"Tell me how am I supposed to live without you
Now that I've been loving you so long
How am I supposed to live without you
And how am I supposed to carry on...."
River was now sixteen-years-old and Iris Burton faced the difficult task of moving her client away from childhood parts towards that of full adult roles. In what seemed like the perfect script to achieve this, River would be cast in his first top-billing role in William Richert's A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon. Excited by this project, River compared it with the film Risky Business which had successfully launched Tom Cruise's adult career. Only River's father saw the potential damage that playing the character could do to his son's career. It was only after the movie was released that River said, "The character was abusive to people, only out for himself, walking aimlessly through life. He was a jerk." Describing one positive result of the movie though, River said, "Jimmy Reardon is when we first had financial stability. That's when we bought a car that wasn't used or old."
After playing guitar on set and composing a possible theme tune for the movie, River was noticed by Island Records, sister-company of Island Pictures, the distributors of A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon. With financial backing from the studio, River began to write some songs and thought about putting a band together.
In what was perhaps an attempt to cancel out the image of his previous character, River's next role would be the complete opposite of Jimmy Reardon - that of honest, clean, patriotic American Jeff Grant, in the movie Little Nikita. During production, which began in January 1987, River began a long-lasting friendship with veteran actor and co-star Sidney Poitier.
1987 saw River arriving in New York City where he would meet up with his girlfriend Martha Plimpton and together the pair would begin work on Sidney Lumet's Running On Empty. Playing the character of Danny Pope, who had never had a stable childhood and longed for a normal life, was something that appealed very much to River. "I was really interested, there's a connection there," he said. "I think that's why the Running script appealed to me from the start."
By now though, John Phoenix's desire that his son should leave Hollywood was growing ever more stronger. The family's original intentions were to preach clean living, in a way that does not harm the environment and the entertainment business was to be used as a vehicle to achieve that goal. But the senior Phoenix was worried that not only this mission but also the family itself were now in imminent danger of being corrupted by Hollywood. "My father is worried that we could be ruined by this business," said River once during an interview. "It's got a lot of pitfalls and temptations, and he doesn't want us to become materialistic and lose the values we were brought up believing in."
Settling for a compromise with Arlyn and River who still felt passionately about acting, John once again moved his family still further away from Hollywood. This time, in fact, to the other side of the country to the town of Gainesville deep in the swampland of Florida. Here, in relative anonymity, River finally began to experience that "normal life" that he so longed for. He made many friends in the area and set his mind to forming the rock-band that he had promised himself he would do a year earlier. Following an interview with River, Premiere magazine wrote, "It's hard not to be touched by this beautiful boy struggling with grave moral issues. The impact of Phoenix's family situation on his ability to perform is difficult to overestimate. The Phoenixes are a team, a tribe, a set of beliefs. River can lose himself in a role because his family provides him with a physical, emotional and spiritual center."
Initially on their arrival, the family rented a large home on the outskirts of Gainesville on the banks of a large prairie swamp - Payne's Prairie, named after the early 1800's Seminole (Native American), King Payne. Eventually though, the family would move into a ranch with a twenty-acre estate in Micanopy, a small settlement 19 kilometers from Gainesville. "It feels so good to be home. It feels good to settle down and live in a family and see what it really is like," said River. "I never wanted the wealthy fantasies of limousines or the pride of arriving at school in nice clothes. I wanted money so we could buy a great piece of land and be self-contained. That impresses me, that really feels good. It feels like something's been accomplished."
River and Joaquin's Scooby-Doo
and Shaggy impersonations
were, by all accounts, hilarious....
In the relaxing environment of his new home, River looked objectively at his career and decided it was time for a change. "I just want to shed the old skin and work on real stuff about real people," he said at the time. "I'd like to do something that is significant without being blatant and corny. Something that's real candid and has a lot of form and strength." In a move that must have pleased his parents, River also began to take a much keener interest in human rights and environmental issues. "I want to give educational seminars," he said. "All very unbiased, all very neutral, reporting on important issues that are overlooked - from political oppression to an awareness of what's going on with the environment and the atmosphere and trying to show them where America's priorities lie as of now." River's mother organized several successful awareness seminars in the area and River began to give talks at venues such as the local school, for example.
After completing his small role in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, River began taking his new band Aleka's Attic on tour. It was whilst on the road on one such tour that he heard he had been nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Running On Empty. In March 1989, he attended the 61st Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles with his mother and girlfriend. By the summer though, that relationship had come to an end and River began working on his next project, I Love You to Death.
Upon his return home, River put his efforts back into his rock-band and it was around this time that he met his second girlfriend Sue Solgot. Feeling that it was time to move out of the family estate, River found an apartment for the two of them back in Gainesville. Although still very much committed to sharing the parental responsibilities with his wife, River's father would also move, not only out of the ranch, but out of the country altogether. River bought him a retreat in Costa Rica, something his father had always longed for.