By 1986 by then the clearly gifted Joaquin was deemed ready for a major screen role. He secured a part in Spacecamp Spacecamp alongside Tate Donovan and Kelly Preston. The film’s success was marred by the actual Challenger Space shuttle explosion on Jan 28th. Not deterred Joaquin (Leaf) would then take on a role in Russkies, where some Florida kids find a Russian sailor washed-up on the beach and overcome their initial prejudices to become his friends. Next for Joaquin (Leaf) would be Secret Witness and directed by Eric Laneauville.
Joaquin’s life was now to be dictated not for the first time by the actions of his family as they had decided to move back to Florida. Joaquin however did not want to move back to Florida, fearing his career would suffer. He need not have been concerned as his next role was in Ron Howard’s Parenthood playing an awkward, alienated kid who disturbs his single mother Dianne Wiest. He was among good company with actors Steve Martin and Keanu Reeves.
This initial success and predicted route to stardom however was temporarily suspended. Just when everything was seemingly coming together, Joaquin ever strong-willed decided there were no good scripts for actors his age and took an extended sabbatical from acting.
His parents had begun to drift apart at this time and the home-schooled Joaquin decided to see Mexico with his father. It was during his travels there that he formally relinquished Leaf and readopted his birth name; as he later explained to one interviewer, “In Spanish, there’s ojo, ajo and hoja, words that mean eye, garlic and leaf in English. I’d translate, but I’d always mess it up, so people would think my name was garlic or eye! Joaquin also allegedly lost his virginity in Mexico.
On his return Joaquin’s only screen appearance would be in Walking The Dog where his character robbed an elderly New Yorker. Much of his time he spent with River who had been Oscar nominated and had revealed himself to be an actor of rare ability.
Tragically, any comeback Joaquin had planned was severely delayed when, on October 31st 1993 River collapsed outside The Viper Rooms in Los Angeles. Joaquin made the 911 call for help but it was to no avail as River (who had taken, inadvertently, a lethal combination of drugs) died that night. The 911 call Joaquin desperately made was subsequently played on TV and radio and photographers even took pictures of River in his coffin.
Not only had he lost his brother, Joaquin then had to deal with the full media attention in the aftermath of River’s sad death. It is testament to Joaquin’s strength and courage that he did indeed return to film making at all. The script for To Die For actually sat unread for many months before friends finally convinced him to look it over. Joaquin and his family have steadfastly refused to talk about River’s death. In interviews, Joaquin always politely declines to be drawn into discussion about it.