Actor Keanu Reeves is making box-office headlines with his groundbreaking John Wick movies, and while the Arch Motorcycle co-founder turns heads with his company’s latest model, the Method 143, many may not realize it was his personal early ’70s Norton Commando that he rode from Toronto to Florida to hand deliver Gus Van Sant’s script for My Own Private Idaho to convince fellow actor River Phoenix to join the cast in December 1990.
Reeves and Phoenix met while Reeves was filming Parenthood with Phoenix’s brother Joaquin in 1988. The two acted together for the first time in Lawrence Kasdan’s I Love You to Death the following year. Gus Van Sant had written a screenplay loosely based on Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, and Henry V, and wanted Reeves and Phoenix as his main protagonists. The story involves two friends, Mike and Scott, as they embark on a journey that takes them to Mike’s hometown in Idaho and then to Italy in search of Mike’s mother.
Van Sant decided to send the script to their agents, figuring they’d reject it. Reeves’ agent was keen, but Phoenix’s agent wouldn’t even show him the script. Van Sant asked Reeves to personally deliver the film’s treatment to Phoenix at his home in Micanopy, Florida, outside Gainesville. Reeves—then 26—rode his 1974 Norton Commando about 1,300 miles from Toronto. Phoenix agreed.
After reading the treatment, Phoenix agreed to play the role of Scott Favor. However, since Van Sant had already cast Reeves as that character, he had to convince River to take on the edgier role of the drug-addicted hustler Mike Waters. For his performance, Phoenix won Best Actor honors at the Venice Film Festival, the National Society of Film Critics, and the Independent Spirit Awards. The film grossed $6.4 million in North America, against a budget of $2.5 million. Its success solidified Phoenix’s image as an actor with edgy, leading-man potential after successful roles in Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade and Running On Empty, which won the 19-year-old a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.
On Halloween night in 1993, Phoenix died of combined drug intoxication after overdosing on the sidewalk outside Johnny Depp’s Viper Room nightclub in West Hollywood. He was 23.