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River Phoenix (1970-1993)

  1. Corey Feldman, Stand By Me, 1985.  “It felt like the audition process went on forever,” Wil Wheaton told Brent Lang’s oral history for Variety. “They settled on a dozen potential actors and were mixing and matching us together.” Hardest role to cast, said producer Bruce A Evans, was Feldman’s Teddy Duchamp. “We couldn’t find anybody that could be that angry. River [Phoenix] was so good that we thought about switching him to that part.” Added Wheaton: “Feldman was unbelievably angry… in an incredible amount of pain [with] an absolutely terrible relationship with his parents.” At age seven, Feldman said he’d be coming from, school thinking: “Am I going to get abused today? Am I going to get beaten today? Most kids don’t have to think about this kind of stuff.”   

  2. Patrick Dempsey, Coupe de Ville, 1989.    Phoenix passed on the youngest of Alan Arkin’s three sons - and therefore, of course, the rebel. The other bros were Daniel Stern and Ayre  Gross.

  3.  Brad Pitt, A River Runs Through It, 1992.     Disappointed, naturally,  when director Robert Redford - who talked about the project during their Sneakers shoot  - gave the role to Brad.   

  4. Sean Patrick Flanary, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, TV, 1992-1993.   Obviously,  George Lucas wanted Phoenix to continue being the young Indy he had been in a flashback during Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1988. But River would not flow back to TV- particularly for 152 weeks in 23 countries, amid 1,500 speaking roles. Alas! Being under Lucas’ watchful eye might have helped steer him off the drugs that killed him at 23 outside Johnny Depp’s LA club, the Viper Room.  
  5. Brandon Lee, The Crow, 1993.     Also listed for the titular Eric Draven: Johnny Depp, Michael Jackson, Christian Slater. Lee won - and died in a terrible accident with a gun shooting blanks during the filming of the hero’s murder on March 31, 1993.  Exactly five months later, Phoenix, himself, was dead, from a drug overose resulting in heart attack outside Johnny Depp’s Viper Room nighclub on LA’s Sunset Strip on October 31. He was 23.
  6.  Sean Astin, Safe Passage, 1994.     Following  River’s shock death, Astin inherited the  role of Izzy Singer, one of Susan Sarandon and Sam Shepard’s dysfunctional family of seven sons. As one of his producers  said: “River  always cared about everything around him and was extremely considerate of others - very cautious and concerned about everybody's safety. He seemed much wiser than his 23 years.”
  7. Christian Slater, Interview With The Vampire, 1994.
  8. Leonardo DiCaprio, Total Eclipse, France-UK-Belgium, 1995.     Rimbaud!  Christopher Hampton’s scenario went from German director Volker Schlondorff and Phoenix-Malkovich as Rimbaud and Verlaine  to Poland’s Agnieszka Holland with  DiCaprio-David Thewlis.
  9. Leonardo DiCaprio, The Basketball Diaries, 1994.     When asked what he wanted to do next after his 1989 Best Actor Oscar nomination for Running On Empty, Phoenix pulled out his battered copy of the 1978 cult novel. "I want to play Jim Carroll." However, it took so long to be filmed that he grew too old for the role… leading to the (rare) miscasting of Leo.
  10. Emile Hirsch, Milk, 2007.      More than a decade earlier, director Guys Van Sant first tried to set up the story of Harvey Milk, San Francisco’s first openly gay public official - assassinated in 1978.  With  his My Own Private Idaho star as the AIDS and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and  transgender) rights activist Cleve Jones.
  11. Callum Turner, Queen & Country, 2013.   The 25 year gap between John Boorman’s autobiographical Hope and Glory, 1987, and this sequel was caused by the shock 1993 death of Phoenix, Boorman’s original choice to play the National Service army days of his alter-ego, Bill Rohan. Even when Landry Jones signed on, the delay continued… when the UK director found him better suited to the hellraiser Percy and Turner took over the more shy, well, discreet, Rohan.

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