River Phoenix's death: Girlfriend Samantha Mathis finally opens up about his fatal OD, 25 years later

Raechal Shewfelt
·Editor, Yahoo Entertainment
Samantha Mathis
Samantha Mathis in New York City last year. (Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty Images)

It took Samantha Mathis 25 years and a single viewing of The Thing Called Love, a 1993 dramedy in which she starred alongside then boyfriend River Phoenix, to be able to talk about his death.

She finally did so this week, when a reporter for the Guardian approached her after she’d watched the film for the first time since he died. Mathis felt “like the universe wanted me to talk about him,” she said in the new interview.

Mathis was 23 when Phoenix, also 23 at the time, died of an overdose of cocaine and heroin in the early morning hours of Oct. 31, 1993, outside the Viper Room nightclub on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Mathis, along with Phoenix’s younger siblings Joaquin and Rain, were by his side when it happened.

Even though it was years ago, Mathis remembered her last night with Phoenix vividly, and broke into tears twice during the interview. She recalled that their visit to the Viper Room, which at the time was partially owned by Johnny Depp, was unexpected, at least on her part. She thought they were dropping off his brother and sister, but Phoenix asked if it was OK if they stayed to watch the live music.

“I knew something was wrong that night, something I didn’t understand,” said Mathis, who’s also known for roles in movies such as Little Women and Pump Up the Volume. “I didn’t see anyone doing drugs but he was high in a way that made me feel uncomfortable — I was in way over my head. Forty-five minutes later, he was dead.”

River Phoenix poses in 1988. (Photo: George Rose/Getty Images)
River Phoenix poses in 1988. (Photo: George Rose/Getty Images)

Mathis described going to the bathroom not long after arriving at the club. When she came out, she said, Phoenix appeared to be a in a scuffle with another man. Security forced them out of the place by way of a side door, and Mathis followed Phoenix onto the street. He fell to the ground and began convulsing, she recalled.

“What have you done? What are you on?” Mathis recalled yelling at the man.

She remembered that he yelled back at her, “Leave him alone, you’re spoiling his high.”

Mathis attempted to get back into the Viper Room through the side door, but it was closed, so she had to go around to the front. She quickly summoned Phoenix’s brother and sister, and Joaquin made the heartbreaking call for help.

“I knew he was high that night, but the heroin that killed him didn’t happen until he was in the Viper Room,” Mathis said. “I have my suspicions about what was going on, but I didn’t see anything.”

Mathis and Phoenix met when they were both 19, when he asked her for a cigarette at an L.A. club. They began dating after both were cast in The Thing Called Love.

River Phoenix and Samantha Mathis, center
River Phoenix and Samantha Mathis in The Thing Called Love. (Photo: Michael Tighe/Donaldson Collection/Getty Images)

“This sounds incredibly cheesy, but I knew I would be with him one day,” Mathis said. “It just felt fated between us, and there was such chemistry.”

She described Phoenix as “sensitive and obsessive,” someone who “felt things in his heart very deeply.”

In an obituary, the Los Angeles Times described Phoenix this way: “Unlike other twenty-something stars branded with bad-boy and bad-girl images, Phoenix was described as the model of good health, clean living, and professional dedication — a cleaned-up ’90s James Dean. He was known as a vegan, or ultra-vegetarian, who would not eat meat or dairy products or wear leather.”

As far as Mathis knew, he was sober during their relationship.

“In the days before he died, though, I knew something was going on,” she acknowledged to the Guardian.

Director Peter Bogdanovich, a friend of Phoenix’s who had directed him and Mathis in The Thing Called Love, told Entertainment Weekly in November 1993 that he had suspicions about the company Phoenix was keeping at the time of his death.

“We were all worried about the crowd he was with,” Bogdanovich said. “L.A. bothered him. Something about it triggered all the more difficult parts of his life.”

In her interview, Mathis said that had Phoenix lived, she thinks he would be “acting, directing, saving the environment, just living and hanging out.”

Then again, he might not have been in the entertainment industry at all.

“River said to me in that last year, ‘I just have to make one more movie to put away enough money so my youngest sister can go to college,’” Mathis recounted. “I don’t know if that was true, but I remember him saying that.”

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