Fact Check

The Tragic Life of Keanu Reeves

You'll need a hanky to make it all the way through this sad viral video recounting the tragic life story of "Matrix" actor Keanu Reeves.

Published Dec. 14, 2016

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Keanu Reeves overcame a series of tragic events in his life, before and after becoming a wealthy movie star.

Keanu Reeves achieved superstardom as an actor in the '80s and '90s via iconic movie roles such as Ted in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989) and Neo in the science fiction classic The Matrix (1999), but, like many people irrespective of wealth and status, endured profound hardships along the way.

Unlike many people, however, Reeves' personal tragedies have been compiled into a tearjerking Facebook video that was shared more than a half-million times within its first 72 hours of existence. The video, though quite brief, packs a lot of emotional wallop in a few words — most of which were copied verbatim from a viral Facebook post falsely attributed to Reeves in 2015:

With all due respect to Mr. Reeves (who, as far as we know, had nothing to do with the making of the video), we are now obliged to assess its veracity, claim by claim:

At age 3, his father left.

More-or-less true. Reeves was born in Beirut, Lebanon to a British mother and a Chinese-Hawaiian father in 1964. Biographical accounts vary as to precisely how old Keanu was when his ne'er-do-well father, Samuel Nowlin Reeves, abandoned the family. Some say Samuel left when Keanu was age two, some at age three, and the father himself is on record saying he moved out when Keanu was five, though he was still in his son's life until he was about 13. "I spent my last vacation with him when I was 13 years old," Keanu said in a 2002 interview. "On our last day we sat on the veranda and stared at the dark sky. He hardly said anything that evening. The next day he brought us to the airport. Then we didn't hear anything from him for 10 years. No calls, no letters, nothing."

He attended 4 different high schools and struggled with dyslexia, making education very difficult.

Mostly true. Reeves said in a 2008 interview with the Daily Mail that he attended four high schools in the space of five years but was "okay academically." Vanity Fair reported in 1995 that both Keanu and his sister, Kim, are dyslexic. However, Reeves has also said that he didn't do all that badly in school. He was asked about it by Tara Brady of the Irish Times:

Internet theorists would contend that sorrow stalks Reeves: that he lost his best friend River Phoenix when the pair were barely out of their teens, that as a child he was moved around from city to city, all the while struggling with dyslexia and academic underachievement.

That’s not entirely accurate, he says. “We didn’t move around that much,” says Reeves. “And I wasn’t the best student but I don’t remember having trouble fitting in. I kind of blended in.”

At age 23, his best friend River Phoenix died of a drug overdose.

True. Actor River Phoenix, whom Reeves had known for a few years and became close friends with when they acted together in My Own Private Idaho, died of combined drug intoxication outside a Los Angeles nightclub on 31 October 1993. He was 23.

In 1999, the love of his life, Jennifer Syme, was pregnant with their daughter. But the child was stillborn, and it cost them their relationship.

True. People magazine published this account of the stillbirth in April 2001:

In January 2000 Reeves and his then-girlfriend, Jennifer Syme, 29, buried their child, a girl named Ava, who had been stillborn at 8 months. The grief proved too much for their relationship, which ended several weeks later.

(NOTE: The image supposedly showing Jennifer Syme in the video is actually a photograph of someone else.)

18 months later, Jennifer was killed in a car accident.

True. This account is from People magazine:

But they remained close friends, even brunching together as recently as April 1 [2001] at Crepes on Cole in San Francisco. Just one day later, a much shaken Reeves called the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office and asked, according to Lt. Mac Willie, “if Jen Syme was there.”

Sadly, she was. Shortly after 6 a.m. on April 2, Syme, who worked in the recording industry, lost control of her 1999 Jeep Cherokee on L.A.’s Cahuenga Boulevard, sideswiped three parked cars, rolled over several times and was thrown from the car. Authorities believe she died instantly, but they are awaiting toxicology tests to determine the final cause of death. (In her car police found prescribed antidepressants and two rolled-up dollar bills with “a white powdery substance” inside.) Whatever the result, Reeves, says a friend, “is finding it very, very difficult to cope with her death.”

His sister had leukemia. She was cured, and he donated 70 percent of his money from "The Matrix" to hospitals that treat leukemia.

Partly true. As best we can put together from press reports over the years, Kim Reeves, who is a few years younger than Keanu, was diagnosed with leukemia around 1991 and, after battling the disease for nearly a decade, was in remission as of 1999. A Woman's Day (Australia) article published in April of that year said Keanu had "lovingly supported" his sister throughout her illness. Media reports as recent as 2015 still describe Kim Reeves as "battling leukemia" — as if there was a relapse — but it's unclear to what extent that's based on hard evidence. The claim that Keanu Reeves donated 70 percent of his Matrix earnings to hospitals that treat leukemia appears to have been fabricated, though we've found plenty of evidence to indicate he is a frequent and generous contributor to all sorts of charitable causes. In a Ladies Home Journal article published in 2009, he said he had started a private charitable foundation:

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.

He doesn't own a big house like other stars, and he doesn't wear fancy clothes.

Mixture. You wouldn't describe Reeves's $4 million two-bedroom house in the Hollywood Hills as "big," but it's a very nice home in a very nice neighborhood, with plenty of room for his cars and motorcycles, and with other celebrities living nearby. He doesn't always wear fancy clothes, but sometimes he does.

He's worth over $100 million, and still rides the subway.

Mixture. Most sources say Keanu Reeves' net worth is about $350 million. He has been known to ride the subway on occasion, but on any given day is more likely to be seen driving his Porsche or one of his classic motorcycles. He's been photographed on many occasions getting in and out of limos.

"It’s a cliché that money doesn’t buy you happiness. But it does buy you the freedom to live your life the way you want." — Keanu Reeves in 2008.


Brady, Tara.   "Keanu Reeves: 'Did You See My Movie?"    The Irish Times.   10 April 2015.

Heath, Chris.   "The Quiet Man: The Riddle of Keanu Reeves."    Rolling Stone.   31 August 2000.

Lipworth, Elaine.   "Keanu Reeves: The Three Billion Dollar Man."    The Mail.   22 November 2008.

Ryan, Tim.   "Memories of Keanu."    Honolulu Star-Bulletin.   22 April 2001.

David Emery is a West Coast-based writer and editor with 25 years of experience fact-checking rumors, hoaxes, and contemporary legends.

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