10 Wild Stories From Hollywood Hangout 'The Viper Room'

At the height of its success, Los Angeles’ famous Viper Room nightclub — then owned by Johnny Depp — was the center of young Hollywood. It opened in 1993 on the Sunset Strip, and guests could get their nightly fix of drinks, music, and celebrity excitement. Maybe too much. After River Phoenix died outside in October of '93, the young club developed a new reputation: one of crime, drugs, fights, and countless drunken nights.

10. John Frusciante's Performance

On the same night that River Phoenix died, Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante performed a set while strung out on heroin. He could barely get through it, and the set was a complete buzzkill — that must have been a bad night to be at the club.

Bad Reputation

"His upper teeth had fallen out," a witness of the event said. "His legs, arms and ankles were pocked by cigarette burns and his fingernails were bloodied. From that night and on, The Viper Room’s reputation as a messy dungeon-like hangout on Los Angeles’ famous Sunset Strip was set — it was a place anything could happen, where Johnny Law was nowhere to be found.

9. Poker Ring

As all the drunken and murderous mayhem took place at the club, something less deadly (but still illegal) was taking place in its basement. According to an interview on 20/20, Molly Bloom regularly hosted Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck, and Tobey Maguire for poker games whose stakes rose to $100,000. 

Organized Crime

Molly made the mistake of taking a percentage from each game’s winning pot. But doing so automatically made her guilty of organized crime. She then got caught up in money dealings with mobsters, and it wouldn’t take long for the FBI to raid the club and bring all the gambling to a halt. 

8. The Depth of Depp

In 1999, without warning, The Viper Pit's co-owner Anthony Fox alleged that Johnny Depp conspired with four others to commit fraud using the club’s money! Johnny was prepared to testify against Fox in court, but to everyone’s surprise, Fox suddenly went missing.

19 Days Later

Nineteen days later, Anthony's truck and .38-caliber rifle were found abandoned in Santa Clara, California, on January 6, 2002. His body was never found, and Johnny was accused of killing his friend. In 2004, Johnny cleared his name by giving his share of the club to Anthony Fox’s daughter.

7. Slipknot's Stir

Slipknot frontman Corey Taylor took his reputation to new drunken depths after he was kicked out of a restaurant and stumbled into the Viper Room. He took on a dare from the friend: "I kicked that plate glass window," he said, "wearing shorts. It shatters and I turn around and there is a cop car sitting right at the red light."

Broken Window

"I didn’t even try to run," he continued. "I just walked over and put my hands on the hood. They were very cool about it. They very politely handcuffed me and sat me on the curb right outside the Viper Room. People are coming out and laughing at me. I just start spitting at them and cursing them. The cops throw me in the back of the cop car, and I just passed out in the back seat."

6. Pussycat Dolls Start

Now to something not so tragic. In 1995, Pussycat Dolls founder Robin Antin was just assembling her first crew of girls. It was The Viper Room that hosted their first performance, and just like that, Robin became a regular.


After a string of successful performances, Robin's crew of dancers eventually caught the attention of a record executive who signed them! “It was a new time of burlesque, a new fresh take on it. I was at the forefront of bringing it back,” Robin said.

5. Kate Moss's Birthday

In '95, Johnny Depp threw a birthday party for his then-girlfriend Kate Moss. The iconic 21st birthday at The Viper Room might have birthed the fashion phenomenon known as “heroin chic," which focuses on angles and laid back attitudes. Australian star Jason Donovan was a guest — and he almost died.

Party's Over

He kept snorting coke and nearly died from seizures! "I knew the symptoms all too well," he wrote in his memoir, "for it was not the first time this had happened to me. My heart was racing, my vision was blurring and I was becoming disorientated. I tried to steady myself but my legs buckled under me and I fell to the floor." He collapsed and was carried out on a stretcher.

4. Rockstar Bartender

Thousands of struggling artists work in food and nightlife before making it big. But even after the band's album landed in the top 5 on the Billboard 200, Counting Crows frontman and Viper Room employee Adam Duritz kept working as a bartender at the club. He had good reasons.

Friends For Life

"The only people I knew in L.A. were the people who worked at the Viper Room, so that's where I would hang out. It was fun," Adam told USA Today. Imagine getting your martini mixed by a guy who was selling out arenas.

3. Mob Ties

Before Johnny Depp bought the club in 1993, it was called The Cotton Club, and it was owned by infamous gangster Mickey Cohen. He ran all mob operations out of the club's basement (the same one Leo would eventually play poker in). Eventually, he turned the place into a strip club.

Shut Down

After government ordinances effectively shut the club down, Mickey Cohen was arrested for tax evasion (that's how they get all the gangsters, huh?) and forced to sell the property. In the hands of new ownership, the strip club became a jazz club called the Melody Room.

2. Ghost Adventures

Ghost Adventures is an American reality show documenting ghosts throughout America, and in 2017, they visited the Viper Room. Ghost hunters recorded ghostly voices, which they played for the woman who'd worked at the club for over a decade, Rita Fiora. She said they sounded like River Phoenix.

Rita's Say

She wasn't surprised. "I’ve had my hair yanked, a hand on my leg," she said of the club's ghosts. "Oh yeah, they’re grabby, the guy ghosts. But there’s a chick ghost too, she was texting me once from a dead number. I’d talk out loud to her, and she’d text me a response. She was mad that I couldn’t see her."

1. River Phoenix

Family and friends of River Phoenix were scattered around The Viper Room club on that tragic night of October 30th, 1993. Flanked by his girlfriend Samantha Mathis and younger siblings Rain and Leaf, known today as Joaquin, River could never have predicted that his life would soon end.

Plans Shifted

Mathis remembers that they weren't supposed to stay at the club very long, “But when we arrived he said to me: ‘Oh, there are some people playing music tonight in the club who want me to play with them – that’s OK, right?’” 

Something Wasn't Right

“I knew something was wrong that night, something I didn’t understand," Mathis continued. "I didn’t see anyone doing drugs but he was high in a way that made me feel uncomfortable — I was in way over my head." Her instincts proved right.

Downhill Fast

Mathis' bad feeling turned quickly into her worst nightmare. After witnessing River getting tossed from the club over a tussle with a stranger, she followed him outside. On the sidewalk, she found River overdosing. She scrambled for help, but it was too late.

Within The Hour

During the chaotic scene, Joaquin called 911, Rain attempted CPR on her brother, and people tried to keep the prying eyes of clubgoers away. Ultimately, River was taken to the hospital, where he died from a toxic combination of cocaine and morphine.

The Aftermath

The news rippled throughout the country like a shockwave. How could River Phoenix — squeaky clean, planet-loving, vegan, social-activist River Phoenix — have vanished from the world so quickly? There were no easy answers, least of all for the people who knew him best.

He Didn't Want Fame

His mother, Arlyn Heart, told Esquire magazine about her son's disconnect to his lofty position, “As River grew, he did become more and more uncomfortable being the poster boy for all good things. He often said he wished he could just be anonymous. But he never was.”

Deep Loneliness

“When he wasn’t a movie star," Arlyn continued, "he was a missionary. There’s a beauty in that – the man with the cause, the leader – but there’s also a deep loneliness." While River had many famous friends, it was only his siblings that understood his complicated headspace.

Childhood In Business

River started acting full-time at ten years old. Over the next 13 years, he landed TV shows, made 15 films, and earned an Academy Award nomination. Endless family drama mixed with ongoing career struggles meant River didn’t have much time to pump the brakes, or even to enjoy life like a normal kid should. And being raised in a cult certainly didn't help things.

Raised In A Cult

It's no secret that the Phoenix family were members of the Children of God cult, though its effect on River's early life isn't much discussed. He was just three years old when his parents moved the family to Caracas, Venezuela, to evangelize on the cult's behalf.

On To Hollywood

From hippie upbringings to cult members, life for the Phoenixes only became more out of the ordinary. Arlyn and her husband, John, eventually fled with their children back to the states, and after a few years, they landed in Los Angeles.

Phoenix Kids Perform

Soon after, the Phoenix kids began performing. River and Rain sang on the street for money, landing gigs together on TV shows. On paper, it sounds fairly chaotic, but Rain has a different view of those years with her siblings.

Rain Speaks

"We were all close. There was a lot of laughter in our group. Laughing. That’s what I think of when I think of us as children, " Rain told The Guardian. The uniqueness of their family free-spirits fledged a tight-knit bond between the Phoenix kids.

Missing Normal Childhood

In 1987, a 13-year-old Joaquin once told tv crew that filmed them at home, “We kinda miss [having a normal childhood] sometimes, missing our friends, but when we go someplace we get to meet other people. But then you have to say goodbye to them.” 

Rebellious Nature

While Rain's very careful about what she says about her family, she's started opening up about River: “There is a part of River that I carry in me," she said. "This extreme left-of-centre rebelliousness, thinking outside the box, doing whatever you have to do to let your soul speak."

He Hated Fame

When asked about the ease of getting caught up in the fog and mirrors of Hollywood celebrity, River famously retorted, “Mmm, not for me, it isn’t.” Fame was never on his radar as something he was remotely comfortable with.

Why Not Quit?

In fact, River was notorious for diverting most interviews to the cause nearest to his heart — environmentalism. Even Samantha Mathis said he only wanted to make one more movie to fund his littlest sister's education. 

At Odds With Public Life

At one point, River grew so tired of dealings with the press and their negative insinuations about his parents and childhood, that he told them that he lost his virginity at four years old. Joaquin later confirmed his brother only said that as a frustrated joke.

Prying Questions

Those same frustrations haunt the rest of the Phoenixes, primarily Joaquin. In recent years, he's started to speak about his late brother, though only after having been peppered with stinging personal questions about it since age 19.

Reclusive Joaquin

Now the most famed Phoenix, Joaquin has figured out how to balance his staunch values — the same veganism, environmentalist, rebellious anti establishment sensibility — while existing as a A-list star. His strategy? He's extremely private.

Rise in Profile

Though Joaquin’s private life remained a mystery, his film career was exploding. Her, Walk the Line, and Gladiator were only a few of the many movies that established Joaquin as one of the biggest talents of his generation.

The Big Interview

Until early 2020, Joaquin hadn’t done a major interview in years. But there was a ton of Oscar buzz around him because of Joker, so he agreed to have a chat with Anderson Cooper. 

Common Experiences

Anderson, like Joaquin, lost his brother at a young age. Carter Vanderbilt died by suicide in 1988. In the interview, Anderson talked to Joaquin about how he struggled with his grief and mourning his brother. Joaquin started feeling more comfortable with Anderson after learning about the host's connection.

The Bold Truth

From there, he began to open up: “You had said that, you know, for years you’d find it difficult to say your brother’s name, or to just talk about him," he said. "I really identify.” This would definitely be a strong reason to not want to talk publicly about your brother.

A Star's Admission

Joaquin never talked about River publicly, but he chose to remember him in his own personal ways. He mentioned to Anderson that he always feels his brother’s presence in his work. He thinks there’s a connection to River in all of his movies.

A Touching Tribute

Joaquin had another opportunity to honor his brother’s impact when he won his Oscar for Best Actor. as Arthur Fleck in The Joker. The actor ended his speech, “When he was 17, my brother [River] wrote this lyric. He said, ‘Run to the rescue with love and peace will follow.’”

Joaquin kept his pain to himself, and that was not unlike many other Hollywood superstars. In fact, one actor hitting the mainstream around the same time as Phoenix was dealing with a serious emotional trauma himself.

Keanu Reeves spends his days in a lot of the same ways you might. A typical morning means taking public transportation, grabbing a coffee on the corner, or maybe pausing on a public bench to scroll his phone and gulp down a snack.

Despite a legendary career, he's earned a specific kind of celebrity reputation: the everyman. An average joe known for popping into public places — like the subway — Keanu's normalness is slightly more weighty. Given his past, it makes sense.

When he wasn't kicking butt or combating the supernatural, the action star lived a difficult life. Keanu's troubles began at an early age and shaped his perceptions on the values of fame and fortune.

Born in Beirut, the Reeves family quickly relocated to his father's native Hawaii, though they didn't stay for long. Keanu's father, who had a history of drug addiction, abandoned the family when Keanu was only 3 years old.

Following the divorce, Keanu's mom, an English costume designer, did whatever was necessary to take care of her children, which often meant moving. Packing boxes and starting at new schools became routine for Keanu.

Before his 16th birthday, Keanu's family moved from Beirut to Hawaii, Sydney, New York City, and Toronto. Bouncing around to different schools was a challenge made even tougher by his learning disorder — dyslexia.

A few outlets claimed the learning disorder drastically affected Keanu's education experience, but he explained his own perspective: "I wasn't the best student, but I don't remember having trouble fitting in. I kind of blended in."

It's not hard to conjure an image of a less-than-bookish, hockey-obsessed teen Keanu. The classroom bored him. Where he exerted the most energy was in theater productions and in between the hockey goalposts.

An injury stamped out Keanu's dreams of turning pro on the ice, so when he was 17, he made the leap to pursue acting seriously. His stepfather at the time was a Hollywood director, and the allure of Los Angeles was hard to ignore.

So, he dropped out of high school and started booking gigs. Paul Aaron, his stepfather who worked in show business, helped Keanu navigate the industry. Once he had a few credits under his belt, he gassed up his Volvo and set out for California.

The late '80s saw Keanu scoring roles that clinched his place as a talent to watch. Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, a cult classic, was a launchpad to more serious roles.

Becoming one of Hollywood's most sought after young leads, Keanu was no longer blending in as he had in the classroom. On each new project, he met like-minded young actors. One, in particular, became a fast friend.

Keanu and River Phoenix spoke of each other often, forming a brother-like bond. Tragically, two years after making their indie drama, My Own Private Idaho, River overdosed and passed away at 23 years old.

Losing River had a profound effect on Keanu. He became more focused than ever before on his craft, and it was during this time that he officially became an A-lister with blockbuster hits like Speed and later, The Matrix.

Keanu felt growing as an actor helped him keep his connection to River alive. "Grief changes shape, but it never ends," he once said. Less than ten years after his friend's untimely death, another awful blow befell the actor.

In 1998, Keanu attended a party with friends where he was introduced to actress Jennifer Smye. Instantly, they clicked. The couple was deeply in love and preparing for a future and a family.

Less than a year after meeting, Jennifer and Keanu received fantastic news: they were pregnant. Eager to be the father he never had, Keanu was attentive, prepared, and ready for their new chapter to begin.

But on Christmas Eve, 1999, their daughter Ava was stillborn. In his own words, the "absurd" and "unfair" loss was too much for the relationship to take. They ended it a few weeks later.

As if he hadn't endured enough, in April of 2001, Jennifer lost her life in a car accident. The pain of these events drastically impacted Keanu and contributed to his not pursuing relationships for years.

"I miss being a part of their lives and them being a part of mine," he said. "I wonder what the present would be like if they were here... I miss all the great things that will never be." Even entangled in the worst imaginable losses, he didn't give up on the future.

For the entirety of Keanu's life, in the turmoil and success, his constants were his sisters: Kim, Karina, and Emma. In particular, his younger sister Kim has always been his best friend.

Right when his career skyrocketed, the Reeves' were dealt a terrible blow. Kim was diagnosed with leukemia. Keanu spent every available moment at her bedside, in awe of her strength.

In an interview, Keanu said, "She's so brave, and I want the very best for her. You can star in hit movies, but that's nothing compared to going through what Kim's been through."

After years of hospital stays, Kim's many brutal treatments worked to fight her cancer. She entered remission in 1999. In the wake of his sister's battle, Keanu was inspired to get involved in giving back to other people impacted by cancer.

Ever the private type, Keanu let slip in 2009 that he had started a foundation 5 years previously that provides aid to children's cancer hospital and cancer research efforts. Of course, he is a quiet affiliate who did not attach his name to the charity.

Philanthropy was an obvious choice for Keanu, a guy who brushes aside money as the last thing on this mind. He's a rare breed of person who faced immense hardships, yet maintained an unflinching moral code.

His kindness reached headlines when Keanu was photographed speaking to a homeless man he befriended. Paparazzi caught them sharing a meal as he listened attentively to the man's stories.

Another moment highlighting his decent nature was shared by actress Octavia Spencer on a talk show. She remembered right after moving to LA to chase her dreams, her car broke down en route to an audition.

Peeling up on a motorcycle, identity concealed beneath a helmet and dark sunglass, Keanu stopped and asked Octavia, "Hey, do you need some help?" Once he pulled off his helmet to push her car off the road, she was stunned to see the Good Samaritan was Keanu Reeves.

In more recent news, a Twitter story went viral after a mechanical issue forced a United flight to land in Bakersfield, California, instead of Los Angeles as scheduled. Keanu and a group of fellow passengers made lemonade out of their sour situation.

They rented a van and documented their road trip with the Matrix star. In a travel headache, Keanu was the man reading off fun trivia about Bakersfield, singing along to country tunes, and sipping on a convenience store Gatorade.

It just shows you, when Keanu Reeves pops up in public, it's not a trick or a publicity stunt. So maybe, if you see him, sit down beside him and say "hello." He might regale you with some trivia about his most iconic role ever.

He might tell you, for instance, that during the first 45 minutes of The Matrix, he only has 80 lines of dialogue in total. His character learns about the true nature of reality, which leads to 44 of those lines solely being questions (one question every minute).

Then, he might tell you he's one of the few actors who does most of his own stunts. During the scene where he speaks with Morpheus on the phone, he actually climbed out of a window 34 stories up. The list of Matrix facts goes on.

He was asked to read three books prior to making the film: Simulation and Simulacra, Out of Control, and Evolution Psychology. These where his red pills, so to speak — the director wanted him to get into a very meta headspace.

In the third and final film, the epic ending battle between Neo and Smith appears to take place in the pouring rain. However, look closely, and you'll the "raindrops" were actually millions of bits of the Matrix code showering down, implying the world was destabilizing.

There's a scene where one character refers to Neo as "Copper Top." This nickname is actually a slang term for Duracell batteries, the type Morpheus shows Neo as he explains how the human race became an energy source.

This massive loop-highway for the epic action sequence in The Matrix Reloaded was built on the decommissioned Alameda Point Navy Base specifically for the movie . The scene took three months to shoot, and afterward, the entire thing was destroyed.

After the second two movies were finished filming, crews broke down the sets and recycled them. Around 97 percent of the materials were shipped to places like Mexico to help build low-income housing. Do you think this red chair is in someone's living room?

One of the most gruelingly long and tiring scenes to film was the lobby shootout with Neo and Trinity. The whole thing took 10 days to shoot from start to finish, and there was no CGI involved.

At the beginning of the second film, the Audi that Smith's driving has a license plate that reads "IS5416." This was a reference to Isaiah 54:16 in the King James Bible: "Behold, I have created the smith that bloweth the coals in the fire, and that bringeth forth an instrument for his work; and I have created the waster to destroy."

There are also a ton of other Bible references, as well. For example, when Neo speaks to The Keymaker, he references verse 3:14 in the twenty-seventh book of the New Testament (which discusses creation), explaining Neo needs to knock out 27 blocks of power in under 314 seconds.

Lastly, Morpheus's ship is called the Nebuchadnezzar, which is a reference to King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon from the Bible. The king was famous for his conquests of Israel.

The epic scene where Neo fends off hundreds of Smith clones, also known as the "Burly Brawl," took a whopping 27 days to film. There have actually been entire feature films shot in that same time frame.

A movie as visually dazzling and intellectually stimulating as The Matrix takes a boatload of planning before shooting even begins. Over the course of five years, the Wachowski siblings worked through 14 drafts of the screenplay, and the final concept art was 500 storyboards long!

Warner Bros. needed the Wachowskis to prove themselves as talented directors before they were handed the reigns to The Matrix. So, they directed a much smaller thriller called Bound in 1996, which was very successful. Trust was earned, as well as the director's chair.

The famous "woman in red" scene was filmed using many pairs of real-life identical twins to give an authentic feel that the program Morpheus was showing Neo was repeating itself.

At the beginning of the first film, Room 101 isn't just a random room number. It's actually a reference to Room 101 from the dystopian novel 1984 by George Orwell. In the story, a prisoner is tortured using their own worst phobia inside.

Nearly every scene of the trilogy is bleak in color except at the very end. The last scene of The Matrix Revolutions is set in a park, and for the first time, viewers are shown lush vegetation and a bright blue sky.

The trilogy's finale, The Matrix Revolutions, was only the second movie ever to open in IMAX at the exact same time it opened in regular theaters. This was due to the second film's wild success when it was released in IMAX after regular theaters.

The film was shot almost entirely in Sydney, Australia, to save money. However, Sydney is such a beautiful place that it proved difficult to find run-down locations to film. Thus, many of the movie's urban-decay backdrops were handcrafted.

Matrix producers had two choices in mind to play Neo: Keanu Reeves or Johnny Depp. Reeves took it, obviously — but imagine how his life might have turned out if he hadn't?