Quentin Tarantino’s new movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood celebrates the bygone era of 1960s Tinseltown, which is much different than today. Star Leonardo DiCaprio came up in the 90s era, which is also quite a bit removed from the modern day world of filmmaking. While talking about his own early experiences in Los Angeles, trying to make it as a teen star, he recalled seeing his idol River Phoenix on the same day that the actor died.
Leonardo DiCaprio has revealed that he was one of the last people in Hollywood to see River Phoenix alive but the chance encounter was short lived, and DiCaprio didn’t actually get to speak to Phoenix, who was considered one of the best actors of his generation. Leo describes the moment as ‘ominous and sad’ and has carried it with him through his own career as a cautionary tale of what not to become. He says this about the day River Phoenix died on Halloween night, 1993, at Johnny Depp’s infamous club The Viper Room.
“I grew up revering River Phoenix as the great actor of my generation, and all I ever wanted was to have just an opportunity to shake his hand. And one night, at a party in Silver Lake, I saw him walk up a flight of stairs. It was almost like something you would see in Vertigo, because I saw there was something in his face, and I’d never met him – always wanted to meet him, always wanted to just have an encounter with him – and he was walking toward me and I kind of froze. And then the crowd got in my way, and I looked back and he was gone.”
DiCaprio continued to talk about his experience on that Halloween night. He had decided that he was going to speak to Phoenix or else, and was determined to find him. So he went looking.
“I walked back up the stairs and back down, and I was like, ‘Where did he go?’ And he was . . . on his way to The Viper Room. It was almost as if – I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s this existential thing where I felt like . . . he disappeared in front of my very eyes, and the tragedy that I felt afterward of having lost this great influence for me and all of my friends. The actor we all talked about. Just to be able to have that, always wanting to just-and I remember extending my hand out, and then . . . Two people came in front and then I looked back, and then he wasn’t there.”
River Phoenix was an acclaimed actor who starred in such classics as Stand By Me, The Explorers, My Own Private Idaho and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He died from a drug overdose outside of that infamous Hollywood club, which was at the time a Los Angeles landmark. Leonard DiCaprio claims that it all came full circle for him when he had to fly to New Orleans to meet about Interview with the Vampire, possibly taking over the role that Phoenix had already signed onto play. The part of the interviewer ended up going to Christian Slater.
Leonardo DiCaprio has stayed out of trouble for most of his young career, and hasn’t had too many brushes with the paparazzi. River Phoenix’s death shook him in a way that set him on a straight and narrow path. And he has since become one of the biggest names in Hollywood. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood opens in theaters July 26 and stars DiCaprio alongside Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie. This interview was first published in Esquire.