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The Viper Room is famous for being the the sight of River Phoenix’s death in 1993. Johnny Depp owned the club in the ’90s and the new Vice series Dark Side of the ’90s devotes an entire episode to it. Sugar Ray singer Mark McGrath says the club represented the birth of paparazzi culture. 

Viper Room neon sign
The Viper Room | Barry King/WireImage

McGrath narrates the series and spoke with Showbiz Cheat Sheet by phone about it on June 15. We’ll have more with McGrath as he shares his memories of the Dark Side of the ’90s. With regards to the Viper Room episode, McGrath weighed in on the club’s role in paparazzi culture. The show airs Thursday at 10 p.m. on Vice. 

Johnny Depp gave celebrities safe haven in The Viper Room

In the ’90s, Depp wasn’t the star he is today. Pirates of the Caribbean would take him to the next level in 2003. However, he was already well known from 21 Jump Street, Edward Scissorhands and other movies. His relationships with stars like Winona Ryder and Kate Moss garnered attention, so he was sensitive to his celebrity guests at The Viper Room.

Johnny Depp interviews Hunter S. Thompson at the Viper Room
L-0R: Johnny Depp and Hunter S. Thompson | Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc

“It was one of the first celebrity bastions of safety because it was run by celebrities,” McGrath said. “Johnny Depp bought a club because he wanted to make sure his buddy, Chuck E. Weiss, still had a place to play. And 2, he wanted a place for his celebrity friends to hang out and not get bothered.”

Paparazzi quickly learned they could find more than Johnny Depp at the Viper Room

Once The Viper Room became known as a celebrity hangout, paparazzi began waiting outside for people to exit. Dark Side of the ’90s features footage from cameras capturing celebrities candidly on Sunset Blvd. outside Depp’s club.

“Ironically, it almost started the paparazzi culture because everybody knew that the celebrities were in there in The Viper Room because it only held about 150 people,” McGrath said. “Everybody had a name, was someone you knew. So people would stay outside waiting. I think it’s one of the first clubs to have real consistent paparazzi footage coming out which would eventually become a business in its own right.”

Paparazzi shot of Keanu Reeves entering the Viper Room
Keanu Reeves | Denny Keeler/Getty Images

McGrath went as far to say that the paparazzi culture that formed around Depp’s club and guests grew into today’s gossip institutions.

“It led to TMZ and everything you see today,” McGrath said. “[The Viper Room] really exploded the celebrity paparazzi culture that you see now. It kind of lit the match for what currently is the modus operandi of today.”

‘Dark Side of the ‘90s’ still addresses River Phoenix

The episode of Dark Side of the ’90s does address Phoenix’s death outside the club. However, the episode manages to show there was more to the Viper Room than Phoenix.

Viper Room River Phoenix Memorial
The Viper Room the day after the death of actor River Phoenix | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The Viper Room: Johnny Depp Co-Owned the Famous Bar With a Man Who Sued Him in 1999 and Has Been Missing Since 2001

“Obviously, that’s an unfortunate part of the legacy,” McGrath said. “It would be impossible to talk about The Viper Room or have an episode about The Viper Room without delving into that and that particular moment.”