In "Stand By Me," he plays a rough-hewn kid whose inner kindness makes him a leader among his friends. In "Running on Empty," he plays a piano prodigy with a chance to attend Juilliard but whose anti-war parents are on the lam for the long-ago bombing of a napalm lab. And in "My Own Private Idaho," he plays a young street hustler, struggling to find his way in an uncaring world.
The first, directed by Rob Reiner, is considered a classic coming-of-age tale of boys growing up in a small town. The second won River Phoenix, at age 19, a Best Supporting Actor nomination from the Academy Awards.
The third remains a critically lauded high point among his 14 films — one that earned him national accolades as Best Actor from the National Society of Film Critics and the Independent Spirit Awards.
Today, those films and others, including roles with Harrison Ford in "The Mosquito Coast" (1986), Sidney Poitier in "Little Nikita" (1988) and Robert Redford among others in "Sneakers" (1992), remain accessible testaments to his accomplishments and acclaim as an actor.
On the 20th anniversary of his death, at age 23 on Oct. 31, 1993, they don't tell the fuller story of a life whose palette of multi-colored hues transcended the silver screen. Phoenix's legacy includes a young life lived beyond the screen with care and concern for others, and involvement in a variety of issues from environmental concerns to human and animal rights.
Such a legacy is one reason his mother, Heart Phoenix, and others began the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding in 2011, a Gainesville-based entity that offers educational opportunities to teach and advance non-violent solutions to conflict, whether bullying in schools or general violence in society.
Heart Phoenix describes her son's ability to see beyond other's outward mistakes or behavior as "one of the most important qualities that he had."
"He could see who people really were, beyond their mistakes or beyond their behavior," she says. "That's kind of what the center is all about, and that's why I feel we have the success we have, because we work in the juvenile justice system. We work with people that have problems. And we don't really look at the problems, we look at the potential."
Potential was something Heart Phoenix's eldest son showed at a very early age. The Phoenix family, which along with Heart and River included her former husband, John Lee, and River's siblings, Rain, Joaquin, Liberty and Summer, were involved in activism and missionary work, moving throughout the United States and to other countries including Venezuela in South America.
From an early age, River showed an ability and talent for music — something that would become a lifelong passion after he taught himself to play guitar at the age of 4.
"As a family, it was part of our life," Heart Phoenix says about music and singing. "But he clearly just jumped on it."
By the time River was 5 and sister Rain was 3, the two began singing for others.
"He and his sister used to enter talent contests. And they would win; they were so talented," she says.
After the family moved to Los Angeles, River, Rain and the other children sang on street corners and began to draw crowds.
"He always loved music, so he always continued singing; all the kids," Heart says. "They'd sing on the streets in Hollywood. They would just practice and sing."
River's talent for music helped pave the way for his acting career; the children's musical performances drew the attention of casting directors. And one of River's earlier appearances in front of a camera was for a TV commercial related to music — in this case, a guitar commercial, when River was 10, Heart says. "It had to be something we believed in. We didn't eat junk food, we didn't eat meat, we didn't eat animal fat, and we didn't drink milk. So it had to be something like a guitar commercial that they would do, because we wouldn't do just any commercials."
Following the commercial, River auditioned for — and won — a role in the CBS TV series, "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," which featured the performers, including River, in musical numbers from 1982 to 1983. River won a Young Artist Award for Best Young Actor in a Drama Series for his work on the show in 1984.
Roles in feature films soon followed for River: First in "Explorers," Joe Dante's sci-fi fantasy in 1985, and then in "Stand By Me," directed by Rob Reiner.
In 1987, the family moved to Florida and established a permanent home in the Gainesville area, when River was 17.
"My parents lived in South Florida, and we loved warm weather and we didn't want to live in L.A.," Heart Phoenix says. "The air was not so good, it was crowded, and it just didn't feel great."
After the family moved to Gainesville, River formed the rock band Aleka's Attic with his sister, Rain, and others. The group, for which River sang, played guitar and wrote material, performed a number of times in the Gainesville area including at the Hardback Cafe in the Sun Center.
"His music was very ethereal, his lyrics were very intellectual and very colorful," says Joseph Saccocci, a Gainesville musician and friend of River's who, at River's request, recorded the performances to have a record of such shows and possibly incorporate some of the musical ideas later in a studio. "I thought his musical phrasing, the way he would put a song together, was extremely ahead of his time and very sophisticated."
Among the band's higher-profile appearances was performing during a presidential campaign rally for Bill Clinton and Al Gore at the University of Florida campus in October 1992.
The performance was just one of many benefit or activist shows that Aleka's Attic participated in, Heart Phoenix says.
"They always did these kinds of benefit shows, for activism or meaningful events. He did 800-people shows to save America's forests. So he was always available and wanted to use his gifts and talents for reasons," Heart says.
And River remained committed to his activism throughout his film career and while playing with the band, she says.
In 1993, River established the nonprofit organization, Eco-Rica Preservation Inc., and some of that group's leftover seed money would later be used to help start the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding in 2011.
"When Robert Redford was rising up as an activist, River was rising up as a kid, and he took it steps further," Heart says. "I don't think anybody ever heard of the word 'vegan' until River came along."
While Aleka's Attic never released a full album while the band was active, some of its songs were included on a PETA benefit album and soundtrack: "Tame Yourself," released in 1991, which included the band's song, "Across the Way." And the soundtrack for River's acclaimed film, "My Own Private Idaho," included the Aleka's Attic song, "Too Many Colors," also in 1991.
"The thing about his music is it was so far ahead of his time that even today it's timeless," Saccocci says. "You can't define it as 'Oh, that's very '80s or '90s' or 'That sounds like this.' It was as unique as he was as an actor."
On Oct. 31, 1993, during a break in making his final film, "Dark Blood," River died at age 23 in Los Angeles from what an autopsy concluded was an accidental drug-related death due to heart failure.
He had gone to perform at the Hollywood club, The Viper Room. And today Saccocci believes River's sensitivity and passion for his music explains something that isn't widely known and wasn't considered at the time.
In film and music circles, actors trying to cross over into music receive far more scrutiny and skepticism than musicians who crossover into films, Saccocci says. Despite the fact that River had always been a musician, and, in fact, had begun his artistic life as a musician, there was a misconception among some that he was simply an actor trying to crossover into music, Saccocci believes.
River likely felt extra scrutiny and pressure the night he arrived with a guitar to perform in a club full of Hollywood insiders, Saccocci says. "River always felt so much pressure being scrutinized that way, that I think that was probably a reason why he maybe overdid it that night.
"I know he dabbled. But the way it went down ... people think he was a lot more involved in drugs than he was. I think that was an isolated incident that night because of the drugs and the pressure."
The year after Phoenix died, Saccocci built a wooden bridge over a river at Kanapaha Botanical Gardens in Phoenix's honor. A plaque on the bridge read "In loving memory of River Phoenix." The bridge lasted about five years before it had to be replaced with a metal bridge, said Don Goodman, who was then director of the gardens.
Twenty years after her son's death, Heart Phoenix points to the person he was and the things he stood for, and how his legacy continues in a fitting way today, in part through the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding.
"I'm proud of him," she says. "As a mother and as a friend, what I loved and what I think is his legacy is his generosity of spirit, and his kindness and his authenticity; the way that he treated people.