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- January 17, 1994
- Vol. 41
- No. 2
A Drug Overdose Killed River Phoenix Last Halloween, but No One in Hollywood Was Scared Straight
The clinical details of the autopsy performed on River Phoenix by the Los Angeles County coroner's office on Nov. 1 stand in stark contrast to the warm words offered at the memorial service held 18 days later on the Paramount lot in Hollywood. There, mourners such as Sidney Poitier and Rob Reiner recalled a Phoenix who was "extraordinary" and "incandescent." Far more was said about his life and career than his death.
How did the star who lit up the screen in Stand By Me and My Own Private Idaho, and who received an Oscar nomination for Running on Empty, get to be L.A. coroner's case No. 93-10011, a lifeless body containing toxic levels of cocaine and heroin, as well as traces of marijuana and Valium? Actor Johnny Depp, co-owner of the Viper Room, the Sunset Strip club outside which Phoenix collapsed that night, prefers to "get on with life" and not focus on that question. "There's a tragic loss of a very gifted, very sweet, nice young man," Depp told USA Today. But he thought the story of Phoenix's death was being told too often—and that the Viper Room had been unfairly portrayed as a center of the drug trade. "To pinpoint one club or one street," he said, "is really ridiculous."
River's mother, Heart Phoenix, 48, spoke about the loss of her eldest son in The Los Angeles Times. In a letter published Nov. 24 she referred lo River's death as a "safe passage" and added that "friends, coworkers and the rest of our family know that River was not a regular drug user."
No doubt Heart Phoenix was speaking the truth as she believed it. But a grieving mother's remembrance is one thing, the reality of nights on Sunset Strip something else. A number of sources who have spoken to PEOPLE during the past several weeks claimed River Phoenix was more than a dabbler in drugs. And if the actor didn't stand out in his final weeks as someone who desperately needed help, that may be, at least in part, because he blended so perfectly with his surroundings.
In the particular Hollywood subculture that Phoenix came to inhabit, the drugs can be hard and the getting easy. Of course, not every young actor—not even every actor who affects the greasy-haired, pale-faced grunge look—is a substance abuser. But for all the talk about 12-slep programs, macrobiotic diets and holistic health, many of the young and restless in Hollywood are far from clean and sober. Johnny Depp, for one, believes that Hollywood is being unfairly criticized for behavior that is, after all, hardly unique to it. "I just wonder where these people have been," he said. "People overdose on drugs in Utah and Florida and New York City and all over the world." Of course, in a town where a multi-million-dollar film can rest on a single actor's performance, the stakes seem somehow higher. Here, studios can insert clauses in contracts requiring urine screenings for drugs. And Phoenix's death—which appears to have altered the club scene not a whit—serves to demonstrate just how deeply the drug culture is entrenched. In the words of one street graffiti artist, "The real drug of choice in this city is 'More.' "
The Hollywood that many young celebrities inhabit is less a place than an attitude with a geographic center: the roughly 1½-mile stretch of Sunset Boulevard bordered on the west by Bar One and on the east by the Roxbury. The crowds at these clubs are a mixture of the straight and the stoned, the coolly famous and their gawking fans. Some are there to see "Knute," who deals in all the current drugs of choice: cocaine, CHB (a synthetic steroid), Ecstasy, marijuana and even a pure form of heroin, wrapped in pieces of balloon, known as "Body Bag" because, explains the street artist, "that's what they'll take you out in if you use it."
For many, however, the prospect of mingling with real movie and TV stars is intoxicating enough—even if the stars are often pensively sipping club soda or slipping off into private VIP rooms to avoid the crowds. At On the Rox, Charlie Sheen, Julian Lennon and Axl Rose are frequent patrons. Over at the Whiskey in the Sunset Marquis Hotel, red velvet ropes keep out virtually everyone but the famous, among them, Lennon, Mickey Rourke, the Black Crowes.
Shannen Doherty, though she is not counted among the drug crowd, nevertheless appears frequently in any number of places—Babylon, Tatou or Roxbury. These days she is most often accompanied by her husband of three months, Ashley Hamilton, since she and her colleagues from Beverly Hills, 90210—including her once close friend Tori Spelling—are no longer running buddies. Shannen herself has repeatedly landed in the headlines for her bad behavior; Spelling and her current beau, Nick Savalas, have been seen more than once battling publicly at several clubs. But not all club-goers, especially the hyperchic, prefer that kind of college-frat rowdyism.
Just how drug-fueled the Strip is tends to be a matter of opinion. "Look at any club," says Kevin Koffler, coauthor of The New Breed: Actors Coming of Age. "Everybody is tweaked out of their minds." It has been a year since rocker Billy Idol collapsed in GHB-induced convulsions outside the trendy club Tatou and had to be rushed to a hospital. Last month, according to L.A. County fire captain Ray Ribar, who rode with Phoenix from the Viper Room in an ambulance to Cedars-Sinai, yet another prominent musician collapsed from the effects of cocaine and alcohol at another Sunset Strip club—but was revived. Yet Brent Bollhouse, 23, the operating partner at the trendy Moroccan-themed restaurant Babylon, insists that his customers, who include Depp and Christian Slater, are there for food, not drugs. "People don't do drugs here, and if I saw someone smoking a heroin joint, I'd throw them out," he says. Of course, he concedes, "people can lock a bathroom door, and who knows what they do?"
Sometimes, apparently, plenty. According to an L.A. photographer and club-crawler who calls himself Fragwurdig, a well-known young actress recently excused herself from her table at one swank eatery, finally to emerge from the ladies' room acting particularly lively. She soon left the table and disappeared for nearly an hour—until a valet came running into the restaurant. "He said, 'Your friend has passed out,' " recalls the photographer. The actress was found, semiconscious, beneath her car in the parking lot.
River Phoenix, by many accounts, was not a regular part of this scene, but by the end of his life he fit into it as perfectly as he did into any of his film roles. One night last spring, Phoenix who had been referred by friends arrived, barefoot and disheveled, at the door of a British-born 29-year-old actor-model, the pseudonymous Cedric Niles. Niles, who by his own account had been freebasing cocaine for two days, at first didn't recognize the grungy visitor. "He had all this hair hanging over his face," says Niles. "He was wearing those flared-out hippie pants and one of those hooded Mexican shirts."
According to Niles, the two began smoking Phoenix's considerable cocaine stash before heading off, barefoot, down Melrose Avenue in search of a guitar to play. During the next few weeks, the two became doping buddies. One night, Phoenix brought out a thick slack of promotional photos from his final film, The Thing Called Love, and asked Rogers to help him pick the best ones. But the two spent most nights smoking cigarettes, reefer and coke and rambling on about their childhoods and the craft of acting. Phoenix, says Niles, was always concerned that the public would find out he was using drugs. Only callers who knew his secret password—Earl Grey—were put through to his suite at the St. James's Club & Hotel, where Phoenix frequently stayed.
Mostly, Phoenix "would call me because he'd be lonely or sitting around bored," says Niles. "But he'd be too worried to even leave a message. He'd say, 'Hey, is anyone there? Is anyone there? It's...it's....' And then you'd hear a click. He didn't even want to leave his name on my machine. He feared that if [word of his drug use] got out, it would screw his career."
In fact, there had been speculation about Phoenix's drug use for nearly two years. It was on the Portland set of My Own Private Idaho, the story of a band of drug-taking street hustlers and male prostitutes, that rumors first began to circulate that some of the film's actors—Phoenix among them—had begun using heroin. But director Gus Van Sant claimed to have no knowledge of drug use. "I never saw any instance of that on the set," he told Spin magazine. "But you never know."
Actor Corey Feldman, who was convicted on drug charges in 1989 and says he has stayed clean ever since, had heard the same rumors. "Watching clips from the film, and looking at the pictures and interviews with him, and the way that he was talking and the way that he was acting, I presumed it to be true," Feldman told the London-based Sunday Independent. Later, Feldman said, a friend who had worked with Phoenix "told me specific details about his using." When Feldman, who worked with Phoenix on Stand By Me, called to offer his help, though. Phoenix told him that "I'm fine, everything's fine."
At least in certain circles, Phoenix's drug use was an open secret. At Idaho's September 1991 premiere at the Toronto Festival of Festivals, "River got up onstage and muttered a few unintelligible words to the audience," says publicist Liza Herz. "No one knew what he was saying. He was incoherent. He looked unwashed. I thought immediately, 'He's really coked out.' "
In time, Cedric Niles began to suspect that Phoenix was graduating from cocaine and marijuana to heroin. "I think we both were starting to understand that it was getting out of control," Niles says. "We spent our nights trying to laugh, but it wasn't fun for either of us." At one of their last meetings, the two made a pact that they would both sober up. Niles says he has been clean since a few months before Phoenix's death.
Nowadays much of the hip crowd shuns the Viper Room, for fear of brushing up against someone who has come to take a snapshot or lay a plastic flower on the sidewalk where Phoenix fell. "The Viper's no good anymore," explains one club-goer. "Not since River keeled over out front." On one recent Saturday night, a frail young girl sporting the waif look tripped on her way up the stairs leading to the club's main bar area. A bouncer immediately went to the aid of the girl, who asked him, "Do you know where I can get some GHB?"
"They ask me for everything—GHB, coke, you name it," he says in disbelief. "And I'm security."
Beyond rendering the Viper Room uncool, though, Phoenix's death seems to have had little impact on the Sunset scene. True, on Dec. 4, Christina Applegate, who stars on Fox's Married...with Children and was at the Viper Room the night Phoenix died, acted out a somber anti-drug performance piece at a Studio City theater. Against the backdrop of a song titled "Junkie," Applegate writhed onstage to the lyrics: "Master now becomes the slave/You won't command me from the grave/...You're just a junkie."
But the scent of pot still wafts from On the Rox and Saturday Night Fever. And when the users get desperate and the hour gets late, they still head to Crack Town, a seedy, six-square-block section of L.A.'s MacArthur Park just 20 minutes away. There, shabbily dressed street dealers lean into open windows of luxury cars, promising, "Good rock. All you want, bro. All you can smoke."
"The River Phoenix incident is like the January 1st I'm-going-on-a-diet syndrome," says one L.A. club-goer. "It's time for a little introspection. You decide to change your ways." And then, he adds laconically, "you go right back to doing what you always did."
Over at the Rainbow Bar & Grill, Mario Maglieri understands. The silver-haired 70-year-old proprietor, known as the "Gramps of Sunset" after 30 years of running various clubs, has his own well-seasoned perspective. In his time, Maglieri lectured Jim Morrison on the evils of drugs, bought Southern Comfort for Janis Joplin and served a meal to John Belushi several hours before his final overdose. "People have been OD'ing on this street for 30 years, and it ain't about to stop," says Maglieri. "Nothing's really changed here—you're just seeing different faces.
LYNDON STAMBLER, JOHNNY DODD, LORENZO BENET and JOANNA STONE in Los Angeles
- Lyndon Stambler,
- Johnny Dodd,
- Lorenzo Benet,
- Joanna Stone.
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