The L.A. coroner’s office picked up the phone. At the end of the line a voice cracked.
Was Jen Syme there?
Coroner’s Office investigator, Lt. Cheryl MacWillie, confirmed that, indeed, the body of Jennifer Syme was in their care.
Did they need someone to identify the body?
Lt. MacWillie responded that the body had already been identified by driver’s license. Had it not been for the license, the man on the phone, Keanu Reeves, would have certainly needed to come identify the remains.
Although he’s one of the biggest box-office attractions of all-time, Keanu Reeves has had his share of devastating tragedies that could have easily derailed any man. Abandonment. Bewilderment. Death. For those who are not emotionally disconnected, the journey through mortality ushers in facets of mourning which are par for the course.
Yet, somehow, Keanu has been able to swim past the crashing tides of tragedy without drowning. But, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t swallowed some water along the way. Just don’t expect him to tell you about it.
The First Cut
English-born Patricia Taylor, 21, was a showgirl performing at a Beirut casino when a 19-year old Samuel Nowlin Reeves spotted her. He was awestruck. They fell in love, and before the both of them knew it, Taylor would become pregnant and the two would marry. “She roped me right in as soon as I saw her,” Samuel said in a 2001 interview. “When she got pregnant, she just flat out told me, ‘I’m going to pop out the little buggah, so we’re getting married.’ It was fine with me.”
Although they had two children, Keanu and Kim, things spiraled out of control for the couple due to Samuel’s propensity for trouble, drugs and alcohol. After only two years, Samuel abandoned his family, taking off with his brother to travel and “care for horses owned by his step-father.”
Patricia and her two children took off. They lived in Australia for one year, skipped to New York, before finally taking root in Toronto. Throughout their travels, Keanu would sporadically see his biological father, visiting him occasionally on his 25-acre farm in Kaua’i. It was a time of heartbreak for the young Reeves, his father whisking through his life like a ghost unable to anchor itself. In a 2000 Rolling Stone interview, Keanu expressed how he rarely revisits this phase: “Jesus, man. No, the story with me and my dad’s pretty heavy. It’s full of pain and woe and f*cking loss and all that sh*t.”
Keanu had been dabbling in acting in Canada, and when he turned 13, he was ready to do two things: leave his absentee father behind, and shoot for the stars with his career. He visited him one more time at his Hawaii farm.
It was at night. We were in Kauai. And I remember him speaking about the stars. Something about how the world is a box. And I looked up, and I had no clue what he was talking about. [Laughs] “No, Dad, the earth is round. It’s not a rectangle, man.” No, I’m sure he didn’t say that. But I remember him speaking about the stars as we looked up.
It was the last time the budding movie star has seen his father. In 1994, after years of drug-induced debauchery, Samuel was arrested at the Hilo International Airport for attempting to sell heroin. Facing 10 years, he was released in 1996 on parole. Now suffering from multiple ailments, Samuel hoped to see his estranged son before the damage to his body caught up with him. “Keanu said my life was ‘tragic’ and, oh boy, does that hurt. Sad, yeah? I never figured things would end up this way. But he’ll always be my boy.”
By 1986, Keanu had acted in several stage plays and made-for-TV movies in Canada. He was doing well enough that he was offered a part in the Rob Lowe-Patrick Swayze vehicle, Youngblood. The acting bug had sunk its fangs deep into Reeves. When filming on the movie wrapped, he made the decision to set up permanent residence in L.A.
I got a green card, jumped in my car, drove across the border from Canada and came to LA. I had some speakers in boxes in the back. If I was with a girl, I’d take out the speakers and put them on the roof so we could dance. I’d throw camping equipment in the back and go off for weekends.
Reeves would gain recognition in films like River’s Edge, Dangerous Liaisons and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and in 1989, he starred in the Steve Martin comedy, Parenthood. The film would become the conduit to one of the most influential relationships of his life: River Phoenix.
“Actually, I met Keanu through my ex-girlfriend Martha [Plimpton] while they were doing Parenthood—they were sucking face regularly,” Phoenix told Interview magazine. “My brother, Joaquin [Phoenix], otherwise known as Leaf, was also in it. So, Leaf and Martha were his buddies before I was even a friend of his. Then I met up with him on I Love You to Death. And I liked the guy. I wanted to work with him. He’s like my older brother. But shorter.”
While Phoenix looked to him as an older brother, Reeves admired the courageous and rebellious nature of River. “I enjoyed his company. Very much. And enjoyed his mind and his spirit and his soul. We brought good out in each other. He was a real original thinker. He was not the status quo. In anything.”
After starring together in I Love You to Death, Phoenix and Reeves would work together again — in lead roles — in Gus Van Sant’s controversial My Own Private Idaho. The film would mark a dangerous turn in Phoenix’s behavior.
Idaho was a Shakespearian tale filled with drugs, sex, and debauchery on the streets of Portland. Reeves and Phoenix embodied their characters — young sex hustlers — by actually staying out nights on the Portland streets themselves. But, unlike Reeves, Phoenix couldn’t help but to delve deeper.
He began using heroin. He came to the set disheveled and unwashed. And, on one occasion, he collapsed unconscious during the filming of a scene.
My Own Private Idaho became somewhat divisive among audiences and critics alike, but praises were heaped upon Phoenix’s performance. The two young stars made it out of the production alive, but River was coming undone.
Reeves’ and Phoenix’s paths would not cross on film again. While Keanu was filming the movie that would make him a Hollywood megastar, Speed, Phoenix overdosed on a toxic concoction of cocaine, morphine, and valium outside The Viper Room, an L.A. club owned by Johnny Depp. He suffered five seizures before becoming unconscious.
Keanu doesn’t talk about his friend’s death much. He’s quiet about it to the point it’s clear the event affected him immensely.
“It’s something he thinks about all the time, something he never really talks about,” a friend of Reeves told People in 2001. “Friends know not to go there with him.”
Perhaps due to the grief associated with the loss of a close companion, Reeves’ star wouldn’t shine quite as bright as onlookers would have thought following the gigantic success of Speed. But, five years later — at the tail end of the 90s — he would star in one of the most successful film franchises in the history of cinema. Before the end of the decade, though, Keanu would also experience one of the most devastating losses of his life.