After River Phoenix Died, Harrison Ford Said He Loved the ‘Indiana Jones’ Actor ‘Like a Son’

River Phoenix had a brief but memorable Hollywood career. The actor got his start as a child star in the TV show Seven Brides for Seven Brothers before appearing in acclaimed films such as Stand By Me, My Own Private Idaho, and Running on Empty, earning an Oscar nomination for the latter. Sadly, he died of a drug overdose at age 23. After Phoenix’s death, he was remembered by many who had known him, including Harrison Ford, who appeared in two films with the young actor. In one, he played Phoenix’s father; in the other, Phoenix played a younger version of Ford’s character. 

Harrison Ford and River Phoenix starred in ‘The Mosquito Coast’ 

River Phoenix and Harrison Ford in The Mosquito Coast
[L-R] River Phoenix, Harrison Ford in The Mosquito Coast | Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

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Phoenix and Ford worked together on the 1986 Peter Weir film The Mosquito Coast. Based on a novel by Paul Theroux, the movie is about a man named Allie Fox (Ford) who grows disgusted with the American way of life. He decides to move his family to a remote area of Central America where he believes they can live a simpler, self-sufficient existence. Phoenix played Allie’s son Charlie. 

In a 1988 interview, Phoenix named his on-screen father as his favorite actor. 

“I didn’t know what to expect in the beginning. He was very down to earth, a very logical man, a very smart man, really educated. Practical. He’s sturdy,” he told The Washington Post. “He seems like psychologically, he’s a sturdy man. A real father figure. In control. Very centred.”

River Phoenix portrayed a young Indiana Jones

Several years after The Mosquito Coast, Phoenix and Ford again appeared in the same film, though they did not share screen time. In 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Phoenix played a teenage version of Ford’s adult character. In a sequence at the beginning of the film, young Indy discovers a gang of grave robbers who have stolen a valuable and historically significant gold crucifix. Indy snatches the cross, but ends up having to return it to the thieves after a wild chase. After taking the cross, one of the robbers gives Indiana Jones the signature hat he wears in all four films. 

It was Phoenix’s role in the earlier film that resulted in director Steven Spielberg casting him in the big-budget movie.

“Harrison was actually the one who suggested River,” Spielberg said, according to Far Out Magazine. “He said to me, ‘The guy who looks most like me when I was that age is this actor named River Phoenix’. It was Harrison Ford’s idea, because he played Harrison’s son in The Mosquito Coast. So I met River and I thought he was great, and I cast him.’’ 

Harrison Ford said he was ‘proud’ of River Phoenix

River Phoenix portrait
River Phoenix | George Rose/Getty Images

After Phoenix’s death, Ford commented on his relationship with the other actor in a statement to the New York Times, explaining that the father-son bond seen on screen wasn’t just acting. 

“He played my son once, and I came to love him like a son, and was proud to watch him grow into a man of such talent and integrity and compassion,” Ford said. “We will all miss him.”