Was River Phoenix a Role Model?
April 18th, 2010

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Dear John,

The Food Revolution aptly conveys the message that a plant-based diet is supported by scientific data while its critics, particularly those who stand to lose money when the diet revolution picks up steam, present baseless public relation slogans and personal attacks. But I was bothered by your references to the late actor River Phoenix as a role model for compassionate living, because of Phoenix’s drug habit. Admittedly, to people with vegetarian beliefs this is not a fatal flaw of the book, but I think about what it will represent to readers who are not yet into a plant-based diet and desire to evaluate its pros and cons. They will evaluate the content for fair representation of the plant/meat & dairy schism. They will be looking for any distortions, misrepresentations, etc. that might discredit the book. These are the people who will say, “How can you have a compassionate vegan who publicly spoke out for animal rights while he was committing his own slow suicide by ingesting heavy drugs?” These are the people who most need to be influenced by this book! Vegan role models must value their own self-health first and above all. How do you explain the enigma of River Phoenix the compassionate person who eventually dies in the street from a drug overdose? Please tell me so I can respond to those who truly need to believe the contents of this book more than I.


Thank you for giving me the opportunity to respond. The late River Phoenix was my friend. I loved him very much. But I have never referred to him as a “role model for compassionate living.” Asking a young person in this country (River was only 23 when he died) to be a role model is asking an awful lot. Like all young people in these times, he had many challenges to confront and issues to resolve. These are not easy times for any of us. I think they are particularly difficult for young people. What are we leaving for them?

In The Food Revolution, I speak of the celebrities, including River, who have stuck their necks out for a more compassionate world. I do so not to imply that everything about their lives are or were exemplary, but to applaud them for taking a stand. At a time when athletic stars are paid $20 million to endorse shoes that other people are paid 20 cents an hour to make, I think it is tremendously important that some celebrities are choosing to use their status not for financial gain, but to promote the greater good of our world.

Specifically, what I said about River in The Food Revolution is that he was a devoted advocate of treating animals with respect, and of only eating foods that have been produced without cruelty – for this he was. And that he was a vegan with a tremendous commitment to animals and an unwillingness to sit back and enjoy his good fortune while there is so much needless suffering in the world – for this was true about him. And that he was an advocate for the creation of a thriving, sustainable, and compassionate world – for this he indeed was. From the bottom of my heart, I thank him for being who he was, and for the openness, gentleness, beauty, and vulnerability he shared with so many through his movies. He carried a heavy weight, being thrust into such prominence at such an early age. If he stumbled sometimes, this only shows, to me, that he was human.

River did not “commit slow suicide by ingesting heavy drugs.” He was not a regular drug user. In fact, this may be why, when he was exposed to heavy drugs on the tragic night of October 31, 1993, they were too much for him, and he died. River was extraordinarily sensitive, and had not developed any kind of tolerance for hard drugs.

Despite the efforts of some of us who knew him, the media was quick to sensationalize his death, and to exploit the drug aspect. It sold newspapers and magazines to report that the young actor had died from an overdose. I wish these same media outlets would give as much space and attention to the issues that were so close to River’s heart – to the environmental destruction, the cruelty to animals, the waste of food resources, and the damage to human health, that are the true cost of factory farm meat. And to the efforts some of us are making to uphold the spirits and support the lives of our young people, so that they will feel far less desire to use drugs, including alcohol, to soften the pain of growing up in a society that seems so often to care so little for their hearts and prayers.

Interested people might want to know about the work of Youth For Environmental Sanity (YES!), an organization that River devotedly supported. Rather than merely telling young people to “Just Say No,” YES! gives young people something to say YES to, and help in channeling their energies into constructive and positive change. YES! has put on 73 weeklong vegan youth action training camps and hundreds of daylong workshops – all of them completely drug-free. For more information, visit

With reverence for life,


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One Response to “Was River Phoenix a Role Model?”

  1. Natalia says:

    I just want to say that I am only 24 years old but I agree with everything you have said John.You see, the camera captured his soul. He was a good person. With an immense heart. I never knew him personally but, I just know it because. I have always been very in tune with my senses and the energies people and situations give off. I agree that the media only focuses on the dark side, because it is a money maker. That’s all they care about. Oh another young hollywood death to exploit.But he was just that………human. Like anyone and everyone, like you, like me. Just because he had his own personal issues to deal with does not mean that he was a fake,phony etc. Everyone should concentrate on the goodness of his heart and the good that he did with his little time on earth. He is truly an inspiration for me and anyone else who is sick and tired of seeing the world consumed by superficial and negative ideas. We all make mistakes, we all have flaws so we are no one to judge anyone else.

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