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And when, at last, her first child is born, the infant’s arrival on planet Earth is greeted with the sound of applause. But if somebody hugged him, he’d quickly squirm away. The Viper Room was a small club: a black box with a stage in the corner.The young man convulsing on the pavement is named River Phoenix.His brother is on a nearby pay phone, pleading with a 911 operator.Now, in a small house with an upside-down horseshoe over the front door, she is in labor, trying to push another life into the world. Some called it a spark, some called it a light, some called it a soul.She declines medical professionals, drugs, a drive to the nearest hospita l— but she is surrounded by friends. He was the kind of guy, said one friend, “that if you walked outside and it was snowing, you knew the first thing on his mind was making a snowball.” River loved to embrace friends in massive bear hugs, sometimes surprising them by lunging at them from behind.

It begins twenty-three years earlier, on a peppermint farm. Depending on your point of view, the number of them meant that he had a life full of lies and contradictions, or that he compartmentalized the different aspects of his existence with remarkable success—or that, like many twenty-three-year-olds, he was still discovering who he was, trying on different identities and figuring out how they connected to his fundamental self.

A young woman from New York City had quit her secretarial job, become a hippie, and wandered all the way to Oregon. The people who knew him, in whatever context, agreed on one thing, even if they fumbled for the vocabulary to describe it—River had a special quality, they said.

His sister is lying on top of his body, trying to stop him from injuring himself as his muscles twitch and his limbs flail against the concrete.

River Phoenix has overdosed on a speedball of heroin and cocaine, and has only minutes to live. These were skins he lived in, or masks he wore for a while.

Even for those of us who didn't come of age until after River Phoenix's reign, it's obvious that the actor had a big impact on Hollywood.

Whether it was his young, promising talent, his camera-ready looks, or just his exotic upbringing, he's still fascinating movie fans even twenty years after his death.