OBITUARIES

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 1993:

Actor, outspoken vegan, and
animal rights crusader River Phoenix,
23, overdosed October 31 from “acute mul-
tiple drug intoxication,” according to Los
Angeles County coroner Lakshmanian
Sathyavagiswaran.

An autopsy found
Phoenix’ body contained lethal levels of
both cocaine and heroin, along with traces
of Valium and marijuana, which may have
been either inhaled or ingested. The sher-
iff’s department ruled that foul play was not
involved. The death recalled Vegetarian
Times writer Debra Blake Weisenthal’s
1988 suggestion that Phoenix might be “the
next James Dean,” meaning the Rebel
Without A Cause actor who self-destructed a
generation ago in a sportscar crash, not the
pork-sausage-selling country music star of
almost the same name. For one thing,
Phoenix never touched pork sausage. For
another, he always had a cause.
“Vegetarianism is a link to perfec-
tion and peace,” he explained to
Weisenthal, “but it’s a small link. There
are lots of other issues: apartheid, vivisec-
tion, political prisoners, the arms race.”
He addressed them all.
Previously known for clean living,
Phoenix rose to stardom through a role in
Stand By Me (1986), his second film, fol-
lowing a stint in the TV series Seven Brides
for Seven Brothers and an appearance in
Explorers (1985). Even then he was a veter-
an performer, having begun at age five by
playing guitar while his three-year-old sister
Rain sang on the streets of Caracas,
Venezuela, as part of a missionary act to
promote the Children of God cult.
Born in Madras, Oregon, at the
height of the hippie era, Phoenix was taken
to Venezuela at age two when his parents
John and Arlynn joined the Children of
God. The family left the cult in 1977, just
before Phoenix led them into vegetarianism,
and made their way to Florida aboard a
freighter full of toys in 1980.
Of the trio of lifechanging events,
Phoenix always described becoming first a
vegetarian and then a vegan as the most sig-
nificant––and rarely gave an interview with-
out recounting how he developed his resolve
by watching other boys fish aboard the
freighter. “When I was old enough to real-
ize all meat was killed,” he told New York
Times writer Aljean Harmetz in 1989, in his
most succinct version, “I saw it as an irra-
tional way of using our power.”
Phoenix’s films included Running
On Empty (1988), which earned him an
Academy Award nomination for his perfor-
mance as the 15-year-old son of two fugi-
tives who had committed federal crimes
decades earlier in protest against the
Vietnam War; Mosquito Coast (1986),
with Harrison Ford; Indiana Jones and the
Last Crusade (1989), also with Harrison
Ford; Little Nikita (1988), with Sidney
Poitier; and A Night In The Life of Jimmy
Reardon (1988). During 1990-1992,
Phoenix tried to develop a rock-and-roll
career with a band called Aleka’s Attic, but
returned to acting this year, starring in Dark
Blood, which was three weeks from com-
pletion of shooting, and signing to play the
lead in Interview with a Vampire.
Ironically, Phoenix seemed alert
to the potential hazards of life in the
Hollywood fast lane, despite his self-
described “naive” communal background.
“You can go astray,” he mused to
Weisenthal, “and everything can be
destroyed. I’m aware of that, but I don’t
think I’ll get into that. Maybe I’m lucky,”
he claimed. “I’m not really attracted to all
of that now. I think I’ll be strong enough,
but I do see there’s that chance.”
Phoenix is survived by his parents,
who managed his career; by sisters Rain,
Liberty and Summer; and by his younger
brother Leaf, who was with him at his
death, along with actress Samantha Mathis.
British film director Duncan
Gibbons, 41, died November 4 of burns
suffered while rescuing a stray cat named
Elsa from a wildfire in Malibu, California,
that killed at least two other people and
incinerated 350 buildings. The cat, though
also burned, survived. Gibbons’ portend-
ingly titled major film credits included Fire
With Fire (1986), Eve of Destruction
(1991), and Third Degree Burn (1993).
Tobacco heiress Doris Duke, 80,
reputedly the world’s wealthiest woman,
died of heart failure October 28 in Beverly
Hills, California. Her will bequeathed $1
million to the New York Zoological Society
and set up two new animal protection funds,
the Doris Duke Foundation for the
Preservation of Endangered Wildlife and the
Doris Duke Foundation for the Preservation
of New Jersey Farmland and Farm Animals.
The latter is also to provide for the wildlife
on Duke’s extensive New Jersey holdings.
The bulk of her estate, however, more than
$1 billion, will endow the Doris Duke
Charitable Foundation, which is to fund
projects in the areas of the performing arts;
the environment; prevention of cruelty to
children and animals; and biomedical
research. The new foundation, wholly sepa-
rate from the extant Doris Duke Foundation,
is to be headed by her butler of six years,
Bernard Lafferty, and her confidante
Marian Oates Charles. It is expected to
begin operations in three to five years, after
the estate clears probate, which could be a
protracted procedure because of challenges
to the will by other claimants.
Dog trainer William Koehler,
85, died of heart failure November 16 at
home in Sequim, Washington. Koehler
reputedly trained more than 25,000 dogs in
50 years, including World War II service
with the U.S. Army K-9 Corps and 20 years
as head dog trainer for Walt Disney Studios.
His six books on teaching dogs to obey,
track, and guard have together sold more
than a million copies.
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