Joaquin Phoenix and his family made a life-changing trip to the Century City mall in 1981. It was there that the future star of The Master was spotted busking by top children’s agent Iris Burton. She immediately signed Joaquin (then calling himself Leaf), 7, and his guitar-playing brother, River,
Casting director Jane Jenkins, who put River in Stand by Me and later Joaquin in Parenthood, said she learned the Phoenix family had their own way of doing things after her first call from Burton. “She had this very heavy New York Jewish accent,” recalls Jenkins. “And she says, ‘Honey, they don’t need a fancy-schmancy hotel room. They have a Winnebago. They eat nothing but nuts and berries. And they don’t wear any leather, so no leather belt or shoes. That’s the deal.’ ” Veganism was just one part of the family’s counterculture lifestyle.
A few years earlier, they’d been members of Children of God, a group that was unusual in being both born-again Christian and having a flower power/hippie lifestyle. Joaquin has downplayed the organization’s odder aspects (“My parents were just searching for an alternative way of raising their children,” he said in a 2001 interview), but when the family left COG in 1978, the break was final — and they were broke.
Performing at malls was a financial necessity. Signing with Burton improved the family’s finances when River was cast in CBS’ Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in 1982, but it introduced a faster lifestyle. In 1993 at age 23, River died of an overdose outside The Viper Room.
The call to 911 as he was convulsing, which was repeated endlessly in the news, was made by his brother, who returned to his birth name of Joaquin during the time he took off to grieve.
“River and I would talk about getting old, being in our 50s together, how it’d probably take us that long to get to work together,” he said in 1998. “There was something gorgeous about us being old together. River will be missed — period. I mean now, more than ever, I wish I could talk to him.”