What Was the Age Difference Between River Phoenix and Joaquin Phoenix?

Joaquin Phoenix is well-known for his exceptional talent as an actor, including roles in major films such as Gladiator, Her, and Walk the Line. While Joaquin has arguably attained the most fame, he is not the only talent in his family. In fact, he was not the original breakout star of the Phoenix clan.

River Phoenix rose to fame in the early 1980s

Joaquin and River Phoenix smiling, cooking in their home, 1985
Joaquin and River Phoenix | Dianna Whitley/Getty Images

The oldest of five, River was the first child of John and Arlyn Bottom, born in 1970, according to Biography. As the years went on, he would be joined by siblings Rain, Joaquin, Liberty, and Summer. The family spent the children’s younger years living in a variety of foreign countries as members of the Children of God religious movement.

Eventually, they became disenchanted and moving back to the United States in 1978. Taking the new last name Phoenix, the group moved to Los Angeles to try their hand at making it in Hollywood.

While all the children attempted acting, River had the greatest immediate impact. After his first role in TV series Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in 1982, he continued taking on roles until his career breakthrough in the well-loved film Stand By Me.

Receiving accolades for this role, Phoenix would continue to find success through the late ’80s and early ’90s, even receiving an Academy Award nomination at 18 for his role in Running on Empty. In concert, Joaquin began to find some small successes after a guest appearance on River’s show Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The two brothers had acting in common, and despite their age difference, had a close-knit bond for this reason.

River was 4 years older than his younger brother, Joaquin

While Joaquin had some initial success during River’s rise to fame, he decided to shun the spotlight in 1989 to travel alone through Latin America. Ultimately, however, River would tell him something that would change his life:

“You’re going to be a more successful actor than I am, you’re going to be better known than I am.”

River told Joaquin he would start acting again, and in 2019, Joaquin credited him with his success when receiving the TIFF Tribute Actor Award, according to Insider.

“He didn’t ask me, he told me. And I am indebted to him for that because acting has given me such an incredible life.”

Of course, River’s life would end tragically as the result of a drug overdose outside the Viper Room in 1993. With him at the time were his girlfriend, Samantha Mathis, Joaquin (who made the 911 call), and his sister, Rain, who were unable to save him despite their best attempts. Despite this tragedy and after two years out of the limelight, Joaquin would go on to become exactly what his brother had predicted: a star.

From Inventing the Abbotts in the ’90s to playing Johnny Cash in Walk The Line, to bringing the Joker to life in Joker, Joaquin has won Golden Globes, an Academy Award, a Grammy, and garnered many nominations. Still, the loss of his big brother clearly affected his career in many ways, both positive and negative.

River’s influence and legacy is still clear in Joaquin’s life

Persistently asked about the death of his brother over the years, Joaquin did not have an easy time discussing this, or feeling like people genuinely cared. According to Vanity Fair, in 2017, he mentioned the constant questions, noting that relative to explaining his feelings on the tragedy:

“It was just much easier to go, ‘F— you,’ which is an easier thing for me for whatever reason, than to explain it.” 

In a softer moment, a few years later, he discussed how he still felt River with him throughout his life;

“I feel like in virtually every movie that I made, there was a connection to River in some way … and I think that we’ve all felt his presence and guidance in our lives in numerous ways.”

While acting was their clear commonality, the two also shared a passion for environmental activism, including being committed vegans. Joaquin has continued to dedicate major time and effort to this social activism since his brother’s death.

He even went so far as to get arrested during a protest against climate change outside the U.S. Capitol. Moreover, Joaquin named his first son River after his big brother. While River Phoenix is long gone, it is clear he has left an indelible mark on his brother as an actor, an activist, and a human.

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