How Harrison Ford Helped River Phoenix Prepare To Play Young Indiana Jones

Film fans and the entire Hollywood community lost a giant in the acting world when River Phoenix tragically passed away on Halloween night in 1993. Fortunately, he left behind some incredible performances that ensure his legacy will live on for years to come. One of his most enduring roles came in 1989 when Phoenix portrayed a young version of Harrison Ford in the thrilling opening sequence to "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." If the Shanghai sequence at Club Obi Wan in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" is Spielberg's homage to James Bond, the "Last Crusade" opening adventure shows the visionary director's love for classic Westerns. It's Spielberg at his absolute best, propelling the entire movie forward while also giving Indy fans a fun backstory that could have been an entire movie on its own.

Phoenix is never doing a straight up impression of Ford but the similarities between the two are undeniable. There is still a lot of River's personality up on screen, down to his long bangs that the actor kept instead of getting a haircut more appropriate for a boy scout in 1912 Utah. Spielberg embraced Phoenix's alternative look and even made it a key moment when a young Indy parts his hair to discover he's fallen into a literal lion's den during that incredible train sequence.

To help Phoenix nail down some of the subtle traits that define Indiana Jones, Spielberg recruited the help of the franchise's original star. For one week, Ford was given the chance to essentially direct Phoenix to make sure he looked the part. "I wanted to make sure he got the moves right," the legendary actor was quoted as saying in Robert Sellers' 1993  book "Harrison Ford: A Biography."

Playing Ford's son helped River Phoenix find Indy

"Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" may not be widely considered the best film in the franchise, but the opening sequence is definitely a contender for the top prize out of any beginning in the series. Dressed in their boy scout uniforms, Indiana and his buddy Herman discover a group of grave robbers stealing the famed Cross of Coronado, which Indiana subsequently snatches. One chase through a circus train later, Indy runs home thinking he's won, only to have the gang arrive with the local sheriff to take the cross away from him. Their mysterious leader then gives Indiana his fedora saying, "You lost today, kid, but that doesn't mean you have to like it."

River Phoenix becomes more and more like Harrison Ford as the sequence goes on and all of Indy's famous traits are explained, from the bullwhip to the fedora and even the scar on his chin. The young actor already had a beat on Ford, having played his son in a film three years earlier. In the behind-the-scenes documentary for "Last Crusade," Phoenix says he was already impersonating Ford back then:

"I kind of had some insight on Harrison's way about him, being that I worked with him on 'The Mosquito Coast.' And while doing 'Mosquito Coast' I kept a close eye on Harrison, and I noticed some of his traits, and when he would turn around I would sometimes mimic him and get a few laughs."

Coincidentally, "The Mosquito Coast" and "Last Crusade" are both about dealing with an overbearing dad. Professor Henry Jones (Sean Connery) never thinks Indy is good enough and Ford's Allie Fox in "The Mosquito Coast" forces his son and entire family to abandon city life for the jungles of Central America.

Who was responsible for casting River Phoenix for young Indy?

Harrison Ford always remembered working with River Phoenix on "The Mosquito Coast" and, according to Steven Spielberg himself, was the one that suggested that Phoenix could be a great choice to play the younger Indiana Jones. The making of "Last Crusade" has some fantastic interviews and insights about the entire production, including Spielberg recalling how Phoenix eventually entered into the frame:

"I loved Rivers work, especially when he was in 'Stand By Me,' and I think Harrison actually was the one that suggested River. He said to me, 'The guy who looks most like me when I was that age is this actor named River Phoenix.' I believe that's a Harrison Ford idea, because he played Harrison's son in 'Mosquito Coast.'"

If Ford and Phoenix had never played father and son in "The Mosquito Coast," there's a distinct possibility that another teenage heartthrob would've played young Indy, or the entire sequence could've been drastically different. Phoenix made the entire opening so memorable and made a kid from the early 20th century feel alive and current to kids watching in the late 1980s.

In the documentary, Phoenix knew how important his role was to the entire arc of Indiana Jones as a character. "The movie has chosen to pick young Indy up at a certain point in his life where he experiences many different things which are very significant and forever change him. Forever. And basically he'll never be the same."