Though I hadn’t seen him in over twenty years, I knew I’d miss him forever

I stood in the lobby of the Falcon Theater in Toluca Lake, and looked at Twitter while I waited for the rest of the guys to arrive. The walls were covered with posters from productions like CHiPs: The Musical and It's A Stevie Wonderful Life. Being in a theater during the day, when it's just a building with a stage, instead of the performance space it becomes when an audience fills the seats makes me feel like I'm getting to see The Haunted Mansion with all the lights on, like I'm in a secret place that few people get to see, and I felt an almost imperceptible longing to perform in a play tug gently but insistently at that thing in my being that makes me an actor.

Someone came over and started talking to me. I made polite conversation, but I don't remember what or who we talked about. This was an emotional day for me (though I didn’t know precisely how emotional it would be until later), and while I didn’t want to be rude, I wasn’t in a particularly chatty mood. It was the first time Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell and I would be in the same place since 1986 or 1987. We were technically there to give some interviews to promote Stand By Me’s blu-ray release, but  — for me at least — it was much more than that. It was a reunion.

We made Stand By Me twenty-five years ago. To commemorate the anniversary, a special blu-ray disc has been produced. Among the obligatory special features is a feature-length commentary that Rob Reiner, Corey, and I did together while watching the movie a couple months ago. On that day, I was apprehensive: what would they think of me? Would our memories match up? Would the commentary be entertaining and informative? …who would be the first to talk about River, and how would we all react to it?

It turns out that I had nothing to worry about then. It was a joy to watch the movie with them, and I was especially happy to discover that, after a very troubled life, Corey seems to be doing really well. Rob made me feel like he was a proud father and we were his kids, and when we talked about River, it was … well, private. I’ll leave it at that.

So as I stood there in the lobby, waiting for a familiar face to come through the door, I was happy and looking forward to our reunion without nervousness or apprehension. This stood in marked contrast to all the times I reunited with my friends from TNG when I was younger (my problem, not theirs), and I was grateful for that.

A few minutes later, the door opened, and an incredibly tall, handsome, well-dressed man walked through it.

“Holy crap,” I thought, “Jerry grew up.”

It was such a stupid thought, but there it was. I see Jerry on television all the time, and I knew that he was tall and handsome and only two years younger than me, but I had that strange disconnect in my mind that can only come from not seeing someone for about twenty years and I simultaneously did and did not recognize him.

I was standing near some food on a table, and Jerry walked up to grab a sandwich. As he reached toward the table, we made eye contact.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi, I’m Jerry,” he said, with a friendly smile.

“I’m Wil,” I said, “We worked on this movie together twenty-five years ago.”

In a few seconds that seemed to go on for minutes, I saw him look at me in disbelief, surprise, recognition, and joy. He flashed a smile that lit up the room and wrapped me in a hug.

“Oh my God, dude,” he said, “I can’t believe it’s … wow! You’re — I — Jesus, look at you!”

I smiled back, and strangely noted that my son is taller than him. “Look at you!” I said.

We talked as much as we could, trying to compress two decades into ten minutes, before he had to go to the make-up chair. As he walked away, my brain tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You know, he’s married to Rebecca Romijn. When he’s talking about his wife, that’s who he means.” “I know, brain. I know,” I thought back, “don’t be weird. Be cool, man.” A moment later, Richard Dreyfuss walked into the lobby, followed fairly quickly by Rob and then Corey.

Before I had time to do more than Twitter about how surreal it felt to see them all, we were all gathered together and directed from the lobby into the theater for our first interview. On the way in, I said to Corey, “I feel like there are all these famous, successful people here … and me.”

He laughed and said, “I was thinking exactly the same thing!”

Before I could make a witty zinger, he clarified, “about myself, I mean. Famous people and me, not, like, famous people and you.”

I laughed. “I knew what you meant, man,” I said.

It was the kind of friendly, enjoyable, effortless conversation we couldn’t have when we were younger, and I was glad for it.

There were five chairs set up for us in a semi circle. Our names were on pieces of paper so we knew where to sit. I was between Rob and Corey, and Jerry and Richard sat to Corey’s left. When we all sat down, Rob looked down the row of seats and softly said to me, “it feels like there should be an empty seat here for River.”

People ask me about River all the time. He and I were close during filming, and for about a year or so after filming, but the sad truth is that he got sucked into a lifestyle that I just don’t have room in my life for, and we drifted apart. When he died, I was shocked and horrified, but I wasn’t completely surprised. I didn’t feel a real sense of loss at the time — the River I knew and loved had been gone for a long time at that point — but I felt sad for his family, and angry at the people around him who didn’t do more to help him help himself. Since he died, when I've talked about him, I've felt like I’m talking about the idea of him, instead of the person I knew, if that makes sense.

But when Rob said that to me, with such sadness in his eyes, it was like I’d been punched in the stomach by eighteen years of suppressed grief. I knew that if I tried to say anything, all I would do was cry, and I didn’t know if I’d be able to stop. I took a deep breath, swallowed hard, and nodded. “Yeah,” I whispered.

Later that day, when I’d had time to think about it and was recounting the whole thing to my wife, Anne, I said, “I think that having all of us together — the surviving members of the cast — made me feel like he really wasn’t there for the first time since he died. I don’t mean to be callous or anything like that, but that’s what it took to make his death and his absence a real thing that I could feel, instead of an event that I wasn’t part of but am forced to talk about more often than I’d like.”

I spent much of the next few days remembering all the things we did together during production, thinking about how much I looked up to him and how much I loved his entire family. I don’t know what would have happened to us if he hadn’t overdosed, if he ever would have come back from the edge, or if we would even have had anything in common … but when he was fifteen and I was thirteen, he was my friend. That’s the person I knew, and that’s the person I miss.

We talked about River in the interview, of course, and I think Richard put it best when he said that there is this monster in Hollywood that everyone knows about. It lurks just out of view, and occasionally it reaches up and snatches someone … and it got River.

Richard also talked about why we are actors, and what it means to him to be creative. It was so poetic and inspiring, that almost imperceptible longing to perform in a play I felt in the lobby turned into an overwhelming compulsion. Distracted by the responsibilities of every day life, it’s easy for me to forget why I love and need to perform. It’s easy to forget how satisfying it is to create a character, to discover something magnificent in a script or a scene, and then bring those things to life with other actors in front of an audience.

The entire interview lasted for close to an hour, I guess, and will be edited down to something between three and six minutes. I hope that the producers will cut together something longer, or even run the entire thing online somewhere, because it was one of the rare conversations that I think a lot of people, especially artists, would enjoy listening to.

When all of our interviews were done, I asked Jerry if he’d like to get together when he was on hiatus to have a proper conversation and really catch up on stuff. He said he’d like that, so we traded e-mail addresses. I didn’t expect him to actually want to see me once the glow of seeing each other for the first time in two decades faded, but we’re actually planning it, which delights me. Rob hugged me and made me feel like he was proud of me, and Richard blew me away with the work he’s doing for The Dreyfuss Initiative. 

As I drove home from the theater I was overwhelmed by conflicting emotions. It was wonderful to see those guys again, and especially to reconnect with Jerry, but it was also tremendously sad to truly feel River’s loss for the first time. That turbulent mix of joy and sorrow stayed with me for several days, which is why I haven’t been able to write about it for almost a week.

Most actors will go their entire careers without doing a movie like Stand By Me, or working with a director like Rob Reiner. I got to do both when I was 12. For a long, long time, I felt like I needed to top or equal that, and it wasn’t until I was in my early 30s that I accepted that it’s unlikely to happen — movies like Stand By Me come along once in a generation. 

But getting to spend a few hours remembering the experience with Rob, Jerry, Corey and Richard, free of the burden to prove to them that I was worthy of Stand By Me’s legacy, was something I will cherish for years. I just wish that River was here to enjoy it with us.

176 thoughts on “Though I hadn’t seen him in over twenty years, I knew I’d miss him forever”

  1. sigh. geez. *wipes tears and honks into some tissue*
    i still remember hearing about river dying. it breaks my heart to this day. this story was really touching and i appreciate that you shared it with us.
    now i need to compose myself.
    rip river <3

  2. I agree with everything that has been said and just want to add that Stand by me is the only film based on a King novel that I can watch over and over and it is truely bacause of the cast and director. Thank you for sharing and making me sad and happy at the same time.

  3. I still have a video cassette of ‘Stand by Me’ somewhere on a shelf. Your co-starring in this movie that I liked so much..and that of LeVar Burton’s performance in ‘Roots’..making you the only actors I recognized when Next Gen premiered. Already being a fan made it a little easier for this die-hard ‘Classic Trek Only’ guy to give NG a chance.
    I came very close to getting to meet River when he was in Nashville filming, I think it was ‘The Thing Called Love’. I was then friends of a friend with the guy whose home he was staying at the time. A much regretted missed opportunity.
    I look forward to the blu-ray release of one of my all-time favs.

  4. I was wondering why you hadn’t written about the reunion until now. Completely understandable now that I know what emotions it brought forth for you. It jerked some tears reading this. I am so glad and thankful you were able to share the reunion experienc with us all. You are so good at taking the reader to the place you are writing about. I felt like I was there with you all-observing on the side if you will. I look forward to the extras and interviews on the dvd. Love ya Gordie Lachance.

  5. I don’t know how you manage to do it every time, Wil. You have a knack for evoking the emotions you’re trying to convey in your readers. Here I am, fighting back tears as hard as I can while I read your blog and just effing lost it when you quoted what Rob said about River. Thank you for this touching account. I was touched just reading it, I can only imagine what you must have felt in that theater.

  6. That was a beautiful piece of writing Wil. The more so for the honest and poignant feelings that gave birth to it. Thank you for being willing to share.
    As an aside, Stand By Me was the movie I saw on the first date with a guy who would later break my heart. I’ll never forget how good I thought the movie was (despite the less than stellar memories that came later). You were terrific, and you should always be proud of that work.

  7. My friends and I were 11 when Stand By Me came out, and it was one of the defining moments of our childhood. We felt such a connection to the characters and by extension, we felt like we had connected with you and River and Jerry and Corey. You were the male versions of us (we even planned to do a scene-by-scene remake we were going to send to you because for some reason we thought you would think it was cool). I cried when Chris Chambers died, I cried when River died, and I cried reading this. Thank you so much for sharing.

  8. Wil, thank you for sharing, in your heartbreakingly beautiful and honest writing, your thoughts about this reunion. How lucky am I as a reader to be able to connect so strongly and emotionally to what you write.
    You are a writer, Wil, and I hope you keep sharing stories with us all for a long, long time.

  9. Wil, I’d like you to know how much I — we — really appreciate your heart-centered openness about things and your life. Thank you. 

  10. I wrote this long blog entry in 2003 about what Stand By Me meant to me my entire life. It’s still one of the movies I quote frequently. It’s not just a part of my childhood, it’s a part of me.
    Thank you so much for making that film.

  11. Thank you for sharing this experience. I have to be honest and say I’ve never seen all of Stand By Me (shocking I know). Just how you spoke about the reunion and River, it touched me. Words are escaping me…

  12. I saw a picture of the reunion somewhere (Yahoo? Google?) and my first thought was… poor River. It’s been a long time since I’ve thought of him as well; I guess the consolation is that he (and you) was able to be a part of a movie like Stand By Me, which comes around not once in a generation, but once in a lifetime.
    Many religions believe that as long as someone still remembers you, you live. Not much consolation for someone like you who wants to talk to him, meet his kids, hear his stories….but for many of us: River will live a long, long time.

  13. A few years back when this blog was in it’s old home and I stumbled upon it, I emailed you, thanking you for the person you had become despite all the challenges in front of you as a young man in tinsel town. Even though I had you pinned up on my wall as a 12 year old, I was now a “grown up” with a real job and a real life and I was relieved to find out that you had become a “normal” person with “normal” passions and a “normal” life. You graciously responded.
    It’s posts like these that remind me how lucky we are to have your perspective on life and love and friends and fame. For a variety of reasons I wasn’t able to watch “Stand By Me” until after River was gone (and after I had already developed an addition to “The Mosquito Coast”) and consequently spent the entire time thinking, “how sad it is that they’ve all lost their friend”. I had already humanized you all and that part of me is excited that you and Jerry may get a chance to know each other as grown-ups. Warm thoughts with you both.

  14. I enjoy your writing very much, but this was exceptional. It reminded me of how much and why I love playing my trumpet and performing, even though it’s a hobby not my job. For 10 years I was in a professional group that played mostly county fairs, yet it was so amazing! When we were on stage it was magical. Only 30 minute sets but no one left and the audience got bigger and bigger. And they laughed, they smiled, it was so much fun, so cool, as I said, so magical!
    Thanks for a great review, and for reminding me of how much fun it is to do something you truly love. :)

  15. A wonderful entry, I truly enjoy watching Stand By Me everytime it comes on TV, and I bought it for my kids, they have watched it, laughed and cried as well. You are a gifted writer and actor.

  16. Wil, you have a great gift for connecting to that deep place within us all, even geeks. Perhaps especially geeks. Thanks for taking that journey to getting this written.

  17. I feel for you. I think having such a memorable event in your life that is now 25 years back can make you feel like a reluctant time traveler. It’s a hard concept to accept that the little boy you were in the movie is now the same age as Richard Dreyfuss was at the time. Now flip back to today and see him as a grandfatherly figure who needs a cane to walk around. That’s just weird.
    I don’t know if you attended regular high school or not. But I would say that would be as close to a high school reunion as anything I can think of. (minus the star factor)
    It’s not all bad. There’s been a lot of life between then and now. And plenty more yet to come. So have fun!

  18. I’m posting right now only because of one awesome moment of serendipity.
    I have 10,695 songs in my iTunes. Just as I started reading the last paragraph, I kid you not, I hear a familiar intro, and Ben E. King starts singing “Stand by Me”.
    He’s just finishing up as I click Post. :)

  19. Great Blog Will. Thanks for reminding us again that were are all getting older. 25 years already.. Holy Kaw! Well, I don’t own a Blue Ray player yet.. but I think I will have to pick one up soon, and a certain movie now just to hear the commentary on it.

  20. Wil –
    This really hit home. Stand By Me was, and continues to be, a profound movie that shaped me particularly because I related so well with Gordie – as an outcast, a budding writer, a devoted friend and as someone who felt she lived in the shadow of an older, more talented brother. I am thankful for you reaching out to us like this and sharing your raw feelings.

  21. I often wonder why more people in Hollywood don’t talk about River more. I think about him all the time, he was the biggest loss of the Xgeneration. Your article made me realize I wasn’t alone in missing and remembering him. Thanks for sharing this…

  22. Everyone else has said everything that needs saying about the movie–one of my all time faves too–about reminiscing, about missing those who are gone. I don’t need to add to that.
    All I can say is that when I read posts like this of yours, I get almost overcome by what I can only call pride. I’m proud of you, Wil.
    Which makes no sense since I don’t know you and you don’t need my validation or any of that.
    But I can’t help it. I am. Proud, maybe, to see a fellow geek being brave enough to just be yourself for everyone to see. Proud, maybe, because I feel like I kind of know you through your posts and so it’s gratifying to see you doing so well in your life. Proud, maybe, simply because you’re a good man and a fellow human being, because we’re on the same team in the way that I can be proud of my team for winning even if I struck out every time I was up at bat.
    I don’t know. Like I said it doesn’t make sense, but there it is. I’m proud of you, Wil.

  23. It’s still a shame-I remember being sad about his death. I was sad to hear about Corey Haim as well and all those way too young Hollywood people that end up dead. I mourn youth and how much those people won’t ever see or do. Life is fragile-can’t take it for granted.
    I get another sense in what you wrote here though. Don’t sell yourself short. You survived young Hollywood and like the Star Trek legacy or not the work you did probably inspired countless kids to grow up and become scientists and astronauts. I’m in my 30s too and feel like time is going way too quickly, but you can make things happen if you want them to. If you want to be on a stage and perform-go be on a stage.

  24. “there is this monster in Hollywood that everyone knows about. It lurks just out of view, and occasionally it reaches up and snatches someone … and it got River.”
    King’s monster that lives in the sewer.
    Weirdly I am watching Intervention while reading. So very thankful that the monster has never grabbed hold of me.

  25. Wil,
    As you always are seemingly honest through you blogging, I would like to show you the same honest. I know based on previous blogs, you cannot stand to be called “Gordie.” However, for some of you long-term fan base that is where we originally saw you and know you from. Now, I would never directly call you “Gordie” to your face… as I know you are Wil Wheaton and “Gordie” was just a character you played.
    Getting back together with the guys, sharing stories, memories, and thinking back on friends lost, I hope you are able to understand why there are such strong followers from this movie in particular. Sometimes I get this weird inferiority Wil Wheaton complex due to the fact I know I am not a true comic guru. However, I hope through sharing this story of your encounter, you are able to see that not only this was emotional journey for you, but also for your fans. We love all that you do , Wil!
    I am sure there are plenty of us that are also River Phoenix followers (myself being one), but the fact of the matter is no one can really burst into your brain and pull apart the times you had with him and the different paths you went on. I know in several interviews I have not been utterly thrilled with how the media had twisted your words in a negative manner. However, I find it lovingly open you are finally able to come to terms with his death. Sounds like one hell of a shadow has been lingering with clouds overhead for quite some time.
    Wil – you’re an awesome dude. Thanks for sharing this with all of us.

  26. Thank you for sharing this with us Wil. The tears are rolling down my cheek… I love that movie. The loss of your friend reminds me of my loss of my dear friend, who I also like to remember from the time before … We are both blessed to have known and cared for them.

  27. It’s funny, my favourite Stephen King stories are his non-horror stories. In addition to the two you mentioned, his Dark Tower anthology gets re-read often.

  28. Awesome post Wil, even though it was a sad one. Sometimes death takes a while to sink in…when my father passed away, it took me well over a year before I started to process it (and when I did it was not in healthy ways.) Thanks for sharing. Stand By Me is a great film, it’s kind of eerie how much stuff in it came true in real life.

  29. this film made a big change in my life.
    not, i’m sorry to say, at the time when i was young enough, but when i was older and realised that it’s friendships like this that you had while at school that will never be replaced.
    i wish that had been an easier lesson to learn.
    i have, however, met people from my past, and it’s true. if you have a close bond at the time, be it friendship or a work relationship, sometime time just can be beaten.

  30. Hello, “)… – First off, I’d like to say, I’m a fan and have enjoyed you both as an Actor and Writer. — Back in October, my Grandmother Mary passed away. She was my foundation and her home my Sanctuary. After she passed, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I had to keep a brave front because others needed my support & my Dad is dealing with complications now from being exposed during the Vietnam War. In November, I started at the beginning of the Archives and read a little bit until I finished ‘wwdn’ and came back to this site and read from the very first posting and today, I finally caught up with today’s posting… It’s been quite a Journey since I’ve started. I just wanted to “Thank You, Wil” for your Blog that took me away from my pain for a little while each day. I learned a few things, had a few chuckles over others and the way you can connect emotion in your style of writing is a gift. Thank you for sharing… Just from being able to read your entire archives helped me get back into life and persuing my interests and helping others once again… Thank You, Lisa.

  31. I’m not sure how you do it Wil, but stories like this and pretty much every single one in The Happiest Days of Our Lives make me feel like I’m experiencing them myself. I had to stop halfway through this and start over, reading it more slowly so I could really appreciate it :-)
    Stand By Me is one of my favourite movies of all time, but I’d rather read your stories any day.

  32. I remember being miserable and cold camping in Jersey at 12 years old one Halloween weekend. Oddly I can recall exactly that I was begrudgingly helping around the campsite when the news about River broke on our little radio. That rarely happen s, so he must have left an impression on me.
    It’s great that you could come to terms a bit with his passing. As with funerals, one sometimes just needs a visual confirmation to accept and grieve.

  33. Wil, your post brought tears to my eyes. Thank you.
    Stand By Me was a very special movie for my mother, sister and I. I was a senior in high school and did not get along with my sister (a cheerleader to my drama geek), but I believe that of the six times I saw SBM in the theater, at least two were with my sister and mother. For that hour and a half, my sister and I were on the same page and my mother was thrilled that we weren’t fighting. You helped make that happen.
    I also remember how devastated my friends and I were when River passed and we were only fans. Thank you for sharing something so personal and for helping to give my sister and I a reason to connect all of those years ago.

  34. Thank you for writing this. I’ve had a similar experience to yours, as far as wondering whether an extra place should be set for someone missing, and you put it far more eloquently than I could have. Thank you.

  35. Wil,
    Your hard work, talent and good fortune have allowed you to do amazing things and to know incredible people. This, I’m sure, isn’t news to you. Perhaps the following is:
    1. It is truly impressive that you recognize and appreciate your good fortune. Insight and wisdom are unfortunately uncommon.
    2. You are worthy.
    Thanks for sharing.

  36. Thank you for this. I cried when I read your tweet the other day, and I cried when I read this. Like many of our age, I’d grown up watching River’s movies, and his death was the first one I’d experienced that literally knocked the breath out of me.
    The world lost a great actor that day.

  37. It’s funny I try to never think about this movie. It was one of my favorites. It was also my best friends favorite movies. I can remember sitting with him and breaking it down. Going over the parts. Talking about dialog. Hoping someday we could produce something as good.
    My friend died and I have never watched the movie again. The death of River and the death of my friend have made this one of those movies I am afraid to watch. I think maybe it is time. I know I am going to cry. It’s hard to think about him still.
    Thank you for sharing your memories.

  38. Thank you for posting this. Like a lot of people, I hoped you’d feel able to share some of the reunion with us.
    The thing is, Stand By Me is one of those films. The ones where, if someone is around your age, you just assume they’ve seen it. It’s part of the collective consciousness, part of what makes us us. Even though the majority of the people who watched and loved it will never meet any of the cast, there’s always that feeling of connection, and of wanting to feel that the film meant a lot to you, too. Hearing about something like this is sort of like getting a letter from someone you knew a long time ago, and very welcome even though it’s also sad.

  39. Really powerful writing as always Wil, I always feel the emotion in your writing style.
    We lost someone in a similar way back when we all started out on the open mike circuit and always leave one drink on the table when we meet up.
    That sense of Joy and sadness always conflicts me when we set that glass of jack down.

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