Thursday


The love story that ended in death


River Phoenix and Samantha Mathis. Photo - Shutterstock Image

This Halloween, like every other since 1993, a beautiful blonde woman, now 43, will light a candle in a Hollywood street and read poem in memory of  the love of her life, the golden boy of movies who didn't live long enough to really grow up

Samantha Mathis was by River Phoenix's side when he died in the dim and smoke-filled Viper nightclub in October, 1993. He was 23 and his death, although still mourned by millions, has never been fully explained.

River Phoenix was a one-off, even in Hollywood that capital of eccentricity. He was a fitness freak who ran 12 miles before breakfast, a health addict who refused to take an aspirin for a headache, a teetotaller, vegetarian and non-smoker.

No wonder the movie city was shocked when the golden boy tipped as the new James Dean, died in Samantha Mathis' arms.

He was just 23 and had been in movies since he was 14. He had two Oscar nominations and, it was predicted, a glittering career ahead of him as a superstar.

Already he could command over $1 million a movie and had just finished making The Thing Called Love with the girl who had become the love of his life, 22-year-old Samantha, who he hoped to marry.

River Phoenix had never been short of girlfriends, but Samantha was unlike anyone he'd ever known.

She was bright, beautiful, warm and sympathetic. She was also a natural actress. From the moment they met, River Phoenix was utterly smitten.

"Samantha agreed to do the movie because River was in it," said the picture's director Peter Bogdanovich. "She'd met him a couple of times but she didn't know him.

"But he was crazy about her right away. The chemistry was right and soon they were inseparable. She was a wonderful influence on him."  Samantha played an aspiring singer who falls in love with a country star, played by Phoenix. Soon the intense love-scenes they were playing added spice to the true-life romantic drama which was unfolding.

"Co-stars often get infatuated with each other and then go their separate ways after the movie is wrapped up," said Peter Bogdanovich. "This was something different. River was saying he wanted to marry Samantha. It was a real love story.

"Who could have guessed it would have had such a tragic ending?"

Certainly in the autumn of 1993, River Phoenix, son of hippie parents, had the movie world at his feet. His last two movies had been major box-office hits and he had five more pictures lined up from which he would earn around $10 million. Or so he thought. Indeed when River Phoenix arrived back in Hollywood after location work in Salt Lake City, friends remarked on how positive he was and how well he looked.

It was Sunday, his day off, and he was going to have fun. At 10.30 on Halloween night, River, Samantha and a group of friends including River's brother Leaf and sister Rainbow, arrived at the Viper Club, co-owned by movie star Johnny Depp, and latest haunt of Hollywood's young and beautiful.

They sat at a table near the dance floor and ordered drinks. Suddenly, without warning, River Phoenix became semi-conscious. "Take me outside", he told the distraught Samantha. "I've got to have air."

They were the last words he spoke.

It was just after 1am that River Phoenix was carried out of the Viper Club by Samantha, Leaf and Rainbow. Leaf rang for an ambulance on his mobile phone while Samantha cradled River in her arms.

It took four paramedics five minutes to reach the club and by then River had no pulse and wasn't breathing. Rushed to the Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre a few blocks away, he was declared dead on arrival. A post-mortem confirmed that there was Valium in his system but not in fatal quantities.

Just how River Phoenix died mystified doctors and police. "There's no way of knowing what precipitated his death," said police spokesman Bill Martin. "The police were called in because it was unusual for someone of that age to die like that.

But an investigation ruled out any foul play and a coroner's report found no sign of needle marks on Phoenix's body. It was concluded that if drugs had killed him they had either been inhaled or ingested.
A small private memorial service was held in Hollywood and attended by friends like director Peter Bogdanovich and actress Helen Mirren.

But by then River's ashes had been taken by Samantha and members of the Phoenix family to 800 acres of rain forest he owned on the borders of Panama and Costa Rica.

Samantha Mathis said that she and River had intended to marry the following spring. "I love him and he loved me," she said. "Now he is in the rain forest among the tropical animals and birds he loved and when the time comes I will join him."

She has never married and has had a successful acting career, mainly in TV and the theatre. Last year she starred in the successful TV series Under the Dome. But friends say she has never got over River's death.

Along with millions of fans, she continues to mourn the gentle dreamy young man who seemed so out of place in a cut-throat world.

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