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14 Heartbreaking Stories From Joaquin Phoenix's Tragic Family

Updated January 14, 2020 4.1m views14 items

Joaquin Phoenix is a wildly controversial actor. He's been simultaneously praised as a master of his craft—winning both a Grammy and a Golden Globe for his work on Walk the Line—and slammed for faking a mental illness in a two-year ruse put on for a fake documentary. However, Joaquin's controversial nature comes as no surprise, considering his shocking family history. From narrowly escaping the Family International Cult (formerly known as the Children of God), to the untimely death of River Phoenix outside the Viper Room in 1993, the Phoenix family is plagued with misfortune.

Joaquin is the middle child in a family of five. His mother Arlyn, a Manhattan divorcee, moved to California in 1968 where she met Joaquin's father, John Lee Bottom, while hitchhiking. After having River, Joaquin's eldest brother, the Phoenix family joined the infamous Children of God cult.

The Phoenix clan escaped the cult and eventually moved to Hollywood, where they launched the careers of all five of their children: Joaquin, Rain, Summer, Liberty, and River, who was the first to find mega-stardom after his role in Stand By Me.

Joaquin's family may have been destined for Hollywood fame, but trouble, heartbreak, and addiction also run deep in their veins.

  • Joaquin And Rain Watched Their Brother Overdose

    Joaquin and Rain Phoenix didn't just witness their movie star brother's descent into drug addiction; they were there when he overdosed outside of Los Angeles's Viper Room in 1993. River knew he was overdosing that night in the club, surrounded by his brother, sister, and various friends from Hollywood, including Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante. He reportedly told the guitarist "I don't feel so good. I think I'm OD'ing" after willfully consuming a spiked drink.

    Joaquin Phoenix was just 19-years-old when he made the harrowing 911 call that failed to save his 23-year-old brother's life. During the call, Rain was sitting on River's chest trying to stop his drug-induced seizures. 

  • Photo: oliviasloan / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    After River's Passing, Rain Wanted To Release An Album For Charity, But Greed Got In The Way

    The Phoenix clan grew up playing music together on the street, which transformed into a potentially lucrative career as adults. As teenagers, Rain and River had formed a band called Aleka's Attic. In the early '90s, they had finally snagged a major record deal with Island and had recorded their debut album. Following her brother's demise, Rain spent years mixing the album, hoping to release it for charity—but the greed of the performers who helped out got in the way.

    "I wanted to put the record out and give the money to charities my brother felt strongly about, but I came up against some of the musicians who also played on it, wanting a lot of money for it, so I shelved it," she told The Guardian. "It was meant to be something that was really beautiful, not about money. I was very happy with the way I finished it, and I love the music. I hope that one day I can release it."

  • German Director Werner Herzog Once Saved Joaquin's Life

    In January 2006, Joaquin Phoenix was driving in the Hollywood Hills when he ran off the road. In the car behind him was famed director Werner Herzog, who quickly jumped into action. Phoenix's car had rolled off the cliff, and Phoenix was injured and disoriented. According to Herzog, he helped pull Phoenix from the wreckage, and stopped him from lighting a cigarette near loose gasoline.

    "I said to him, 'Man, relax,'" Herzog recalled in 2017. 

    Herzog, along with several bystanders, watched as an ambulance came for Phoenix. 

  • Joaquin Went To Rehab For Alcoholism After Filming 'Walk The Line'

    Addiction runs through the Phoenix's veins. It started with Joaquin's father John, whose drinking problem was reportedly a source of numerous arguments between his parents. Then, his older brother River developed a fatal addiction to heroin. Finally, Joaquin entered rehab for alcoholism in 2005.

    "It was [while filming Walk the Line] that I became aware of my drinking. I wasn't an everyday drinker, but didn't have anything else to do, anything to hold me down. I was leaning on alcohol to make me feel OK. That's what it really was," he said.