More than thirty years after his tragic death, many in Hollywood are still talking about River Phoenix. The talented child star turned Oscar nominee had seemingly limitless potential, and it was obvious from a very early age. Acting legend Michael J Fox certainly saw it, and decades later, her reflected on meeting Phoenix for the first time and hanging out with him again later after he was a huge star.
Michael J Fox sat for an extensive interview with People recently, and during the conversation, he talked about shooting 1991’s Doc Hollywood in a small town in Florida. Apparently River Phoenix and his brother Joaquin (who later named his son River) had a house there, and the two brothers would drive down and grab Fox from the set to hang out and barbecue at their place. To some, it may have seemed random, but Fox traces it all back to conversations he shared with Phoenix on the set of Family Ties.
The year was 1985, and Michael J Fox was a huge star. Family Ties was a top 5 show on television (and would later feature a young Courteney Cox), and the beloved Back To The Future had just come out. River Phoenix was an experienced child actor, but Stand By Me, in all its glory, hadn’t come out yet and he was still finding his place. To Fox who was nine years older, however, his talent was obvious immediately. So, when the young actor struggled with a scene, he went out of his way to talk to him. Here’s his reflection…
If you read enough interviews, you start to realize how common this story is. Obviously, the details are specific to Michael J Fox and River Phoenix, but this overall structure has been repeated countless times in Hollywood. Not every actor is particularly receptive or particularly willing to chit-chat with one-off guest stars, but most huge stars have a story about a time when they were first trying to make it in the business and a legend was unexpectedly kind or thoughtful with them.
During his interview, Fox called his hanging out with Phoenix and making barbecue at his house “an act of kindness that was built on an act of kindness.” It’s one of Hollywood’s great tragedies that River wasn’t able to grow up and become that veteran actor building his own acts of kindness by offering advice to the next generation of stars.