Fireworks, Pranks and Pot: ‘Stand by Me’ Stars Look Back on River Phoenix After 30 Years

Corey Feldman, Wil Wheaton and Jerry O’Connell tell TheWrap about fun — sometimes illegal — times with late actor

Last Updated: September 24, 2018 @ 12:29 PM

Corey Feldman smoked pot for the first time with River Phoenix while they were making “Stand By Me.” Actually, he had a lot of firsts while making “Stand By Me,” the classic coming-of-age film that turns 30 this month.

“This was an amazing time, and an especially amazing time for River and I to form a bond,” said Feldman, 45, who was 14 when he made the film.

“I was away from my abusive mother for the first time, and I was running around like a bird freed from the cage,” he added. “I went to my first nightclub, got drunk for the first time, kissed a girl for the first time, shot a music video for the first time, with River for his music, and even smoked weed for my first time, again with River — and also his first.”

Phoenix was 15 years old at the time. He would die seven years later at the age of 23, from an accidental drug overdose.

TheWrap looked back on the film and Phoenix in conversations with Feldman and the film’s other stars —  Jerry O’Connell, who was the youngest lead in the film at 11, and baby-faced Wil Wheaton, who turned 13 during filming.

“I remember that I instantly liked him and I wanted him to like me,” said Wheaton, now a 44-year-old actor and writer. “River was easy to get along with. … Our characters were best friends, so we just were, too. It was completely natural and uncomplicated.”

One of O’Connell’s favorite memories was of setting off a carload of fireworks with Phoenix and his other co-stars. Since fireworks were legal in Oregon, where “Stand By Me” was filmed, the young actors went to town.

“It was the happiest moment of my adolescence,” said the actor, now 42, who recently enjoyed a stint as a guest host on “Live With Kelly.” “We loaded up a car with them and went to River’s house and lit those up all night long.”

O’Connell spends time back Oregon while his wife Rebecca Romijn shoots her television series, “The Librarians,” in Portland. He told TheWrap how he has kept the fireworks tradition alive over the years with his family.

“We go buy a trunk-load of fireworks and light those mofos off on the beach because of my happiest memory from ‘Stand by Me,'” he said. “The light in the summer sky in July right now is exactly the same as it was when we were shooting the film. It doesn’t get dark until after 10 p.m. there.”

Wheaton recalled a day when the young performers put all of their hotel’s pool furniture under water. “We didn’t just dump the furniture in the pool,” he explained with a laugh. “We arranged it as if it was meant to be that way, like it just happens to be underwater.”

Wheaton also remembered how dedicated Phoenix was, even at the age of 15.

“I remember Kiefer [Sutherland] grabs River and throws him to the ground, holding a cigarette in his face. But Kiefer wasn’t really getting the front of that cigarette really close to River’s face, so River said, ‘Just put it right in there. I trust you… I want to use the fear of it,'” Wheaton recalled. “I remember thinking that was like a really mature and bold and risky thing to do as an actor.

“There was something really peaceful about him,” he added of the late actor. “He exuded this wisdom.”

O’Connell said his pride over the film’s legacy is mixed with a deep melancholy over the loss of Phoenix.

“It was on television a few months ago and I was with my children,” he said. “My kids are seven now and I’d say about 20 minutes in, they said, ‘This is boring,’ and they walked away. I stayed and watched rest of it. I have to say, it was really emotional for me. When River disappears at the end, it’s really sad for me.” (Watch it here at the 1:05 mark).

Drug experimentation led to dark places not just for Phoenix, but also Feldman, who had a long battle with addicition. He is focused on his music now, having collaborated with Snoop Dogg and other famous artists on his new album titled “Angelic 2 the Core.” But he took time out to remember his old friend.

“I was sad when it was over and we didn’t remain close,” said Feldman of Phoenix.  “[It was] probably because of our mothers and the inherent competitive nature that is wedged into the relationships of children in the industry.”

O’Connell, originally from New York, moved to Los Angeles at one point in his adulthood. “It was just a block away from where he passed,” he said of Phoenix, who died at the Viper Room night club in West Hollywood. “I’d stand there and say a little prayer to him.”

“Stand by Me,” directed by Rob Reiner, opened in limited release on Aug. 8, 1986 and expanded nationwide on Aug. 22 that year.