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Right from the beginning, Rio's Attic was going to include a section that would try to piece together the events of River's life before he became Hollywood's hottest young property. Well, if we'd known then how difficult it was going to be, we probably wouldn't have bothered.
There are a number of contradictory stories and disturbing reports with regard to River's early childhood particularly during the time the family spent with the radical religious cult, The Children of God. River once said in an interview that he had lost his virginity when he was four years old. This was however, a statement he later retracted as "a joke." After much deliberation we've decided not to go into too much detail in that area by writing about events that may or may not be true. After all, it does say on the Rio's Attic logo - "Celebrating the life of River Phoenix". On second thoughts though, maybe we should have done. Learning what River went through as a young child might help us to understand his much-troubled later life and allow us all to come to terms with his tragically early death.
Deciding exactly where to begin, however, was a much easier decision to make. It starts in the summer of 1968 when a gardener picks up a twenty-three-year-old hitchhiker while driving along the Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles.
Detesting her monotonous existence as a New York Secretary, Arlyn Dunetz left her job, husband and family and began hitchhiking to California intent on becoming part of the hippie lifestyle. Also hating his life, earning a meagre living as a gardener, John Bottom invited his passenger back home where they talked throughout the night. "We just knew we had similar desires," said Arlyn years later. Quickly falling in love, they took to the open road traveling from commune to commune and were married in a hippie ceremony in 1969.
At the beginning of the summer of 1970 a travelling group including John and his now pregnant wife arrived at Nance Farm on the outskirts of the small town of Metolius, Oregon looking for seasonal work harvesting the local mint crop. This would actually be the venue where River would make his first performance. Arlyn had insisted on a natural birth, a birth that proved to be extremely difficult, lasting three whole days and the entire commune came together to help. To a huge round of applause, River Jude Bottom was born at midday on Sunday, August 23, 1970. He was named River after the "river of life" featured in Hermann Hesse's novel Siddhartha that his parents had been reading and Jude after the Beatles' song Hey Jude. The birth left Arlyn extremely ill for many months and when a cold winter set in, John moved his new family to a warmer California.
The following year, the family turned to the open road and once again travelled from commune to commune encountering hostility from the mainstream world wherever they went. It would be a radical Christian cult, The Children of God, where they would find solace.
Arlyn and John's second child, Rain Joan of Arc, was born when the family moved to the main Children of God commune at Crockett, Texas in 1974. On a rainy day, hence the name, Arlyn again refused medical help and it was John who delivered River's first sister.
During the same year, after progressing up through the hierarchy of The Children of God, John was given the position of Archbishop of Venezuela and the Caribbean. Now fully fledged missionaries, John and Arlyn headed south spending a short time in Mexico before moving on to Puerto Rico with River and Rain in tow. It was here where Joaquin Rafael would be born. Joaquin, the only family member not to have a 'nature' name would change his name to Leaf when he was four.
After spending two years in Puerto Rico the family found themselves in dire financial straits and took to the road once more heading towards South America. They would eventually settle in Caracas, Venezuela where River's second sister Libertad Mariposa (or Liberty Butterfly) was born.
River and Rain would sing songs on street corners to provide food for the family. "A lot of people would gather and listen to us," remembered River years later. "I'd be strumming on a guitar that was taller than me at about a hundred miles an hour - I knew about five chords. We drew hundreds to the plaza who were delighted and charmed by us." Passing out Children of God literature as well, the family who could now speak fluent Spanish continued to recruit many hundreds of new followers to the cult.
Left to fend for themselves because the cult provided no support for its' far-flung missionaries, the family found themselves living in absolute poverty and terrible conditions. "It was disgusting. It was a shack. It had no toilet and was rat-infested," River said years later. John and Arlyn became resentful and disillusioned with The Children of God when as Arlyn described, "The group was being distorted by a leader who was getting very full of power and wealthy. He sought to attract rich disciples through sex. No way."
The family was now forced to move into a dirty beach hut outside the city where River would spend his seventh birthday. "I was never frightened," River remembered. "When you're raised on the road you don't fear these things, you don't question them. When we didn't have enough money, we prayed and ate coconuts we found on the beach." Taking pity on the family a local priest arranged for them to be smuggled home aboard an ocean freighter that was carrying a cargo of Tonka toys to Florida.
"We were stowaways. The crew discovered us halfway home," remembered River. Surprisingly, the crew treated the ragged family as VIP's even throwing a last minute birthday party for Joaquin. "It was a blast," said River as he recalled the children all receiving presents in the form of damaged Tonka toys. Shortly thereafter the Phoenix family arrived at a marina in Englewood, Florida on an old sailing catamaran and stayed there for several weeks. Recalls one local resident living there during that period, "I had no idea who they were at the time, but I can still see the kids paddling on the Intercoastal in a dugout canoe."
The year was now 1978 and Arlyn gave birth to Summer Joy a name that represented the feelings the family felt now they were back in the United States after their ordeal in Venezuela. John returned to working as a gardener but within three months he aggravated an old back injury that left him almost disabled and the family once again found themselves in financial trouble. "Rich kids gave us their old clothes - They were the best clothes we ever had," remembered River.
In the following year of 1979 River and Rain entered talent contests around Florida. At one such event, the Hernando Fiesta, the children brought the audience to their feet singing "You Gotta be a Baby to Get to Heaven." Shortly after this event the family received a letter from Paramount Studios inviting the children for an interview. Recalls River, "They answered, 'Yeah, we'd be happy to see your children. If you're ever out in California by all means look us up, but don't make a special trip'. And so of course, we just threw everything into the old station wagon and drove out to Burbank." So, in their hastily converted camper that had seen much better days, the family took to the open road once more.
It was during the three-thousand-mile journey to Los Angeles that River decided that he would like to become an actor as well as a musician. "I remember we'd roll into gas stations in our beat-up van and I'd tell the attendant, 'I'm going to be an actor!'," said River. His hopes were dashed however when they arrived at the studio for their audition - the Paramount casting executives were not interested in even seeing the children perform and sent them packing. "We were really naïve. I figured I'd play guitar and sing with my sister and we would be on television the next day," said River.
Settling in Los Angeles, Arlyn took a secretarial job with NBC's casting department that helped the family learn where the latest round of auditions were being held. John took to doing odd jobs and River, Rain and now Leaf were once more to be found singing and playing the guitar on street corners. The family was destitute again, being evicted from their apartments every few months for being unable to pay the rent. The fortunes of the family were about to change however when they met a leading Hollywood agent, Iris Burton. "River was the most beautiful child you've ever seen - like a little Elvis," she said.
Now 1980, the first jobs Iris Burton arranged for River were small - his first job was as a warm-up act with his sister Rain for the studio audience of TV show Real Kids. The two children were then brought in front of the cameras for their next job, singing and playing guitar on the children's TV show Fantasy.
Iris Burton also lined up a string of television commercials for River that he approached enthusiastically, at least initially. "The biggest problem was I was terrible for commercials - I couldn't smile on cue. Commercials were too phony for me. It was selling a product, and who owns the product? Are they supporting apartheid? I just didn't like the whole thing, even though it helped us pay the rent. How could I tell anybody to drink cranberry juice? I didn't drink it. I didn't believe what I was saying." River soon refused to have anything more to do with commercials.
It would be finding success at an audition for a remake of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers that got River his big break into show business. "I just leaped five feet into the air. I got all red and freaked out. It was my first television show." The Phoenix family quickly moved to Murphys a small California town to be with River during production.
The show was cancelled after just one season and River went back to auditioning with modest success. Minor roles in TV shows such as Hotel, Family Ties and It's Your Move led to larger parts and high praise for his performances in three TV movies, Celebrity, Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia and Robert Kennedy and His Times. In this drama documentary, River played one of Robert Kennedy's sons starring alongside Jason Bateman and Shannon Doherty.
River's final TV appearance was a major role in Surviving: A Family in Crisis in which he gives an exceptional performance as Philip Brogan, the younger brother of Rick Brogan who enters a suicide pact with his girlfriend. It was during the making of this TV movie that Iris Burton contacted the family to ask River to return to Los Angeles to audition for a science-fiction feature film called Explorers.
This Phoenix was now about to take flight.