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River Phoenix: Remembering the 'Stand by Me' star 20 years on

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 Jerry O'Connell, Corey Feldman, River Phoenix, Wil Wheaton in 'Stand By Me'

© Rex Features / Everett Collection

Jerry O'Connell, Corey Feldman, River Phoenix and Wil Wheaton in 'Stand by Me'



There's a moment of sharp emotional poignancy towards the end of Rob Reiner's beloved coming of age drama Stand by Me. After a summer he'll never forget Gordie (Wil Wheaton) waves goodbye to his friend Chris Chambers, and as the latter strides off, his image fades away from the screen.

It's a scene that cuts deep for anyone who's seen and loves Stand by Me; not only does it foreshadow Chris's untimely death, years later it all draws parallels between the character and the actor who so memorably brought him to life, River Phoenix.

It has been 20 years since Phoenix died tragically outside the Viper Room club in Los Angeles, but his filmography grows all-the-more impressive over time. Phoenix has a spectacular list of collaborations with directors, racking up films with the likes of Joe Dante, Steven Spielberg, Peter Bogdanovich, Gus Van Sant, Sidney Lumet and Peter Weir in his all-too brief 23 years.


Video: River Phoenix films 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade'

His choice of roles also set him apart from many of his contemporaries: Indiana Jones aside, Phoenix predominantly took the indie route, chasing parts that would challenge him and take him out of his comfort zone (although he was frequently drawn to outsiders).

An eclectic mix of country musician (in The Thing Called Love), gay street hustler (My Own Private Idaho) and CIA technician (Sneakers) all on his CV, while he bagged an Oscar nomination at the age of 18 for his part as a troubled teen in Running on Empty.

My Own Private Idaho, Keanu Reeves, River Phoenix

© WENN

Phoenix's career seemed poised to hit the stratosphere, yet his roles show more of an intent to cut his teeth and prove he had the talent to match his matinee idol looks.

This outlook is mirrored somewhat in the early career choices of Leonardo DiCaprio, while you only need to look at the likes of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Franco and Ryan Gosling to see that today's generation of young stars have looked to forge their own path without allowing Hollywood to pigeonhole them.

At the time of his death in 1993, Phoenix had returned to LA to complete interior filming on Dark Blood with George Sluizer (mastermind of brilliant thriller The Vanishing). Phoenix played 'Boy' a young widower living on a nuclear test site who encounters a Hollywood couple (Jonathan Pryce and Judy Davis) after their car breaks down.

The film was never completed, but after years of legal disputes (involving everything from ownership of the negative, to protests from Phoenix's family members) it finally saw the light of day on the film festival circuit earlier this year thanks to the efforts of Sluizer, who's now 81.


Video: 'Dark Blood' trailer

The filmmaker said his own declining health and the chance to pay his respects to his leading man motivated him to complete Dark Blood as best he could with connecting voiceover and still images. It is, as described by Sluizer, a "chair with three legs".

"The fourth leg will always be missing but the chair will be able to stand upright," he said.

"I've got only very fond memories of River," co-star Pryce said. "We spent six weeks together in Utah, all day and every evening. I found him a remarkable young man and I can't believe looking back that he was only 23 at the time. He was a very old head on young shoulders and was absolutely delightful, very committed and serious."

Phoenix, like Chris Chambers, may have faded away too soon but even two decades since his untimely death he's an actor who stays in the memory thanks to some remarkable big screen performances.

Photo gallery - River Phoenix in pictures:

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