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At first glance, Keanu Reeves seems to have it all. Many talented actors only dream of attaining Reeves’ level of fame and fortune, and an acting career that has spanned three decades. Although his agent thought he should change his name when he first started acting, Reeves has been very successful using the name his mother gave him.

Keanu Reeves looking at the camera
Keanu Reeves | Mike Coppola/Getty Images

The Canadian actor has 97 credits in his IMDb filmography, including one rumored project and seven that haven’t been released yet. Reeves’ successful career has paid well, too, making the star one of the richest actors in Hollywood. Looks can be deceiving, though. Keanu Reeves’ story is heartrendingly sad. Beginning at the age of 3, Reeves has endured one tragedy after another.

Keanu Reeves father walked out on his family

Reeves was born in Beirut, Lebanon to showgirl and costume designer Patricia Taylor and geologist Samuel Reeves. When Reeves was just 3 years old, Samuel walked out on the family. 

A single mother, Patricia moved the family around a lot during Reeves’ childhood, raising him in Hawaii, Australia, New York, and Canada. Reeves attended four high schools by the time he dropped out when he was 17 years old. He credits his struggles with dyslexia for making his education a bigger challenge than it is for most people.

River Phoenix was Keanu Reeves’ best friend

Actor River Phoenix was considered to be one of the most gifted actors of his time. His work in films like Stand by Me and River’s Edge were universally praised by critics. Phoenix and Reeves met on the film I Love You to Death and quickly became best friends. 

When Reeves saw the script for My Own Private Idaho, he knew Phoenix was perfect for the role. In December 1989, Reeves rode more than 1,000 miles on his motorcycle to hand-deliver the film’s treatment to Phoenix and persuade him to take the role, according to The Telegraph. It was during the filming of My Own Private Idaho that Phoenix developed a drug addiction that would later claim his life.

In 1993, Phoenix died of a drug overdose outside of the famed celebrity hotspot, Viper Room, when he was 23 years old. The actor reportedly took a lethal combination of cocaine, heroin, and Valium. Reeves was also 23 years old at the time.

The death of Keanu Reeves’ daughter and girlfriend


Keanu Reeves Was ‘Totally Laughing’ After a Gnarly Motorcycle Accident That Had Him Flying Through the Air

Just five years after the death of his best friend, Reeves met David Lynch’s assistant, Jennifer Syme, in 1998. The pair “fell instantly in love,” according to Reeves, and while some might think Syme became Keanu Reeves’ wife, that wasn’t the case. 

The two were together and happy, though, and conceived a child one year after getting together. On December 24, 1999, while Reeves was filming The Matrix, Ava Archer Symes-Reeves, was stillborn. The grief of losing a child understandably strained their relationship and the couple broke up a few weeks later. Unfortunately, the tragic story doesn’t end there. 

A year and a half later, Syme was on her way back to a party at Marilyn Manson’s home when she was killed in a car accident, according to Paper. She was only 28 years old at the time of her death on April 2, 2001. Reeves addressed his never-ending grief in a 2006 interview: 

“Grief changes shape, but it never ends … people have a misconception that you can deal with it and say, ‘It’s gone, and I’m better.’ They’re wrong. When the people you love are gone, you’re alone.” 

Reeves has cited the deaths of Ava and Symes as the reason he avoids serious relationships and having children.

Tragedy hasn’t made Keanu Reeves bitter

Reeves’ life story is unarguably sad, but it is also inspiring. Any one of the above events is enough to make almost anyone bitter, but Reeves seems to have only gained more compassion and empathy along the way. Despite all of the pain and misfortune he has endured, Reeves has become just as well known for his random acts of kindness as he is for his movies.

Although Reeves doesn’t like to talk about his painful past, he does tend to portray characters who have endured similar hardships in life. In John Wick, Reeves’ character is an assassin who is motivated by the loss of his wife and dog. Reeves told The Telegraph that Wick’s grief allowed him to connect with the character. “For me, it was John’s grief that made it personal,” says Reeves. “It was strong enough to make him want to unearth his past. I thought of it not as revenge but as reclaiming.”