venezuela, 1976
. (from New Nation News, Vol. 8, No. 5, page 10.
River Jude Phoenix (1970-08-23 – 1993-10-31, born in Metolius, Oregon) was an American movie actor who spent his early childhood in the Children of God/Family International cult. Noted for the depth, sensitivity, and intelligence that he brought to his roles during his teens, River Phoenix was among the most promising movie actors of his generation when he overdosed on drugs and died on Halloween night, 1993.
He was born River Jude Bottom to Bronx-born Jewish mother Arlyn Sharon Dunetz and Irish-Spanish father John Lee Bottom, who married in 1969. Together they spent several years touring the hippie communes of California, and in 1972 joined the Children of God, taking the Bible names Jochebed and Amram. Though John Bottom was later designated the cult's "Archbishop of Venezuela and the Caribbean", their family received no financial support from the group and lived in poverty. River Phoenix and his siblings often sang and performed on street corners for food.
Arlyn and John eventually grew disillusioned with the Children of God and left in 1977. Arlyn would later tell a journalist that she and her husband were opposed to the cult's practice of Flirty Fishing.
"The group was being distorted by a leader [David Berg] who was getting very full of power and wealthy", she explained. "He sought to attract rich disciples through sex. No way".
Around this time Phoenix's family hit their lowest point financially and were forced to move into a beach hut until a local priest arranged for them to be stowed away on a Florida-bound freighter. The crew discovered the family during the voyage but treated them kindly. Shortly after their arrival in Florida in 1978, the family legally changed its name to Phoenix to commemorate their new lives.
In the following year of 1979, River and sister Rain Phoenix entered various talent contests around Florida. At one such event, the Hernando Fiesta, they brought the audience to their feet singing "You Gotta be a Baby to Go to Heaven", a popular Children of God song of the era. Shortly after this event the family received a letter inviting the children to audition at Hollywood's Paramount studios, but when the family uprooted and drove out to Los Angeles, the Paramount people reneged on the offer. "We were really naïve. I figured I'd play guitar and sing with my sister and we would be on television the next day," River later recounted.
Once again the family was destitute and the children returned to busking for change. Matters improved when agent Iris Burton entered their lives and started finding work for Phoenix in television commercials. Phoenix's first real break came when he won a leading role in the TV series Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. From there, he had significant juvenile roles in several movies and was nominated in 1988, at the age of 17, for an Oscar for best supporting actor for his role in Running on Empty. He met Keanu Reeves while filming I Love You to Death and later went on to star as a narcoleptic street hustler opposite Reeves in Gus van Sant's My Own Private Idaho. His friendship with both Reeves and van Sant continued beyond the movie.
Phoenix died at age 23 (31 October 1993) from a drug overdose outside a Hollywood night club. At the time of his death, Phoenix was acting in the starring role of the movie Dark Blood, which was only completed in 2012. He was cremated in Gainesville, Florida a few days later.
Phoenix has four siblings, a brother, Joaquin (who is also an actor), and three sisters, Rain, Summer (who are actresses) and Liberty.
Sex in the Children of God
In an interview with Details Magazine in November 1991, Phoenix claimed he lost his virginity at age four while in the Children of God. "But I've blocked it out", he continued, "I was completely celibate from 10 to 14".
"I'm glad I did it when I was young", River once said, perhaps trying to justify the incident. "But I didn't want those and different body parts that were in my face to make me perverse when I was older".
Phoenix frequently spoke positively of his childhood and non-traditional upbringing. He rarely talked about the cult, however, once saying angrily, "They're disgusting, they're ruining people's lives".
Family International publications about River Phoenix
In May 1999, The Family International (as the Children of God cult is now known) published a so-called "prophecy interview" with River Phoenix from beyond the grave in an internal magazine for Family teens. Following are excerpts of the "interview" session:
DISCLAIMER: Publications by The Family are archived here for educational purposes. The content is occasionally sexually explicit, offensive or promotive of criminal acts and we collect them to document their existence and wording but do not condone the points of view or activities. Original spelling, grammar, and style have been preserved where possible.
[Q:] You know how everyone was suspecting you and Keanu of being gay. Was it true?
Keanu and I were like close brothers. We did love each other, but not in that way. We both wanted to buck the System. We wanted to get away from the "image" that they tried to give us, the "labels" that they tried to hang on us. We made the mistake of making that movie, My Own Private Idaho. It was very degrading, degenerate. That was the movie I'm the most sorry for, because of the effect it had—not only on my life, as that movie was my downfall—but it also affected others' lives, as we were telling them that it's okay to be gay.
Well, it's not okay!—It's filthy! And that movie was my biggest mistake, for which I'm very sorry! Keanu and I made a decision that we wouldn't speak up against gays, which in itself is saying that it's okay. And I'm sorry for that. But, no, we are not [gays]. We were just very close friends, and I love him very much.
[Q:] I was wondering if you ever thought back to when you were younger, and in the Family. Did you believe anything that people told you about your past?
I was very young when my parents left the Family. It was very confusing for me because they had taught me to love the Lord, and to love Grandpa [David Berg], Papa Lion.—And I did. I loved him very much, and everything the Family stood for. My sister and I would perform on the streets, singing and playing guitar, and we really enjoyed it. We were very happy. It was beautiful. People loved us and we were very fulfilled.
Then suddenly they uprooted us and went back to the System, back to the "Whore," back to America. They started teaching us new things, different things, things that were contrary to what we had learned in the Family. And slowly, slowly we drifted away. Our beliefs changed, our faith changed, and as I got older I started to hear negative things about the Family.
[Q:] If you had a chance to redo it all, would you choose to stay in the Family? [...]
If I had a chance to go back and do it all over, I would stay in the Family, because there is no greater calling on this Earth than to serve the Lord. And there's no greater place to serve the Lord on this Earth than in the Family. So that would be my greatest desire.
- Source: Free Zine 31, pp.4,5 "Dead Men Talking: River Bares All"
9 Our people have got verve & the Spirit & enthusiasm, they've got what it takes! Thank You Lord! They've got a cause! There was a famous movie with a famous youth idol, James Dean, called "Rebel Without a Cause." I guess he became too much of an idol & the Lord let him die in an auto accident. (Maria: We've heard that people have likened River Phoenix to James Dean. They said River Phoenix was the greatest youth actor of this generation.) No kidding! (Maria: We didn't even know that until he died, but then we heard all about him.
10 (River Phoenix had recently started acting in some pretty bad movies. He was making a movie on vampires at the time that he died, & before that he played a Gay hustler in a horrible mixed-up crazy confused movie. And he was into drugs. Apparently he'd just gone off the deep end & the Lord was quite angry with him.)
11 River Phoenix's parents led him astray. They stole him from the Lord & they lost him. They stole him from the Lord, so the Lord took him back. I'm sure they're thinking about it, especially if our folks contact them.
125 The Lord let River Phoenix's body be taken that his spirit might be saved.—1Cor.5:5. River gives a lot of credit to his background & upbringing in the Family in these articles I've been reading about him. This is an excellent example to counteract what our enemies are saying about our kids not being prepared for the outside World. River gives a lot of the credit for his stardom to his rearing & that he had a lot of socialisation, a lot of experience & travel & learning different languages & being in show business‚ etc. It sounded to me like River Phoenix was a pretty good example, a good‚ clean-living kid, & people seemed to be surprised he turned out so well considering his parents were what they considered "bums."
126 Thank God they mentioned the Children of God in those articles every time! In some of them they said we were a "little known group." We're not little known now! Whoever put that in the paper hasn't been reading the news!
127 River Phoenix was too much of a good role model‚ not corrupted or perverted enough, so the Devil had to try to destroy him. That movie "My Own Private Idaho" in which he played a homo hustler was the downfall of River Phoenix. Somebody wanted to destroy him.—The Devil!
128 I wouldn't be surprised if someone deliberately gave him an overdose. All they had to do was put it in his drink, & he came outside the nightclub & had a fit! Well, thank God he's out of that Hollywood scene. He was too good for this World. He kept up a pretty good testimony, his parents too. He always testified he had a very good upbringing in the Children of God.
129 They ought to send these news articles to our lawyers! They're real testimonials. Our enemies say our kids aren't socialised & they're not prepared to do anything in the outside World, but look what a success he was! He was a tremendous success. (Family: He said his upbringing helped him.) Yes. He actually said good words for us. So that ought to shut up some of our enemies who say our kids are totally unprepared for the System or society at large. Boy, he sure managed to adapt to it, he got to be a star in it!
130 Watching that movie "Private Idaho" was one of the most abominable one-&-a-half hours I've spent in a long time! It shows how the Devil can get somebody so screwed up when they backslide.—And that's undoubtedly the price that his parents had to pay for leaving the Family & causing him to backslide. I bet they know it now. They were probably all thrilled with how he was becoming a great star & a good role model, a good boy, making good movies, & then all of a sudden—crash! It reminds me of what Mr. Machowsky said about how that demon Tom led him on to his total disaster.
131 That movie was absolutely the depths of degradation! I never saw a worse movie! That was designed to kill him! It was absolutely the most crazy movie I ever saw; no meaning, no nothing, insane!—Total debauchery‚ vulgar language & a disconnected theme of all kinds of crazy things that had no relationship whatsoever!—And just the worst kind of total horrible perversion of Sodomites & Sodomy! I guess some people don't want to confess they don't even understand it. Yet the sales pitch on the video said, "And perhaps one of his finest performances." Can you imagine that? It was horrible! That explains why the Lord took him. At first he was a good example to other movie people, but they must've gotten him on drugs & dragged him down to the absolute gutter! It was a crazy, insane movie! Horrible!
132 It's too late to pray for him now, he's gone to meet the Lord, but he's going to have to face the Lord in terrible shame. The Word says "shame & everlasting contempt."—Dan.12:2. We'll face Him with everlasting glory, others with everlasting shame. Pitiful! For some time he was a good influence on the movie community & they were praising him, how he was clean living & virtuous. But apparently he must've decided to try drugs, & they literally killed him!
133 Boy oh boy, how horrible! Absolutely horrible! Some of those fits he was having in the movie were too realistic. I think they actually caught him in drug or withdrawal fits. It looked like he was literally having epileptic, demonic fits, with a demon getting ahold of him & shaking him around, writhing & reeling & fainting. I'd recommend that movie to scare any of our backsliders if they've already turned their back on the Lord. Jesus, have mercy on poor River!
74. Poor River Phoenix, the coroner's autopsy said that he had a mixture of cocaine, heroin, marijuana & valium in his body! I just wonder if maybe that rascally crowd he was with had literally doped him up, because he was not known for taking drugs. (Family: They say an experienced drug user would have never taken that combination of drugs, they would have known better.) Yes. I think those Satanic people in Hollywood were deliberately trying to corrupt him, & they kept making him do worse pictures & worse pictures & worse pictures. Finally he made "My Own Private Idaho," which was all about Sodomite male prostitutes & just made you want to puke! The World says that was his greatest picture, can you imagine? That's just like the Devil's people to say that was his greatest picture, the one in which he played a Sodomite!
- Silent Tongue (1994) – Talbot Roe
- Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993) – Pilgrim
- The Thing Called Love (1993) – James Wright
- Dark Blood (1993) (completed 2012) – Boy
- Sneakers (1992) – Carl Arbegast
- Dogfight (1991) – Eddie Birdlace
- My Own Private Idaho (1991) – Mike Waters
- I Love You to Death (1990) – Devo Nod
- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) – Young Indy
- Running on Empty (1988) – Danny Pope/Michael Manfield
- Little Nikita (1988) – Jeff Grant
- A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988) – Jimmy Reardon
- The Mosquito Coast (1986) – Charlie Fox
- Stand by Me (1986) – Chris Chambers
- Explorers (1985) – Wolfgang Müller
- Circle of Violence: A Family Drama (1986) – Chris Benfield
- Surviving (1985) – Philip Brogan
- Robert Kennedy: the Man & His Times (1985) (mini) (Series) – Robert Kennedy Jr.
- Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia (1984) – Brian Ellsworth
- Celebrity (1984) (mini) (Series) – Jeffie
- Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1982) (Series) – Guthrie McFadden
| Award Category
| Best Supporting Actor (nominee)
|| Running on Empty
|| Academy Award
| Best Supporting Actor (nominee)
|| Running on Empty
|| Golden Globe
| Best Supporting Actor (winner)
|| Running on Empty
|| National Board of Review
| Best Actor (nominee)
|| My Own Private Idaho
|| New York Film Critics Circle
| Best Actor (winner)
|| My Own Private Idaho
|| Independent Spirit Award
| Volpi Cup for Best Actor (winner)
|| My Own Private Idaho
|| Venice International Film Festival
- ↑ Dark Blood at the IMDb.
- ↑ Friend, Tad (March 1994). "River, with love and anger". Esquire, 121(3):108-110.