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. Wil,
    I also have wonderful memories of River and his entire family. Long before the auditions, I remember when they came to our garage sale in Sunland. But the memory that really stands out for me is of you, standing in our kitchen after we returned from the final SBM screen test. River called for you. I remember handing you the phone. River said; “We got it, man”. Somehow he had gotten the call first. And even before your agent could call, River gave you the news.
    That was cool,
    Love, Mom

  2. Wow, Wil, you write something that gains a mass amount of emotional outpouring from your fans, and word from your Bro and your Mom!
    Were I you, I’d bookmark this one for those moments that you fear you can’t do exactly this.

  3. I had never seen Stand By Me, but after reading this post I decided that I had to. There was just something about how openly and honestly you relate the tale of your reunion, and the filming itself. Watching this movie didn’t feel optional, if you get my meaning. I felt it was something I had to do.
    Watching the film for the first time only after reading your memories of it had a profound effect on my viewing. This movie made me feel bittersweetly miserable in the best possible way. I can’t wait for the Bluray commentary, though I’ll have to buy/borrow/steal a Bluray player for that.
    Thank you for sharing your experience and, in doing, introducing me and countless others to this wonderful movie.

  4. - Nice.
    Thanks for sharing, Wil. Please accept my (very) belated sympathies. I have to agree with the others who have said that as long as WE remember them, those who have passed are not really gone. Hang on to those memories.
    Peace.

  5. Beautifully written. Thank you for sharing.
    I had to go and find my copy of Stand By Me and watch it for the umpteenth time. This time the scene where Gordie breaks down and cries really got to me, I don’t know why.

  6. I’m a couple days late to the game on reading this but Wil, that was the single most moving piece I have ever read by you.

  7. It’s been a while since I checked in and you’ve reminded me why I used to read your blog in the first place.
    Thank you. I love that movie. It really is a great classic that my grandkids will one day discover tell me I should watch…lol.

  8. Terrific post. You know, you and Jerry should consider going on the Howard Stern Show to promote the Blu-Ray a little. Jerry is quite friendly with the show, and I know they would dig having you there.

  9. What a beautiful post. I’m in my 30’s and the movie still makes me cry. I can not wait to show it to my son and daughter, once they are old enough.
    Thank you for sharing this.

  10. I’m glad other people cried reading this. It was beautiful and reminded me of seeing this in the theater with one of my very good friends. One of the lines from the movie still sticks with me today.
    ” It happens sometimes. Friends come in and out of our lives like busboys in a restaurant….I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve…, does anyone?” – STAND BY ME
    Thank you Wil!

  11. I’m still bummed that I missed your ECCC Awesome Hour because I had to work until 3:30, but at least I got to see your Guild panel.
    In my head, I put “Stand By Me” in the same place as “Explorers”. Both were released around the same time and River looked so innocent in both of them.
    It was fun to see him in “Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade (forever, at least to me, known as “the last watchable Indiana Jones movie”) and “Sneakers” and one can only imagine how many Oscars he might have by now.
    All that being said, I couldn’t help but think — as I read yet another great blog post by you — that maybe the interview session seemed like “Stand By Me” all over again — in that no one was really sure whether or not they want to see that body or what they would say about it once they found it. River seemed like the only difficult subject you guys all had to talk about.
    I could be wrong about the analogy, but I hope I’m not. :)
    And this line of River’s character always gets me because of how things turned out in real life:
    “Wish the hell I was your dad. You wouldn’t be goin’ around talkin’ about takin’ these stupid shop courses if I was. It’s like God gave you something, man, all those stories you can make up. And He said, “This is what we got for ya, kid. Try not to lose it.” Kids lose everything unless there’s someone there to look out for them. And if your parents are too f*cked up to do it, then maybe I should.”

  12. I love hearing your feelings. Stand By Me was a huge movie for my in the early 90s…..would watch over and over. Friends would come over and watch with me. The soundtrack was one of my favorites. That movie touched me so much and evoked every emotion….the train on the bridge, the leetches and finding the body. Not to mention all the quotes that became everyday sayings for me…“piss up a rope“, `two for flinching`, “what the hell is goofy`, and of course “Suck my fat one, you cheap dime store hood“. At the end when you can hear Richard`s voice talking about what happened to Chris….you can`t help but think of River. Thank you so much more doing this movie and I can`t wait to get it on blu-ray….I`ll never get rid of my VHS.

  13. Curse you and thankyou Wil. Big Aussie blokes aren’t supposed to cry. Your writing touched that very core of me that doesn’t get touched very often. I am deeply and warmly moved. I guess that’s because we are talking about one of the core themes of the movie, that you are at your most receptive; our memories are supercharged; when in your early teens. I am how remembering riding on the handle bars my best friend’s bike at 15, feeling the pure pleasure of being free. I am in awe at your humility. Lets face it you were one of the ones who made such a timeless and meaningful movie. Yet, you are still smart enough to get outside of yourself to make us feel we are right there, feel we are with you. Because we are. *Hugs*
    Tim.

  14. I’m really glad that you realize that you are part of a legacy. Because Stand By Me always meant so much to me when I was younger. Your character in that film meant so much to me in my life because I too had my older sibling die when I was 12. And that heartache they showed in the film with the whole family hit home so bad. and it was just so haunting.
    I watched this film with her when I was little and I’ve continued to watch it again and again growing up. It’s one of those movies that when I see it on cable even though I own it on vhs and dvd (and will own the blu ray) I have to watch it. Because it’s funny and its heartbreaking and it makes you feel better. It makes you feel.
    But I completely understand about the loss hitting you years later. There’s this book by Rob Sheffield called “Love is a Mixtape” where he talks about losing his wife and he has this perfect part where he’s describing the loss and he says “the loss just gets bigger the longer you look at it”. So sometimes when it happens and you don’t feel connected it doesn’t hurt as bad. and then one day you can really look at it, or have it shown to you and it’s like it just happened.
    Thanks for writing Wil.

  15. In was 11 when Stand By Me came out. I remember watching it with my mom when it finally came out on video. I love it, and my 12 or so year old self fell in love with you. (I was absolutly giddy to re-discover you as an adult)
    Now a mom of 16, 14, and 11yr olds, I decided to share this movie with them. As we watched it, I found myself doing commentary about where you guys all are now (my 16yr old is a big fan of your work on BBT). Watching River made me sad. He was one of the special ones.
    When I found out about the Blu Ray edition, I had to add it to my collection. I really enjoyed watching the commentary, and usually the commentaries annoy me.

  16. I watched the “Stand By Me” new commentary last night. It was very informative and entertaining. I love how you guys kept pointing out that fat little kid grew up to marry Rebecca Romijn. I also shed a tear when you were talking about River Phoenix and he disappeared from the scene. Very sad. His death was the first celebrity death that really shook me up as I always liked him.

  17. It’s interesting to me that you so strongly identify yourself in this post as “an actor”. I tend to think of you much more as a writer these days. And this is one of the more heart-rending posts I’ve seen from you. Thank you for sharing!

  18. “Stand By Me” was not just a movie for me. I grew up in the late 60’s, early 70’s, and my group of friends and I were just like those boys. We spent many hours walking along railroad tracks and dodging “The Teenagers” who would chase us and bully us, just like Kiefer and his buds. Exploring the old abandoned dairy we thought was haunted. Walking through endless fields. Climbing in the quarry where we were forbidden to go. Leaving first thing in the morning and not coming back until evening and your parents encouraged it. Everyone’s Dad had fought in WWII or Korea.
    My Mom died when I was 10, so I had that moment as a kid where death becomes real. You really feel that moment in the film where they finally find the body. When I watch Stand By Me now it’s like a little personal time capsule. Thanks for that.

  19. Beautifully said, Wil. And this was something I was hoping to hear on the event of this anniversary. Thank you for saying it. I wish that chair had been there too, and I wish even more that River could have filled it.
    I was born in ’75, and so you, Corey, Jerry, and River were around the same ages shooting the movie as my friends and I were watching it when it was released. River was the one whose pictures I carefully slit out of copies of Tiger Beat and 16. Then I passed the balance of the mags to my classmates, who all liked Kirk Cameron, whom I had no use for!
    It still always seems sort of like he must have just decided, as some people do, to duck out of the spotlight, and one of these days he will be back in our lives, all sandy-haired high-cheekboned beauty.
    I guess I still have a crush on him.
    -Jocelyn

  20. Just watched the PIP commentary on SBM last night — I’ve pretty much gotten to the point where I don’t bother with commentary tracks, as they’ve become forumulaic and rather dull. But this one was something special, and it was very moving to see the looks on all of your faces while you watched the film, especially during River’s big dramatic moment. Rob’s reaction to your kind words at the end was very touching as well.
    And dude — I’m sure Rebecca Romijn is a very nice lady, but Anne is way hotter. Jus’ sayin’. :)

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