Harrison Ford Was Key To Casting River Phoenix For The Lost Crusade's Young Indy Role

"Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade" may be the finale to the trilogy, but it opened by going back to the adventurer's earliest beginnings. In a 10-minute sequence set in 1912 Utah, we learn how the future Dr. Jones acquired his hat, his whip, and his fear of snakes. Harrison Ford was obviously much too old to play the teenage Indy during this cold open, so River Phoenix played the part instead.

Ford is more protective of Indiana Jones than he is many of his other roles. It's not surprising that Phoenix only played the part with his approval. However, Ford didn't just okay Phoenix's casting, he was the one who first proposed it. How did Ford know Phoenix could successfully play his younger self? Three years earlier in 1986, they had played father and son in "The Mosquito Coast."

Casting off of the Mosquito Coast

Based on a novel by Paul Theroux, "The Mosquito Coast" was adapted by Peter Weir (who directed) and Paul Schrader (who wrote the script). Ford played Allie Fox, a bullheaded inventor who relocates his family to the Honduras jungle. Phoenix played Fox's oldest son (and the story's narrator) Charlie, in only his third film after "Explorers" and "Stand By Me."

"Mosquito Coast" wasn't a success in its day and as far as Ford's catalogue goes, it remains obscure. However, the actor is proud of the movie; it was his last chance to play against type before he reached his movie star prime in the 1990s. His bond with Phoenix also transcended their characters. After Phoenix's tragic death in 1993, Ford told the New York Times: "He played my son once, and I came to love him like a son, and was proud to watch him grow into a man of such talent and integrity and compassion."

Phoenix, for his part, considered Ford one of his favorite actors and working together didn't change that: "I didn't know what to expect in the beginning. He was very down to earth, a very logical man, a very smart man, really educated. Practical. He's sturdy. He seems like psychologically, he's a sturdy man. A real father figure. In control. Very centered."

Considering they shared this mutual respect, it makes sense that Ford and Phoenix would want to work alongside each other again.

Playing the young Indy

Steven Spielberg is the one who explained how Ford pitched Phoenix's casting to him; apparently the elder actor played up the physical resemblance between Phoenix and his younger self. As Spielberg recalled:

"Harrison was actually the one who suggested River. He said to me: 'The guy who looks most like me when I was that age is this actor named River Phoenix...' So I met River and I thought he was great, and I cast him."

However, there was one part of Ford's appearance that Phoenix couldn't replicate; his chin scar. Granted, this wasn't something that had to be accounted for. It'd be absolutely plausible that the Indy who Phoenix was playing hadn't gotten the scar. Ford himself got the mark in a car accident as an adult. The filmmakers just couldn't resist providing an origin story for every bit of Indiana Jones, though. Thus, the young Indy accidentally cuts himself when using a whip for the first time and until the scene's end, he has a noticeable streak of blood on his chin.

Little details like this demonstrate that only Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones. When it came to offering a glimpse of the boy who the man had once been though, River Phoenix was perfect.