When the world was first introduced to Keanu Reeves, he was seen as just another handsome up-and-comer, known for leading roles in films like 1991’s "My Own Private Idaho" and 1992’s "Bram Stoker’s Dracula." A few years later, though, he was world-famous for goofy comedies like the "Bill and Ted" series, summer blockbuster fluff like 1994’s "Speed," and boundary-pushing sci-fi like 1999’s "The Matrix."
Though his career declined in the years following those successes, Reeves rallied. Today, the "John Wick" superstar is one of the most beloved actors in Hollywood, largely due to his offscreen generosity, genuine love for his legions of fans, charitable giving habits, and quiet, humble demeanor. Not many actors see their reputations undergo such an evolution. What makes Reeves different?
One cause is Reeves’ lifetime of grief and tragedy. His hardships have softened him into the wholesome, soft-spoken, Hollywood statesman we know and love today. From childhood hardship to the tragic loss of loved ones to family illness, this is the inspiring, real-life story of Keanu Reeves, one of the world’s most cherished actors.
The emotional gut-punches started at a very young age for Keanu Reeves. He was just a 3-year-old kid when his father, Samuel Reeves, abandoned the family, leaving his wife Patricia to raise their two children alone. Predictably, he and Keanu’s relationship has devolved since then, from rocky (to put it politely) to completely nonexistent. In the ’90s, Samuel was arrested for possession of cocaine and heroin, and received a 10-year jail sentence. He’s been out for a good while, thankfully, but his relationship with his son never recovered.
Both men have commented on their falling out in the years since. Said Keanu in 2000, per Rolling Stone, "The story with me and my dad’s pretty heavy. It’s full of pain and woe and f***ing loss and all that s***." Clearly, despite the fact that the two men haven’t spoken in years, the pain that lingers between them endures. Given how young Keanu was when his father left the family, that’s a whole lot of time he’s had to spend dealing with difficult feelings towards his father.
For his part, Samuel told The Mirror, "[Keanu’s] made it clear that he wants nothing to do with me." He went on to add, "I’m embarrassed by it all. Keanu said my life was ‘tragic’ and, oh boy, does that hurt. Sad, yeah? I never figured things would end up this way. But he’ll always be my boy."
Marriages and multiple moves
According to Marc Shapiro’s "Keanu Reeves’ Excellent Adventure," Reeves’ newly single mother, Patricia, moved frequently from state to state — and marriage to marriage. Though there’s a lot of love there, this sort of a constant upheaval is hard for anyone to deal with — let alone a kid.
After Samuel Reeves abandoned the family when his children were toddlers, Patricia took the little clan from Australia to New York City. Once settled in the Big Apple, she met and married Broadway director Paul Aaron in 1970. The couple moved to Toronto shortly after. Sadly, the romance didn’t last: The two split the following year. But, happily enough, Aaron remained friendly with Reeves, often giving him career advice and helping him secure some early acting jobs.
The Reeves family remained in the Yorkville neighborhood of Toronto throughout much of the 1970s, and into the following decade. In 1976, Patricia married rock music promoter Robert Miller, but they unfortunately split in 1980. Her next marriage, to hairdresser Jack Bond, lasted until 1994, by which time Reeves had become an established force in Hollywood.
Four high schools, but no diploma
As a kid, Reeves struggled academically, attending four separate high schools in total. He never did earn his diploma, and never pursued higher education. Reeves was, in fact, expelled from one of his many schools. As he told the Daily Mail in 2008, "It was difficult. I went to four different high schools in five years. I was OK academically, good at English and creative writing. I was on the chess team." But, he added, "it was a very small school and I guess I didn’t fit in. I had conflicts and run-ins with the staff. The principal and I didn’t see eye to eye. I was one of those ‘Why? kids — I asked too many questions about everything. I couldn’t stop even if it got me into trouble. I wanted my autonomy, and if you wanted to impose something on me, then you and I would have a problem."
Still, he took the expulsion hard. "It’s a terrible letter to receive," he continued, "saying you can’t come back to school next year. Getting asked to leave was very upsetting." In the end, though, it inspired him to get serious about acting.
Losing River Phoenix
By the late ’80s, Keanu Reeves was already landing some major, enviable roles, like 1988’s "Permanent Record" and the following year’s goofball buddy comedy, "Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure." "Bill & Ted" became a cult hit that spawned a handful of riotous sequels. A few years later, he embraced mature films like 1990’s "I Love You To Death" and the following year’s "My Own Private Idaho," a drama about two street hustler friends who embark on a journey of self discovery.
Reeves became fast, but unfortunately not lifelong, friends with his co-star in those two films, River Phoenix. Joaquin’s older brother was on a similar career trajectory to Reeves at the time, having broken into serious roles in the late ’80s. Unfortunately, as is often the case with young celebrities, Phoenix struggled with the pressures of fame, and ultimately turned to drugs. On October 31, 1993, tragedy struck when Phoenix collapsed outside Los Angeles’ Viper Room nightclub and died hours later at the age of 23.
The tragedy stunned Hollywood, and Reeves in particular. As Reeves told the Guardian in 2019, Phoenix was "definitely [one of] my closest friends from that era. We shared an artistic sensibility. River was just so down-to-earth, spiritual and a unique artist. Yeah, I miss him."
Suffering the loss of a child
By the late ’90s, Keanu had broken out of rising-star status and become a bonafide leading man. This happened largely on the backs of 1994’s "Speed," in which he played a young cop trapped on a bus that’s set to blow if it travels slower than 50 miles per hour, and 1999’s "The Matrix," in which he played a man who discovers the world around him is a simulation.
It was around this time that he met and fell in love with Jennifer Syme, an actress and personal assistant. Before long, Jennifer was pregnant. However, shortly before Christmas, 1999, Syme noticed she hadn’t felt movement from the baby in days. The two rushed to the hospital, where ultrasound tests revealed that the worst case scenario was indeed true. Syme delivered their stillborn daughter, Ava Archer Syme-Reeves, on December 24, 1999.
Understandably, this loss devastated both parents. As an anonymous friend told the Globe in 2000, "He really had his heart set on becoming a dad. Instead, he and Jennifer are undergoing grief counseling to try and help them cope with their anguish."
Grief induces a split
The loss of a child is one of the most intense tragedies a person can endure. Inevitably, it takes a massive toll on relationships — especially the one between the child’s parents. This was very much the case with Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Syme, following the harrowing stillbirth of their daughter, Ava. Sadly, but very much understandably, the couple didn’t last much longer: They split a few weeks after laying their daughter to rest in January 2000.
Despite this, Reeves and Syme remained close after the breakup. Months after enduring their shared tragedy and going their separate ways, they were seen enjoying brunch together in San Francisco. They remained close, and kept in touch with each other privately. Though they might not have been in the right place for a stable relationship, they clearly cared deeply about each other, and understood each other’s anguish like only someone who’s been through the same thing can.
Losing Jennifer Syme
For a brief moment, the approaching new millennium looked uncomplicatedly bright for Keanu Reeves. He starred in "The Matrix," a smash-hit sci-fi action-thriller the world raved about. He met and fell in love with Jennifer Syme. The couple soon learned they were expecting a daughter. Then, of course, Reeves and Syme endured unthinkable loss.
On April 1, 2001, Reeves met Syme at San Francisco’s Crepes on Cole, a popular brunch spot, according to People. The next day, she was dead. Shortly after 6 a.m., Syme’s car slammed into a trio of parked cars. She was partially ejected from the vehicle, and died instantly.
These back-to-back tragedies changed Reeves forever. A friend told People at the time that the action star was "finding it very, very difficult to cope with her death." Years later, the grief still lay heavily upon him. Reeves told Parade in 2006, a few short years after "The Matrix" trilogy had wrapped up, "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."
The Reeves family takes on leukemia
Keanu Reeves should’ve been enjoying the peak of his acting career in the late ’90s and early aughts. However, the nearly back-to-back losses he endured during this period cast a shadow over just about everything he did.
On top of that, his younger sister Kim had been fighting leukemia since 1991. This long battle with cancer took an enormous toll. Luckily, she had the support of her loved ones — including he big brother, Keanu Reeves. According to a 1999 article in Australia’s Woman’s Day, Reeves supported her through the years following her diagnosis, sending flowers and "special messages" to his sick sister at least once a week. Said Reeves about his sister, "I love Kim. She’s so brave, and I want the very best for her. You can star in hit movies, but that’s nothing compared to going through what Kim’s been through."
Fortunately for everyone involved, Kim Reeves went into remission in 1999. Today, she lives in Rome, where she is often visited by her big brother.
Keanu Reeves, target of mockery
As the years went on, Reeves began taking on more serious roles. The critics could be merciless. Now, we’ll admit, his attempt at an English accent in 1992’s "Bram Stoker’s Dracula" is … not great. But it, and other Reeves performances, didn’t merit the tidal wave of mockery the actor soon faced.
Though the first "Matrix" movie was a hit, the subsequent two were not as beloved. Critics and fans alike began attacking what they saw as Reeves’ wooden underperformance as protagonist Neo. In his defense, most of the main characters in the "Matrix" franchise have the same deadpan expression, no matter what’s happening. But while Hugo Weaving gets to cackle and snarl as the villainous Agent Smith, Reeves’ Neo simply … doesn’t emote. Ever. All these years later, his infamously low-key "Whoa" remains memorable. But that is, one can easily argue, the point of the character.
Luckily, Reeves has since found a comfortable home in the excellent "John Wick" series, where his subtle performance as the grief-stricken, terrifyingly skilled protagonist makes a lot of sense. Plus, you’re too amazed by the incredible fight choreography to really care much, one way or the other.
Reeves is one of the most generous, humble actors in Hollywood
Reeves is quite the philanthropist, although he doesn’t like to draw attention to this. Said Reeves in 2009, about one of his charitable projects, "I have a private foundation that’s been running for five or six years, and it helps aid a couple of children’s hospitals and cancer research. I don’t like to attach my name to it; I just let the foundation do what it does."
In addition to his generosity, Reeves is also shockingly private, largely shunning the flashy celebrity lifestyle. It’s not every star who still rides public transportation — and it’s definitely not every person who gives up his seat when appropriate. As a result of all this generosity and humility, Reeves’ reputation has drastically transformed in recent years. He’s gone from being dismissed as a moderately talented action star to a beloved figure of Hollywood. All this sudden adoration might seem a bit much (perhaps even to the man himself), but it’s not going anywhere any time soon. The story of a man who’s been through so much, only to remain a generous, quiet person, is just too wholesome for the internet not to fawn over.