1. Mike Waters in My Own Private Idaho
River Phoenix’s most acclaimed role was as a narcoleptic street hustler vainly searching for his mother. “We got to watch River light himself on fire,” Ethan Hawke said of this role.
2. Indiana Jones in a series reboot
Phoenix winningly played the young Indiana Jones in the prologue to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade—if he had lived, wouldn’t people have wanted to see him as a young swashbuckler? (Anything would have been an improvement on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.)
3. Eddie Birdlace in Dogfight
Phoenix’s most nuanced performance, as a Marine about to ship out to Vietnam in 1963, aching to make a human connection on his one night off in San Francisco.
4. Jack in Titanic
After Phoenix died, Leonardo DiCaprio appeared in two movies that had been attached to him: Total Eclipse and The Basketball Diaries. With similar looks and approaches to their work, DiCaprio in many ways had the career that Phoenix might have: if Phoenix had lived, he would have been competing with DiCaprio for many roles, including the one that made him a global superstar.
5. Colin in The Departed
DiCaprio grew up idolizing Phoenix, but encountered him in person only once, on the last night of Phoenix’s life. If they had become friendly rivals, the acme of that relationship would have been in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed: if Phoenix played Matt Damon’s role of Colin, the doppelganger relationship between the two leads would have only been enhanced.
6. Chris Chambers in Stand By Me
Phoenix’s breakthrough movie was released as he turned sixteen years old: he was riveting as Chris Chambers, a good-hearted kid from the wrong side of the tracks.
7. Charlie Fox in The Mosquito Coast
In this drama about an American family in the South American jungle, the teenage Phoenix showed he was a gifted actor who could command the viewer’s attention, even playing opposite stars such as Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren.
8. An Andy Warhol biopic with Gus Van Sant
Phoenix’s closest artistic collaboration was with Van Sant, the director of My Own Private Idaho. He was slated for a role in Milk, if he had lived—and he even bleached his hair to play Andy Warhol in a biopic that Van Sant never made.
9. Gerry in Gerry
Ideally, Phoenix and Van Sant would have become a longrunning actor/director team, making all sorts of movies, some commercial, some experimental, some both. If he had taken the place of Casey Affleck or Matt Damon in this film (both played characters called “Gerry”), it might have transformed this meandering journey through a desert into a more enduring film.
10. Danny Pope in Running on Empty
In this Sidney Lumet film, Phoenix played a prodigy pianist with secrets: his family are ’60s radicals always on the lam. It earned him his first Academy Award nomination—had he lived, many more would have likely followed.
ABOUT THE BOOK: In Last Night at the Viper Room, bestselling author and journalist Gavin Edwards toggles between the tragic events at the Viper Room in West Hollywood on Halloween 1993 and the story of an extraordinary life. The book is part biography, part cultural history of the 1990s, and part celebration of River Phoenix, a Hollywood icon gone too soon.