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Autopsy Reveals Little on Death of River Phoenix

November 02, 1993|SHAWN HUBLER and CARLA HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The untimely death of actor River Phoenix remained cloaked in mystery Monday as an autopsy failed to address an anguished statement by the young star's brother that drugs may have contributed to his collapse, authorities said.

Phoenix, who rose to fame as a teen-age actor in the 1986 coming-of-age film "Stand By Me," fell into a violent seizure and died early Sunday after collapsing outside a crowded West Hollywood nightclub where a Halloween jam session was in full swing. Officials at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center said he arrived in full cardiac arrest, with no pulse or blood pressure.

In a frantic call to paramedics, Phoenix's brother, Joaquin, who had helped him out of the club only to watch him collapse on the sidewalk, told a 911 dispatcher that the 23-year-old actor may have ingested "Valium or something," according to a tape of the call. The TV newsmagazine "Hard Copy," quoting an anonymous hospital source, reported that cocaine and Valium were detected in a routine blood work-up done in the Cedars-Sinai emergency room.

But officials at the hospital refused to confirm that report, and those who knew Phoenix said the reports were difficult to reconcile with his reputation for clean living and dedicated professionalism.

Phoenix's publicist, Susan Patricola, who spoke for his family in a prepared statement, said: "We've heard these last few days many theories and much speculation surrounding the death of River Phoenix. We may never know why we have lost this extraordinary young talent.

"We, his family and friends would like to remember him as he was: giving, caring, hoping and forever."

Coroner's spokesman Scott Carrier said an autopsy performed Monday was "inconclusive as to the cause of death" and offered no clues, except for a lack of blockage of major arteries, which would indicate that he did not die of heart disease or massive stroke. Carrier said further toxicological tests should better address the drug question, but those tests will not be available for at least a week to 10 days.

A Sheriff's Department spokesman said Phoenix's death is being investigated by homicide detectives, but declined to elaborate.

The actor's death has affected at least two films that are in production--"Interview With a Vampire," which he was scheduled to begin shooting in three weeks, and "Dark Blood," which Phoenix was in the middle of shooting at the time of his death.

Producers of "Dark Blood" said production has been halted until the insurers and financiers can determine whether the movie should be completed.

"Vampire" co-producer Stephen Woolley said Phoenix's death "won't have a huge impact on us as far as completing the movie, but it will have a huge impact on the experience of making the movie."

Known for his dramatic intensity and his natural acting talent, the boyish blond actor became a teen idol after appearing as a scruffy, cigarette-smoking delinquent in "Stand By Me." By the time he was 17, he had garnered an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor in Sidney Lumet's "Running on Empty."

A strict vegetarian who also would not eat dairy products or wear leather, Phoenix was known for his adamant stand on pure living, colleagues said. In Gainesville, Fla., where the Phoenix family lives and where the actor kept a house, Phoenix was active in environmental causes, appearing in public service announcements for animal rights causes and speaking occasionally at local schools on environmental issues, said Bill DeYoung, arts and entertainment editor at the Gainsville Sun.

"Everybody is in a deep state of shock," said DeYoung, who described Phoenix as "something of a deep thinker."

The actor's grandmother, Marjorie Dunetz of Palm Beach County, Fla., said the family is devastated. "He was such a terrific kid, sweet and lovable. . . . He's natural," she said. "He watches his weight. He watches what he eats. He doesn't eat meat. He's gentle. It's a mystery."

Owners of the Viper Room--the Generation X haunt where he spent his last hours--said Phoenix was not a regular on the circuit of salons, nightclubs and coffeehouses that attract so many other twentysomething stars.

"He doesn't even live in California, and when he comes out, he sees his friends, but he doesn't hang out on the scene," said Brent Bolthouse, a club promoter and owner of the trendy Westside restaurant Babylon.

Regulars on the club scene--most of whom were unwilling to give their names--said drugs are a fact of life on the Westside and Sunset Strip circuit. Among the most popular and readily available drugs, club-goers say, are the hallucinogen Ecstasy, heroin, cocaine and--most recently--the synthetic steroid gamma hydroxybutyrate. GHB, as it's known, gives a feeling of euphoria and relaxation, but has been linked by the Food and Drug Administration to severe heart and respiratory problems.

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