Joaquin Raphael Phoenix was born on 28th October 1974 in San Juan, Peurto Rico.
His mother, Arlyn Dunetz, of Russian/Hungarian blood, had been a secretary in Manhattan and married to a computer operator. In 1968 Arlyn had left that life and met John Lee Bottom. They decided to travel the USA together. In 1970 they had their first son, River in Madras, Oregon. By then they had joined the newly formed Children of God religious group and had become missionaries of the cause. They travelled across the states and had their first daughter Rain while staying in Crockett, Texas.
By 1974, John was then archbishop to Venezuela and then they moved on to the West Indies and after Puerto Rico, where their second son Joaquin was born. Joaquin was born with the now famous scar on his left lip. It was not the result of a cleft palette or cleft lip, merely a birth mark. The family moved on to Venezuela where they spent a further two years and sister Liberty was born. Joaquin’s father, John would support the family as best he could, sometimes doing yard work, while River and Rain would sing and dance in the street for money. They were reasonably successful at this and the family performance troupe would on occasion sing in children’s hospitals and jails.
By this time however, Arlyn and John began to disassociate themselves with the religion as the leader Berg was surrounded by controversy following his religious tracts regarding incest, rape, paedophilia and the apparent acceptance of them. The family decided to move and hitched a ride to Florida on a ship. While onboard, the children witnessed fish being hauled up onto deck and were horrified by the scene. Joaquin was three at the time. This would lead to Joaquin committing himself to Veganism for life. While in Florida, a third daughter, Summer was born. It was around this time that the family decided to adopt a new surname. The name of Phoenix lent itself to their new way of life in the USA. The young Joaquin also decided that his name should change and changed it to Leaf. He later said that he wanted a more ‘earthy’ sounding name like his brother and sisters had.
John was now unable to work due to a back injury so they then found themselves subject to poverty. John and Arlyn had no real theatrical experience but as they had always encouraged their children to perform with each other, putting on skits and shows etc., they decided to enter River and Rain into local talent contests. They were noticed, newspaper articles were written about them and one of these was sent to Penny Marshall, then appearing in hit sit-com Laverne & Shirley (and later to direct Big and Awakenings).
This initial success resulted in the family moving again, to Los Angeles, California. Joaquin (Leaf) was 5 at the time. They rented a one-bedroom North Hollywood apartment where and with no kids allowed, the children would have to hide in cupboards whenever the landlady came around. They would have to move around like this regularly as quite often the rent could not be paid.
By then all the Phoenix children would sing for money on the streets of Westwood sometimes covering Beatles’ songs. Arlyn then got a job as a secretary at NBC and John was able to secure work again as landscaper. While working at MBC for Joel Thurm, Arlyn was introduced to Iris Burton. Iris Burton had been known as an agent for child actors. She agreed to act for all of the Phoenix children but it was made clear to her by John and Arlyn that they would not appear in any meat selling adverts or aggressive multi selling companies.
Iris Burton proved to be a good choice as in 1982 she succeeded in landing River a regular part in a TV series based on the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. When two extra kids were required for the Christmas episode it was easy to hire Joaquin (Leaf) and Liberty Phoenix. Joaquin (Leaf) would appear the next year in an episode of Mr Smith, about a talking orangutan who works as a political adviser in Washington. Joaquin (Leaf) would then appear with River in 1984’s Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia. This was an ABC after School Special where River played a kid in Junior High and Joaquin (Leaf) would play his younger brother.
Joaquin (Leaf) and River were nominated for Young Artist awards.
Joaquin (Leaf) would appear in several more TV bit parts during 1984, The Fall Guy, Hill Street Blues and along with Summer, Murder She Wrote. Then, in 1985, he’d appear in the hard-hitting TV drama Kids Don’t Tell, concerning the lifelong effects of child molestation, directed by Sam O’Steen.
This was followed by a role in an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents where Joaquin (Leaf) would play a deaf rich boy who witnesses a murder then blackmails hit-man Robert Loggia. Then the series of 1986, Morningstar/Eveningstar, where an orphanage is destroyed and the kids, including Joaquin (Leaf) and Fred Savage, are sent to stay at a retirement home.