Gordie may be the narrator and protagonist of the story, but Chris Chambers, the de facto leader and most mature member of the friend group, is perhaps the most captivating character. Because of his family's working-class background and bad reputation, the community has dismissed the intelligent and emotional Chris as a problem child for most of his young life. Luckily, Gordie sees the best in him and eventually pushes Chris to escape his situation by going to school and becoming a lawyer.
It's a memorable performance by the late River Phoenix, who, according to The Washington Post, "gave the movie its center of gravity." Hollywood saw his star power brewing beneath the surface, and from there he went on to appear in The Mosquito Coast alongside Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren, as well as Running on Empty, for which he was nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globe at just 18 years old. He played young Indy in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, won more awards and took on an edgier role in the avant-garde drama My Own Private Idaho, and found commercial success alongside big names like Robert Redford in Sneakers.
He wasn't just an actor, either - he had a passion for music and the environment. He formed his own band called Aleka's Attic with his sister, invested in opening the original House of Blues with Blues Brother Dan Aykroyd, and was a lifelong vegan and activist, speaking out and raising money for environmental causes.
Unfortunately, like his Stand by Me character, Phoenix passed too soon. On Halloween night of 1993, he went into multiple seizures outside the Viper Room, a famous Sunset Strip hangout for young stars that was partially owned by Johnny Depp at the time. He had overdosed on a mixture of heroine and cocaine and was pronounced dead at a hospital later that night.
His abrupt end was shocking for a number of reasons, among them that he was just 23 and it was an interruption of a career mid-takeoff. He had just been shooting a film (Dark Blood) earlier that day and was set to star in Interview with the Vampire in the role that later went to Christian Slater. His passing was tragic and very well may have resulted in the loss of a future acting legend.
In 2020, his brother, actor Joaquin Phoenix, welcomed his first child with actress Rooney Mara. The two named the child River in memory of Phoenix's lost sibling.