real life

"I was in way over my head." The terrifying 45 minutes before River Phoenix's death.

When Samantha Mathis arrived at Johnny Depp‘s LA club the Viper Room on October 30 1993, she thought she was dropping off the siblings of her boyfriend, River Phoenix.

When they arrived, the actor and musician, then just 23 years old, told Mathis he wanted to stay at the West Hollywood nightclub and watch some live music.

Forty five minutes later, he was dead.

The actress went inside with him, and as she walked out of the bathroom, discovered Phoenix was in a fight.

He was kicked out of the nightclub, and began convulsing on the pavement.

Mathis recalls calling 911 and collecting his siblings from inside. Phoenix died at the scene.

Phoenix had allegedly drunk a “speedball” of heroin and cocaine, before a Valium chaser.

“I knew something was wrong that night, something I didn’t understand. I didn’t see anyone doing drugs but he was high in a way that made me feel uncomfortable – I was in way over my head,” Mathis told The Guardian, 25 years after his death.

She added that she only spoke to a therapist about the night, partly because she was so traumatised that she blocked it out.

Mathis had met Phoenix in an LA Club when they were both 19, three years before they were cast together in The Thing Called Love. 

“This sounds incredibly cheesy but I knew I would be with him one day” she told The Guardian.

She said in their final year together, they got their childhood back, spending time in Costa Rica and Florida.


“We just hung out with his siblings and got to be kids,” she told the publication.

Phoenix had a complicated childhood.

He was born in Madras, Oregon, and his parents, a Bronx-born secretary and carpenter, had met in California two years earlier.

When he was just three-years-old, Phoenix’s parents John and Arlyn joined a cult called the Children of God. They believed in sex without boundaries, and Arlyn later said in an interview that Phoenix felt: “They’re disgusting. They’re ruining people’s lives.”

In another interview, the actor said he had been sexually abused when he was four-years-old. The cult was shut down in 1978.

By the time he was 10, Phoenix was a professional actor in LA.

He was best known for his role in Stand by Me when he was just 16-years-old.

Phoenix used his fame for good, desperately attempting to discuss vegetarianism and the environment in every interview he participated in. He was famously clean from drugs, even helping one friend into rehab.

Following his death, Phoenix’s roles in The Basketball Diaries and Total Eclipse were passed on to Leonardo DiCaprio, kickstarting his career.

In a final statement to The Guardian, Mathis reflected on what life would be like if Phoenix was still around.

“I think if River was still here, I think he’d be acting, directing, saving the environment, just living and hanging out. Oh gosh, wouldn’t that be nice?”