It’s been 20 years since I received one of the most exciting phone calls of my acting career. I had only been in Los Angeles for three years but had already had enough early success to call myself a “working actor” – ok, a “semi-working actor.” Mostly big dumb football player roles on overwritten network sitcoms, with a few residual-generating national television commercials sprinkled in (my first was a Miller Lite spot with Bob Uecker – pretty cool). I stuffed Urkel into a trash can, got tutored by Lisa Rinna, and even helped a couple of likeminded dopplegangers pound on Doogie Howser – trust me, he had it coming! That last one earned me the credit “Gorilla #2.” Life was good – I was working – but the roles were not all that challenging.
So when my agent called and told me that legendary casting director Marion Dougherty had just phoned up and made an offer for me to play a knucklehead Marine in an exciting new Warner Brothers film to be directed by Nancy Savoca, I was on cloud nine, ten, and eleven.
I take inventory a lot. Maybe no more than anyone else, but I think it’s a strength to have a built-in perspective button that you push periodically to not only gauge progress but to connect dots and see how and why opportunities come along. I regularly look back on this gig, this role on what ultimately became not much more than “a little film” called Dogfight. A film the studio would ultimately bury and give minimal publicity/distribution to, but has proven to have legs, gaining steam over the years, possibly even surpassing what is known in movie vernacular as a “cult classic.” I can honestly say I’ve never met anyone that actually saw Dogfight that didn’t like it – and like it a lot.
We shot in Seattle and it was my first glimpse of the Emerald City. What a great town, so many poignant memories. My brother lives there now and recently married a lovely native so there will be many more reasons to stroll Pike Place Market and try my thumbs at salmon catching. To get out on Peuget Sound and marvel at the panorama. His wife is four months pregnant so I will soon have a little one to bounce on my knee and create a whole new batch of nostalgic iphone moments.
But what Seattle will always be for me is a glorious rush of emotionally rich visuals and anecdotes of my first real acting role on a Warner Brothers picture that would star Lili Taylor and River Phoenix.
Nancy Savoca had made a name for herself the year before with a super sweet romantic comedy called True Love (1989), which I immediately rented and adored. She and her husband, producer Richard Guay, would be waiting for me in Seattle.
Lili Taylor had jumped off the screen in Mystic Pizza (1988) and Say Anything (1989). She was a budding star and universally praised as unusually talented and a dream to work with. I would meet her soon in Seattle.
Richard Pannebianco, Mitchell Whitfield, and Anthony Clark had been cast as three of what the script refered to as “The Four Bees,” and they were waiting for me in Seattle too, having arrived earlier for some boot camp acting preparation to be led by the go-to military expert/advisor-turned actor Dale Dye (Band of Brothers, Born on the 4th of July, Saving Private Ryan).
We all flew up to Seattle from Los Angeles, excited to work on this promising new film. We were all in Seattle for one reason. River Phoenix had agreed to be in the picture.
At age 2o, River Phoenix was not only above the title, he was on the extremely short list of actors who could get a film made by signing on the dotted line.
River splashed on the scene in Rob Reiner’s wonderful coming of age film Stand By Me (1986), and then dug in to stay with such films as The Mosquito Coast (’86), Little Nikita (’88), and an Oscar nominated performance in Running On Empty (’88), my personal favorite. What none of us knew during this meteoric and brilliant rise was just how short this talented and vulnerable young actor would stay.
Dogfight is a relatively unconventional love story, part boy meets girl, part coming of age, very somber and ambiguous in its conclusion. The setup of the tale is an apparent Marine tradition (according to screenwriter Bob Comfort) of descending upon a city on leave and commencing to compete with one another on a quest to see which private can hit the streets and persuade the “ugliest” girl to join him for a night of drinks and dancing, eventually to parade the poor girls in front of a panel of judges in what they called a “dogfight.” Sophomoric at best, misogynistic to say the least. To say, however, that the theme of this smart and sensitive film is simply “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is to undercut the lessons that Taylor’s ‘Rose’ and Phoenix’s ‘Birdlace’ learn in their night on the town.
‘Rose’ is a folk song singing anti-war innocent who learns the hard way that boys can have not only bad intentions but can be downright brutal in their objectification of the softer sex. But she’s quick on her feet when the rubber hits the road and not only stands up for herself but champions all of the young gals who have been subjected to the contest. “You are a cruel, heartless, ignorant creep. If I were a man I would beat you to a pulp. Who gave you the right to treat people like this?” Many critics thought Lili Taylor deserved an Oscar nomination for her work in Dogfight. I agreed with them.
Here’s where your trusted reviewer has to admit to being wrong those many years ago. As excited as I was to be working with River, I thought he was miscast as ‘Eddie Birdlace,’ the foul-mouthed, chainsmoking, rough around the edges Marine. I was flat-out wrong.
River was an absolute pleasure to work with and to be around. He bought a banged up Volvo wagon (his weekly per diem matched my weekly salary!) and chauffeured all his fellow “Bees” and me around town when we had days off. He picked up dinner tabs and made life at the Warwick hotel amusing and unpredictable. One night he and his younger brother, then known to all of us as Leaf (now Joaquin), showed up with motorized toy speedboats that we proceeded to take down to the hotel pool and put to the test. If my memory serves, Rob Lowe was in the vicinity (jacuzzi), dating – and eventually marrying – our makeup woman at the time – but I digress.
River was thoughtful and sweet, not an ounce of territorial actor neurosis, a rare quality. He was also pure as the driven snow, a quality that scrambles like an ant down a drain in a stiff rain in Tinseltown.
River Jude Bottom was born in Madras, Oregon to counter-culture parents who moved often, including a stay in Venezuela under the spell of the controversial Church of God cult. It was in South America that River and his younger brother, Leaf, encouraged the family to go vegan after witnessing the way local fishermen treated their prey. Pretty amazing awareness and conviction for children so young. But these were not your average children and this was not your average family.
The Bottoms moved to Los Angeles in 1979 and changed their last name to ‘Phoenix,’ as in the mythical bird that rises up from its own ashes and starts a new beginning.
River’s parents wanted their children in show biz and the family set to making it happen, dropping the kids on the asphalt of west L.A. to sing for their supper and perhaps be discovered…I guess.
I reference all of this (easily found on Wikipedia) not to point fingers, cast blame or dispersion, but to emphasize the point of my tribute to this unique and tragic fallen actor who I have such fond memories of.
River’s story is not just a cautionary tale of the trappings and hedonistic excess of Hollywood and stardom. His story is about abandoning who you are in search of someone you are not. Of peer pressure and the insanity of wanting to belong. Or maybe the gut wrenching insanity of feeling the need to numb the senses once your innocence has been shattered and idealism has taken the far back seat to cynicism.
While I may have been wrong about the choice to cast River Phoenix in Dogfight, his performance in the film is there for all to see and it is solid, I was correct in my estimation that River the young man was a far cry from ‘Birdlace,’ the rank and file soldier. As far as I could tell, although this was not ever a topic of discussion, River was not a Method actor, meaning his acting process did not require him to actually live the experiences and emotions necessary to fill out his character. Personally speaking, the Method is a tough row to hoe, not just for the actor but for the entire crew, not to mention his or her family. Having said that, River’s approach to creating ‘Birdlace’ appeared to be rooted at least partially in the Method. He smoked a lot and at dinner drank a lot. And by “a lot” I mean a couple of glasses of red wine, the transformation so obvious to me, watching him become near cross-eyed from the alcohol while trying to maintain conversations. Never belligerent or rude in the least. Just quickly drunk and void of his usual sweet charm.
Fast forward less than a year later and imagine the same ‘technique’ applied to his character in Gus Van Sant’s disturbing My Own Private Idaho (1991), and it would not take a top flight detective to connect the dots that the amazingly sweet and talented and once ‘oh-so-pure’ River Phoenix was headed for a train wreck.
From accounts I have heard over the past couple of decades, My Own Private Idaho was a party. How could it not be? Based loosely on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, the film centers on a pair of teen runaways turned male prostitutes (Phoenix and Keanu Reeves), and also starred Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), James Russo, and William Richert. The setting, the themes and subject matter, the relationships. If what I witnessed in Seattle a year earlier was any indication of how River the actor was beginning to poison River the man, then this was a project River’s reps should have perhaps had the wisdom to pass on. Easier said than done. I’m not judging here, just playing monday morning quarterback with a heavy heart.
River was so special. Not just a damn good actor, which he was, but a significantly thoughtful and introspectively poetic young man. He loved music and animals. From what I could tell in my short time spent around him, he loved people and might even have loved acting. Hard to tell sometimes if the actors you line up across from in front of the camera or on stage really love what they’re doing. I always give my fellow actors the benefit of the doubt that they enjoy what they’re doing as much as I do, not just the money or the fame, but the process and the craft. I think River loved acting. The camera sure loved him.
My first day on the set with River in the filming of Dogfight was a challenging one. It was my character’s introduction scene and it took place on a military transport bus. So all of the coverage shot within the bus, my closeup and medium shot, as well as those of the “four bees” interviewing me for the “dogfight,” were done in very close quarters as the bus made continuous loops on a remote section of a Washington state highway. Extremely time-consuming, at times painfully uncomfortable, requiring maximum patience from all involved, the camera department and actors in particular. As is always the case on a show or film, the star gets his shots accomplished first (presumably while he/she is fresh, whatever), and then there is a pecking order in terms of the shot list. Suffice it to say, turning the camera around and aiming it at my mug was last on the list and would be executed long after lunch and long after the “fun” of being on that bus had worn off.
Common courtesy among actors is to continue working the scene in character and on point even when you are off camera. Common sense tells us that the bigger star the harder this unwritten rule is to obey.
With naps and phone calls on everyone’s minds, it was pretty clear the “four bees” did not really want to climb back on to that bus to get my coverage. I heard the grumbling, it was obvious, didn’t make me that happy to know I was going to have to play the scene to stand ins, but I was prepared to take my lumps and make it work. But it didn’t go down that way and I’ve never forgotten how it did.
When the vote was put to River whether or not to get back on the bus for a dozen more freeway loops, he didn’t hesitate. Never would have crossed his mind to leave me hanging. It was the right thing to do and he knew it. We were all in it together.
River died of a drug overdose on a cold asphalt sidewalk outside of a nightclub on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, Halloween night, 1993. The cocktail of narcotics found in his blood staggers the mind and are not worth mentioning here cuz it makes me so mad and still so sad.
I have teenaged sons and I am all too aware of the temptations and seductions thrust upon them by mass media, pop culture, and peer pressure. It exists everywhere but certainly is magnified in Los Angeles, a city that far too often fails to live up to its Spanish translation.
But I once knew an Angel named River who danced and sang and acted so magically. His gift was undeniable and his family’s loss unimaginable.
When I really need a River Phoenix fix I pop in Running On Empty and dial up the final scene. Some times I’m Judd Hirsch telling his son to “take your bike out of the back of the truck…and get on it. Yer on your own now, kid – go out there and make a difference.” Other times I’m young River standing speechless, both in awe of the sacrifice and generosity of his parents’ willingness to let him go and also the absolute sadness of being let go. I can’t hear James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” without thinking of that scene.
Not a day goes by when I don’t think about River Phoenix and how he insisted those guys get back on the bus and work off camera for their fellow actor. I like that expression – my fellow actor. I liked River a lot. He was my fellow actor.