Oral History: How River Phoenix Became an Actor

by Jack Tewksbury June 13, 2019
Actor River Phoenix, Golden Globe nominee

River Phoenix arrives at the 1989 Golden Globes.

hfpa archives

For over 40 years the HFPA has recorded famous and celebrated actresses, actors and filmmakers. The world's largest collection of its kind - over 10,000  items - is now in the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences Margaret Herrick Library.

In this excerpt from our archives from 1988, Golden Globe nominee River Phoenix - a major talent, gone too soon - talks about growing up in unusual circumstances, and how he ended up on the silver screen.

“My parents dropped out of society from 1978 to 1980. They picked fruit in Oregon and conceived a child—me. They lived in communal situations and traveled in a van with their kids to South  America, where they became involved in Christian missionary work. Later we went to Florida and my mother got a job in a community action agency. My father was doing work refinishing furniture and landscaping. He hurt his back, so he stayed home with us kids and inspired us to start singing together. We had done that a lot in South  America— sing and go to talent shows, win prize after prize. We thought we were going to be the next Jackson Five.

Meanwhile, my mother, who had grown up with Penny Marshall in Brooklyn, wrote her and said ‘I’ve got some wonderful kids who’d be  great performers.’ She wrote back saying ‘Yes, if you come to Los Angeles, we’d like to audition them. But don’t come out solely  for this purpose, because it’s a crazy business.’

Sure enough, we packed our bags and hopped into the old station wagon. I was nine years old at the time and we had a hundred dollars in our pocket, which our grandparents had loaned us. When we arrived in Los Angeles, I started auditioning. I had my first part in a television series when I was eleven, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. And we've been upgrading our life ever since. But isn’t life  all accident?”