we’ve got five years, that’s all we’ve got

What Will River Be LIke In Ten Years?A magazine I don’t have much respect for contacted my manager, and said it was doing a retrospective on the 20th anniversary of the death of River Phoenix. Would I be willing to talk to their reporter?

I declined, because I don’t trust them to be respectful and accurate, but since the request came in a few days ago, I have been thinking about River a lot.

Yesterday, I was looking though my office bookshelves, and I came across some teen magazines I have from the 80s, when I was on their covers. I think they came out of Wilhouse 13 when I cleaned up the garage, or maybe my mom gave them to me when my parents moved out of their house a few months ago.

Anyway, on the cover of a magazine from 1988, there’s a picture of River Phoenix, and it says, “Find out what River will be like in 10 years!” I kept looking at it, past the pictures of me and Sean Astin and Kirk Cameron and Alyssa Milano and the other kids who were popular with teen girls in those days, and something about that was kicking me in the stomach, making me feel sad. I couldn’t figure out why, until I did some maths and realized that River died five years later, in 1993.

We’ll never find out what he would have been like in 1998, because he didn’t make it to 1998. Just thinking about that made me incredibly sad.

I said I Twitter that I don’t think of him often, but when I do, I miss him, and hope that we would be close if her were alive today, because he was good people. I don’t know what kind of 43 year-old he would be, if we’d have anything in common, or if we would be friends. Hell, we hadn’t been close for a few years when he died, mostly because our lifestyles were incompatible and I wasn’t especially interested in his recreational activities of choice.

But he was, in his heart, a kind and loving and caring person. He loved his family more than anyone I can think of, and he did everything for them, maybe — I think — to his own detriment at times.

But he was good. River was good, and he had so much talent within him to share with the world, so many characters to play, songs to sing, and stories to tell … and we’ll never get to experience any of them. That makes me sad.

Like I said, I don’t know if we’d be close, or if we’d have anything at all in common, but when I think of him, I remember the 16 year-old who I looked up to, who taught me chords on his guitar and played video games with me while we listened to music on a tiny mid-80s boom box in Oregon.

I miss him, or at least the memory I have of him. He was good people, and he left us far too soon.

25 thoughts on “we’ve got five years, that’s all we’ve got”

  1. Thanks for this Wil. I was always a fan of both of you growing up, and had no idea you were even friends outside of your projects. Last year I lost a step-brother who I fell out of touch with a few years back when our parents split. He tried to get back in touch with me about 6 months before he died, but like yourself, I did not agree with his previous choice in recreation/lifestyle, and although he assured me those days were behind, I still said no.

    You’ve had longer to deal with your situation, but my pain is loss and guilt all in one. And I am not sure it will ever go away or if I ever want it to go away.

    I wish you well in your journey.

  2. These glimpses are exceedingly important as it isn’t a peek behind a Hollywood veil as it is a shared experience being investigated. We’ve all lost loved ones along the way. Some of us haven’t yet. Some of us lost them in similar manners. Others, just disease and cancer stole them away from us. The loss is the same. Sudden. Abrupt. Severed. Wil, you identify (with a master stroke) how to not only communicate your feelings but also bring the audience with you – no matter how estranged – in a manner that allows us all to best file these things within ourselves. In this vast world, it’s so easy to forget that tomorrow isn’t certain but loss is.

  3. Only once in my life have I ever taken a Hollywood tour kind of thing and it was when I was much younger. But for whatever reason the tour decided to drive by where River died and talk about it. As some one who grew up on Stand by Me, The Last Crusade, Explorers, The Mosquito Coast… well you get the idea, I was upset.

    Why was this tour using this as a part of it’s story telling? I get showing us where certain movies were shot, but where young men who had so much ahead of them died? Why? I understand The Viper Room has a lot of history with stars owning it and partying there, but that’s all they could say about it.. and it had been YEARS.

    As a fan of film I’m sad we didn’t get to see more performances from him… as a fan of yours I’m sad you didn’t get to spend more time with him.

  4. I have been hoping this would come up sometime. I think of River everytime I see Joaquin in a movie. No doubt that he would have been as extrodinary of an actor as his brother. Wil you are so very lucky to have gotten to spend time with him and your memories are I’m sure very precious. This is one thing I love about the movies. Although that person is gone, their legacy lives on through their work. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Wil,
    Thanks so much for this awesome look back on an actor I only knew as Young Indiana Jones and Chris Chambers from, “Stand by Me” but you knew as River and a friend. This is why I like following you on Twitter, Facebook, and G+. You are a great human being and I know you don’t need my approval for anything, but thanks for being who you are.

  6. I was 12 at that time, and I suppose i had about as much sense of thinking there will always BE a 10 years as the dumb magazine did. Though i think that in the case of you guys, you were so used by them, and many others… They looked at you and saw $$ signs. i sure wish River had been able to overcome that and the other issues that come with being a “teen heartthrob” its sad when people are reduced to anything less than people, and I totally think that’s true in your case and in River’s. The difference is, you survived it. I, too, think of River when i see Joachin. I’m very sorry for your loss.

  7. This brings back a memory for me. When I was living in Orange County, CA my Mother came to visit and I took her and her partner on one those cheesy Hollywood tours in the van. As we passed by a particular bar/restaurant the tour guide pointed out that this is where River Phoenix collapsed on that fateful night. I remembered thinking what a tragedy it was, and still is. So young, with so much still to do.

    Once you have lived for a while, unless you live in a closet, loss becomes and inevitable part of life. All we can do is try to honor those that have passed by keeping them in our hearts and learning from the life they lived.

  8. I was a fan of River since “Explorers”. We were born in the same year and he was my idol. He was the only celebrity I ever wrote a fan letter to. He was one of only 2 celebrities for whom I have cried when hearing about their passing ( the other was Elizabeth Sladen) .
    Thanks for choosing to focus on the positive memories of your time with him.
    I don’t know if River and I would be friends at this point , but I am CERTAIN that you and I would be!
    Thanks for being .

  9. *hugs*

    And that’s really all there is to say. I wish you comfort those moments when River’s loss gets to you.

  10. that was lovely wil. i will be 43 next week, remember seeing stand by me in a crowded theatre on the upper east side with all my girlfriends – though i think it was so crowded we couldn’t find seats together.
    i loved river, still do. i believe his was the first celebrity death i felt personal affected by. i’m sorry for your much more personal loss, and i think all the time of who he would be know, what he would be doing…
    i’m a big fan of yours and supporter of your blog, just wanted to say thanks and you made me a little weepy. 20 years went by in a flash.

  11. Wow twenty years. The few times I met River is was a cool guy. I never knew him like you had but I remember him and his family well. 92-93 my father and I were living in Costa Rica. Dad bought a bar and restaurant connected to a hotel in Puntarenas. The only one with full AC! After school every day I would work there cleaning, cooking etc. Every time the Phoenix family would head back state side or go back to their farm out past Cabo Blanco they would come in. It was a fond memory for me talking to River, his brother and sisters. They were the only people close to my age at the time that spoke english. I was going to a private school with all spanish speaking students. I don’t want to sound like a gringo but when you are a teen in a foreign land anything that is familiar is dear. Those dozen or so times I got to talk to them were just that. We never talked about fame or anything hollywood. It was nice… Remembering the good points and times in someones life is ones of the best ways to honor their passing.

  12. I admit, I had that magazine. I also admit… I bought it for your picture, not River’s. But I remember those days. It’s horribly sad when we lose people. I also followed Jon Brandis for a long time, and it broke my heart when I heard that news, too. Too many brilliant people are lost too young, both famous and obscure.

    Yeah, I don’t have any more words now. I think I need a cup of tea.

  13. Twenty years.. my Gawd. Thanks Wil. I now feel even moar ancient. 😛

    I did know River back then, from (oh gosh, way too) many parties in Florida, and one or two in Hollyweird. He WAS good people. And he was also brilliant, and passionate, and creative, and damn the boy could sing. He was often broody; hurt and angry about the same things I still become hurt and angry over- injustice, betrayal, hypocrisy. He was dedicated and loyal, and stubborn.
    And that’s how I KNOW he would still have been close with you. “Family”, blood or perceived, meant the world to him. He would not have begrudged you your need to stay away from his lifestyle. He would have said something like, “Yeah, I really miss that guy… don’t blame him in the least… actually he’s the smart one”.

    And yes, I’m 99.99% positive that, were The Incident to have been just a scare and not the real deal, he’d have been different at 43 than he was at 22. Hell, I am, and I didn’t even have a scare.
    He was never the Crazy Wasted Guy of the party; he was always the one holding court at the big table in the back, telling stories and laughing at stupid jokes. That’s where I knew him from. Talking about Utopia and Dystopia, how things should or should not be in a perfect world. People didn’t flock to him because he was OMG River Phoenix.. well, yeah “they” did. but the ones who stayed on? No, they stayed because he was awesome.
    He’s why I was a vegetarian for three years, lol. He’s part of the reason I got into animal rescue.
    There’s a lot of people who’re gonna be pretty wreckish in the next three months. I’m all teary now and I only knew him peripherally.

    I’m really glad you declined that stupid article. I’m sure everybody else who loved him will do the same. I know I’ll never read it. I love the River in my memory way too much to disgrace him with exactly the kind of sensationalist Hollywood bullspit he hated the most.

    Hugs to you. If you still remember the guitar he taught you, play “Blame it on Your Heart” for him. He’d love that.

  14. This is apropos to nothing at all — but just wanted to mention that Wil got a shout out in the new book “Hunted” by Kevin Hearne. He refers to the “Wheaton Rule”, to whit, “don’t be a dick.”

  15. “We’ve got five years, that’s all we’ve got.” If we’re lucky…Love ’em while you can.

  16. When Michael Jackson died I couldn’t help but feel that it was a natural progression from someone who felt everything that all the people in the world felt on a personal basis. His personal internal innocence (regardless of what people wanted to condemn him for) tore him between the beauty of his innocent children and everything and everyone else he had to put up with during his lifetime. Removing himself from physical pain, mental and emotion pain and his need to “be there” for people who depended on his job is probably how he ended up taking drugs only administered to people who are having surgery. When I hear about celebrity deaths like this I often wonder what was going on inside that drove them to cover up their person pain in any way possible.

    Don McLean wrote a song called “Vincent” and I will never forget this line from it…”This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.” Artists who have a very deep connection to their craft (acting, music, art) feel the energy of everything around them. Based on what I’ve read here from people who knew River, I can’t help but hear the notes from Don McLean’s song “Vincent.” River, it seems, was probably too beautiful a soul for the cruelest part of this world (and what seems to quickly becoming the norm). Even though I didn’t follow his work, when I heard of his loss I was more prone to think we lost another truly beautiful soul than what the tabloids were saying.

    Jimi Hendrix said, “When the power of LOVE overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.” What a beautiful truth to leave with us.

  17. Honestly, I think that from what I know (Admittedly very little beyond what’s been made public and that I’ve read here.) I think River would have retired from acting and just gone off to be a dad. You know the cool dad who doesn’t work, but who always has the fun kids parties. Or the dad who has a mysterious job where he’s gone for a month or two, then comes back with a tan and neat gifts, tells his kids friends stories about his trips. Yeah, I think that would be him.

  18. I’m a firm believer in the idea that sometimes a star that burns that bright has to burn for a short period of time.

    Too many incredibly creative people have that 1% of crazy in them. Without it, we’d probably have them around longer, but then they wouldn’t be the same people, and that creativity might not have been there either.

    Whenever I feel sad about people on this list (and it’s quite a list: Belushi, Farley, Jackson, Cobain….just to name a few more), I take solace in the fact that we had them as long as we did, and joy in the idea that we’ll have what they created forever, rather than sorrow in how early they left.

    None of which, I’m sure, helps at all. Just sayin…

  19. I didn’t know River, but I think the world lost a tremendous talent when he died. I feel a similar sense of loss for him as I do for Phil Hartman and Chris Farley. I’ve felt personal loss. I’ve hesitated responding to this because I feel like it would feel weird to have someone I knew and cared about personally to be mourned and missed by people who never knew them. For you the pain is personal and I’m sorry for your loss.

  20. The summer Stand By Me came out my best friend and I saw it half a dozen times in the theater. I adored you while she was madly in love with River. We hiked the railroad tracks in our small hometown, searching for whatever kids search for when they have nothing better to do on summer days. She died in 2005, and whenever I watch Stand By Me, hear the song, read the book, or think about you or River, I think of her. So yea, your post got me, only because I know how you feel all to well.
    I even wrote about it a few years back after following you on Twitter and finding myself thinking of her more than ever. http://meghankharvey.wordpress.com/2008/11/27/the-following-of-wil-wheaton/

    1. A man much wiser than I said ‘The story is the thing,” and I would say that living is much the same. A chapter of life is much like the impact of a stone on the (relatively) quiet waters of life. We enjoy the splash it makes and we talk of it with friends and other people. But whether we like it or not, the players in the game depart from the event like the ripples from the stone’s effect and eventually only our reflection stays. I like to believe that the reflection is a little different after each chapter. Not that we necessarily become an assimilation of all these chapters (the value of resistance notwithstanding), but rather the things that matter will truly change our path and help us to recognize the things we really like about ourselves …and perhaps the things we want to like about ourselves if we have the courage to change. The ‘thing’ for us to realize is that sometimes those changes cannot be or will not be and our reflection will ultimately be their only dwelling place. Because, after all, not everyone can pull off and ascot.

  21. Five years – sometimes less. I just lost my mother suddenly on March 4th…then, just when I thought I would have more time with my Dad, he unexpectedly passed away on May 27th. Both were doing pretty well, then both were suddenly gone. I keep picking up the phone to call them, or wanting to ask a million questions I didn’t think to ask when they were here. Honour those you love people – talk with them, connect even over little things! You never have as much time as you think you do. And regret is a heavy thing to live with. Thanks for the poignant post Wil…

  22. I remember being amazed watching River in the opening scenes of Indiana Jones – The Last Crusade, he had Harrison Ford’s movements and expressions down perfect… especially the awkward style of running. It’s always sad to lose someone that made a difference to others as well as to yourself.

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