Robin Platzer/Twin Images/Time Life Pictures/Getty
August 23, 2011 at 09:50 PM EDT

For those lucky few who had the opportunity to watch River Phoenix’s film career blossom right in front of their eyes, there’s no doubt it’s the sort of bragging rights they wish they didn’t have. Because for all those who had the chance to experience the young actor’s star-making turns in films like Running on Empty, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, My Own Private Idaho, and of course, Stand By Me, they also had to watch it all come to a sudden end when Phoenix, the eldest brother of Joaquin, passed away at the age of 23 from a drug overdose on October 31, 1993.

Today, August 23, marks what would have been Phoenix’s 41st birthday, and much like the tragic legacy of fallen stars like Heath Ledger and James Dean, he left us far too soon, with a looming, overwhelming sense of what could have been. While his career sadly only lasted a decade, there’s no question that he’d left an indelible mark on screen during his all-too-short time. Having earned a Golden Globe and Oscar nomination for his work as Danny, a talented pianist and son of two fugitives in Running on Empty, all we can do now, sadly, is speculate that he likely would have been up to those podiums plenty times more.

Still, for many fans, the ultimate love letter to Phoenix, and the testament to his talents, was his performance as Chris Chambers in Rob Reiner’s timeless coming-of-age tale Stand By Me. Phoenix played the part of the quietly intense, but devoted pal (who didn’t want a best friend like him growing up?) Chris with an earnestness and effortlessness that actors twice his age couldn’t have pulled off. It’s still nearly impossible to not get a lump in your throat and curse the irony of it all when, at the end of Stand By Me, you find out how his character passed away well before his time: In a tragic, most unfair way.

How do you remember River Phoenix best, PopWatchers? Which performance made you realize he was bound to be a big star?

Read more:

EW Archives: River Phoenix: A Tragic Farewell

EW Archives: River Phoenix’s Film Legacy

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