Robert Downey Jr: The Missing Years
Ten years to the day before he made Iron Man, the star of the Sherlock Holmes and the Avengers movies was being kept in jail for fear of what he might do to himself once released. Is his the greatest movie comeback of all time?
The line “As charismatic as Robert Downey Jr on a coke binge” appeared an awful lot in film and entertainment magazines in the mid-to-late 1990s. Of course, describing something outrageous or bizarre as being like a certain person on a particular form of pharmaceutical was, and still is, the height of lazy journalism. And yet investigate what the star of Chaplin and Short Cuts was up to at the time and you’ll find that what read like the worst sort of overstatement was often a simple statement of fact.
Robert John Downey Jr’s self-destruction was on an unheralded scale. Sure, Hollywood has always been home to hellraisers, but in turning himself into a chemical toilet, RDJ not only hit rock bottom but continued drilling until he located enough magma to immolate himself. That he saw out the decade is astonishing. That he went on to become the best-paid actor on the planet is the stuff of Disney cinema.
Yes, that’s the incredible finale to this cautionary tale. William Blake might have written that “The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom”, but for Robert Downey Jr, it resulted in leading roles in the likes of Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes and sufficient funds to bankroll a revolution. From unholy fool to the undisputed king of Hollywood it was the ultimate transformation, and he effected it in just a decade.
Just where the breakdown began is hard to ascertain, since before he hit the really hard stuff, Downey Jr already had a reputation for partying. In interviews he talked openly about “having got turned on to hard drugs when I was a teenager. I could just keep going and going with no ill effects.” “Blessed” with a constitution of which Keith Richards would be proud, the passing of time did nothing to inhibit his intake. When he said that carousing with bad-boy director Oliver Stone was akin to “Pagan Rome AD26 — every potential affront to sanity was committed”, the actor forgot to point out that, if the Natural Born Killers creator was like Nero, the actor himself wasn’t that far removed from Caligula. Downey Jr also partied hard when he came to London to make the period drama Restoration. “That was a great time,” laughs co-star David Thewlis. “Hitting the West End with Robert was always a thrill.”
Though those wild days in London yielded the odd unflattering tabloid photo, it wasn’t until after Downey returned to America in the summer of 1996 that the wheels really started to fall off. There, two events in a little less than a month proved that the Academy Award nominee was in a pretty bad place. The first occurred in New York City, where a simple speeding caution ended with the actor being charged for possession of cocaine, heroin and an unloaded firearm. Then, after relocating to Los Angeles, a “refreshed” Robert wandered out of his apartment in only his underwear, broke into a neighbour’s abode and passed out on a young child’s bed. When Downey came round, he was rushed to a unit specialising in alcohol abuse. Fittingly enough, when his new film Danger Zone hit movie theatres a fortnight later, it also bombed.
So began the period that would become known as The Rehab Years. The New York arrest combined with his boozed-up B&E left Downey legally bound to seek help for his issues. Alas, like many addicts before and since, the star struggled to believe his behaviour required correcting. Indeed, when Playboy interviewed him in 1997, journalist Michael Fleming was keen to point out that Downey “is not particularly ashamed of or apologetic about the events that transpired last year.”
Not that the future Tony Stark wasn’t unaware of the risks of drug use. As he explained to Fleming, “As soon as I started smoking heroin instead of smoking coke, everything was different, and I knew it was.” But to eliminate the issue completely still seemed a step too far. “I don’t discount the fact that addiction or alcoholism is a disease, but I still feel that, at every turn, I’m choosing to keep going with it. It’s serving some part of me, either deeply spiritual or darker…”
If Downey wasn’t convinced he had an illness, his friends and colleagues had no such doubts. During the filming of family drama Home For The Holidays, director Jodie Foster handed the actor a note reading: “I’m not worried about you on this film. You’re not losing it or nodding out — you’re giving a great performance. I’m worried about you thinking you can get away with this on another film.” Unsurprisingly, Sean Penn was rather more direct. Recalls Downey, “Sean broke down my door and drove me to rehab. I remember him saying, ‘You have two reputations. I think you know what both of them are, and I think you’d do well to get rid of one of those reputations. If you don’t, it will get rid of the other one.’”
In refusing to toe the line Downey wasn’t just aggravating his fellow actors; he so displeased Lawrence Mira, the judge who presided over the New York case, that his probation was revoked. “I feel I don’t have any choice,” an exasperated Mira explained. “I take no pleasure in issuing a jail sentence but I fear that in this instance a life is at risk.”
So it was that in December 1997, Robert Downey Jr was sentenced to jail for 180 days. He’d serve his time at the Los Angeles County facility, a tough place for a hardened felon, let alone a pampered Hollywood pretty boy. “I was worried for him,” says Oliver Stone. “When we made Natural Born Killers, we shot in a real jail and it was very clear that the prisoners were sexually fascinated with Robert.” An attractive A-lister at the mercy of the worst residents of the California penal system… make no mistake, this was hard time indeed for Robert Downey Jr.
Then, as if the photos of a gaunt-looking Downey being taken to and from court and in and out of rehab weren’t a big enough gift for the showbiz press, a story broke about the actor having had a fight with another prisoner. As if things weren’t already bad enough for inmate no. P50522 (new occupation: kitchen detail; hourly rate of pay: eight cents), he suffered a cut above his nose in a scuffle with a fellow jailbird. At least the cameras weren’t around to capture the abrasions. But the unflattering newspaper and magazine articles just kept on coming…
Without wanting to paint oneself into the story, this correspondent was working for the British movie magazine Neon throughout Downey’s difficult years. With the editorial staff all big fans of the actor, there was little resistance to putting him on the cover of the debut issue, published in the summer of 1996. Four editions in, however, and it became clear that this particular loose cannon was going to prove a very rich seam of material. In fact, other than the masthead, the only two things you could guarantee would appear in Neon each and every month would be something bizarre about Mickey Rourke, and the latest developments in the Downey saga. His presence was still looming over the magazine when it folded in 1999, the contents page describing interview subject James Toback as “friends with Don Simpson (RIP) and Robert Downey Jr (TBC).”
If he continued to vex the death pool ghouls, Downey was also in a rough spot as far as the authorities were concerned. After missing the latest in a string of court-mandated drug tests, he was ordered back to jail, the sentence this time set to run some 36 months. Though he didn’t seem interested in doing right by himself, the court felt it best that he serve his time being rehabilitated rather than incarcerated. A year in the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison at Corcoran was then followed by a return to civilian life that was as unexpected as it was welcome. This, however, was someone who’d described addiction as “Being like I have a shotgun in my mouth and I like the taste of gun oil.” How long would it be before he pulled the trigger?
No sooner had the obituary writers filed their copy had Bob Downey started to make news for all the right reasons. The man who claimed “Stopping isn’t hard, but not starting again is” had seemed to finally conquer his demons. And while the loyalty of his friends, the quality of his acting and the leniency of the courts had enabled him to work throughout the rough times (see Maelstrom Movies, right), he returned to out-and-out mainstream entertainment just seven days after stepping out of jail. Yes, that’s how long it took Robert Downey Jr to find himself cast in the hottest show of the day, Ally McBeal.
Having aged about as well as a teenage soap star, it’s tough to recall just how big a phenomenon Ally McBeal used to be. And there at its heart was the main man playing arrogant attorney Larry Paul. While the irony of the role wouldn’t have been lost on the actor, so his effect upon the programme was both instant and dramatic. Ratings that had been going south hit new heights, and come awards season, Downey enjoyed a date with the Supporting Actor gong at the Golden Globes. All this plus a growing son, Indio, and a marriage, to actress Deborah Falconer, that had somehow survived the ravages of the wilderness years — it looked as if Robert Downey Jr had found his Hollywood ending.
Then came a lost weekend in the desert…
It was Thanksgiving, 2000 when police officers raided a Palm Springs apartment only to find Robert Downey Jr with cocaine and Valium on his person and God-only-knows-what in his bloodstream. As a significant violation of his parole, the situation ought to have ended with another stint in jail, but instead Downey was paroled and allowed to return to the Ally McBeal set. Then, as if perturbed that he hadn’t been booked last time around, the actor went on another bender, this time in Culver City, where he was found wandering about barefoot.
Upon hearing this latest story Ally McBeal producer David E Kelley, with no other options available to him and in keeping with the example set by Judge Mira, fired Robert Downey Jr. “Ally McBeal was my bottom,” the actor would later say, “that’s when my addictions were at their very worst.”
And yet still the storm continued. Although he avoided another stint inside by pleading no contest to the Palm Springs charges, Downey passed up the opportunity to play Hamlet on stage and lost a lucrative voiceover gig on animated sitcom God, The Devil and Bob. He also missed out on starring opposite Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones in America’s Sweethearts, although in hindsight, this seems less a case of misfortune and more a very narrow escape.
Coming out on top when the cards are against you — it’s actually one of the few consistencies in RDJ’s existence. “No matter how much I f*** up, it keeps straightening itself out,” he’s been known to say. As for proof of this, look no further than Gothika, a stinker of a horror picture that Downey made in 2003. For, while leading lady Halle Berry was left with nothing but regrets, Mel Gibson’s Air America flying buddy came away with a beautiful new bride. Like the first Mrs Downey, Susan Levin also worked in the film industry. But while Deborah — whom Robert divorced in 2004 — was an underrated actor, Susan was a very successful producer, and as she’d do great things for his personal life. She would point her husband towards pictures that would make him richer than Croesus while raising his profile to the extent that, if there was a modern movie equivalent of Mount Rushmore, Robert Downey’s would be the first face carved.
Jon Favreau’s Iron Man opened in America on May 2 2008. In truth it wasn’t the first great movie Downey made after declaring himself defiantly sober. Crime comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, exceptional serial killer drama Zodiac, the ace Philip K Dick adaptation A Scanner Darkly — would all appear on any list of the decade’s finest films and took pride of his place on RDJ’s CV. It was the Marvel movie, though, that threw his newfound success into sharp relief. Ten years earlier, Robert Downey had just been released from his first stint in jail. Just being alive was achievement enough. That 2008 also saw him play one Kirk Lazarus in all-star comedy Tropic Thunder is a coincidence that must have delighted the man who’d spent so much time dodging death.
And now, with the years ahead set to yield a third Sherlock Holmes movie and a sequel to 2012’s The Avengers, there’s one thing about the unknowable Robert Downey Jr that we can all safely agree upon: his long-term commitment to shades has nothing to do with staving off hangovers anymore; rather it allows him to look forward to the brightest of futures.
Like father like son…
Perhaps the only person who wouldn’t consider Robert Downey Jr’s 1990s existence as excessive was his old man. A man whose commitment to intense living saw him become a championship-winning boxer, Robert Joseph Elias Downey had careers as a soldier and baseball player behind him before he turned to the arts. After enjoying success as a playwright, Downey turned to cinema, making micro-budget dramas such as Putney Swope, a comedy about black radicals taking over an advertising agency that would have a huge influence upon filmmakers like Jonathan Demme and Paul Thomas Anderson. Downey Sr, meanwhile, had a less positive effect upon his son, introducing him to alcohol and marijuana before his tenth birthday. To his credit, Downey The Younger has rarely been critical of his ‘60s-embracing father and his novel approach to childrearing. If it’s the seeds of his fall you’re looking for, you simply need to rummage around the Downey genes.
Our man and his mentor
To look at his balding pate and expanding belly, it’s hard to believe that writer-director James Toback could ever have had anything in common with Robert Downey Jr. Back in the day, however, the man who wrote Bugsy was such a ladies’ man that Spy magazine published a foldout listing his conquests. It was this slimmer, more hirsute Toback who hired RDJ to star in 1987’s The Pickup Artist. As he told Neon magazine in 1999, “I called Robert to come by my office, and within five minutes I’d hired him.” It would be another decade before they collaborated again, but when they did things really began to cook. “Two Girls and a Guy is when we really hit our stride,” he continues, “and in Black and White, you’re cracking up from the moment you see him.” Since Toback was happy to work with Downey at a time the actor couldn’t even get insured, you’d think the two would still be close. That they’re not seems entirely down to the actor’s current living arrangements. “Since he got married, I can’t get in touch with Robert,” he told Charlie Rose, “It’s as if someone’s closed that door.” But in turning his back on the man who helped make him, Downey would do well to remember how he described Toback in the documentary The Outsider: “James Toback is a revenge specialist.”
One Night Stand (1997)
Perhaps thinking that he had nothing left to lose, Downey dived full-length into his portrayal of Charlie, an artist dying of an AIDS-related disease. The furthest thing from a Tom Hanks-esque schmaltz-fest, our man doesn’t just confront death, he refuses to apologise for his life at the time when others would be calling for a priest. Sadly, Charlie’s is but the supporting story in an otherwise undercooked Mike Figgis film. But whenever Downey’s on screen, he shines.
Two Girls And A Guy (1997)
Written with Downey in mind, James Toback’s relationship drama allows his muse to parade his full range of talents, from tinkling the ivories to singing like a young Elton John. Made for next to nothing in a matter of 11 days, Two Girls… proved that the sight of Downey on screen was itself enough to carry a movie. And the actor’s situation at the time? So dire he had to be drug tested every day.
Black And White (1999)
Another experimental James Toback movie, this time exploring contemporary racial politics and modern-day sexual mores. Downey Jr’s character description alone is enough to see him steal the day — he’s cast as documentary filmmaker Brooke Shield’s homosexual husband. But it’s the scene where the fearless Robert hits on “Iron” Mike Tyson — playing himself and in no way anticipating Downey’s advances — that assures Black And White a place in the cult movie pantheon.
Wonder Boys (2000)
Playing gay for the third time in as many years, Curtis Hanson’s Michael Chabon adaptation cast the future Tony Stark as a high-living literary agent. The role that saw him share a bed with Tobey Maguire, you don’t have to squint too hard to see that the actor is either sending up his hellraiser image or having a ball revisiting the good old, bad old days. Alas, Downey had yet to say adios to addiction…
The Singing Detective (2003)
Released after the Ally McBeal debacle, Downey excels in the dual role of tortured writer Dan Dark and his private eye alter-ego. Of course, Keith Gordon’s picture can’t live up to Dennis Potter’s peerless TV series, but whether he’s dancing, lip-synching or decaying before our eyes, Downey’s performance is so complete, you’d like to think that, somewhere in the back of his mind, it was this turn that convinced him to turn things around.
WHAT I’VE LEARNED
Robert Downey Jr, Actor, 49
Work is the best form of therapy for me. After years of experience, I know that my mind takes me on strange trips when I spend too much time between films. It’s always been the case that when I’m staying at home and my mind is not focused that I get into trouble.
Work is the one thing that I don’t fear.
I’ve figured out that I can still be a bit rebellious and independent-minded without being excessive, and still feel that I have an interesting life.
It’s not a simple process. I’ve had a lot of psychiatrists tell me that “you can’t do it alone” and so I’ve surrounded myself with good people to help me remain healthy and forward-looking. My wife Susan is the foundation of that process. Thanks to her I’ve been able to turn my life around in every sense.
We’ve always had this feeling that this is the big relationship and marriage for the rest of our lives till death do us part. We take that responsibility seriously and I’ve become a better man because of my commitment to taking this journey together with her.
I was always chasing this elusive kind of joy when I was younger and I was chronically unhappy. So I learnt that real truth and happiness comes from living honourably, responsibly, constructively, and taking care of your family.
When I first began getting into Tony Stark I imagined him as having a Howard Hughes kind of boldness and arrogance. I also saw it as an opportunity to come up with a screen persona that would be a more dashing and bolder variation on my own nature. There’s a lot of me in him but he’s way cooler than I am.
When I was first offered the role, I had some long discussions with Stan Lee and I was 39 at the time. He told me that he had created the Iron Man comic 39 years ago. So Tony Stark and I were born at the same time. Now if that isn’t a sign of destiny…
I love the metaphor of the phoenix. I soared high when I first started making my mark as an actor and then I crashed and burned only to rise again. It’s classical.
I originally pursued Iron Man because I had seen Keanu Reeves and Johnny Depp succeed with their own film franchises and I wanted my son to see his dad in that kind of a movie. I’m also proud of the fact that I’m a leading man who can do major blockbusters and be that Harrison Ford kind of guy. It’s not a bad place to be.
I’ve learnt a lot about the business side over the years, especially with Susan at my side. Everything changed on the Monday morning after the opening weekend for Iron Man in 2008. My economic and professional status underwent a complete revolution and I’ve tried to understand how that works and make sure I maintain that stature and momentum.
I’ve found that I do better work when I’m able to innovate and take advantage of the kind of inspiration that comes under the intensity and beauty of the moment. You’re doing the scene and you’ve transformed into the character and are now speaking with his voice.
The only thing that makes improvisation more complicated is when the script is so well-written that I have less reason to innovate and depart from the printed word. But I look at the script as a Chinese menu where I can pick and choose and make it the best meal possible.
I feel blessed by God’s grace.
I could not have done the first Iron Man without having already mastered (Wing Chun) Kung Fu in my private life — which I was doing without any thought of how it might be of use in a film. Without Kung Fu I don’t know if I would have had that self possession you need to be a leading man.
Therapy is an important part of my life. It’s helped me find balance and calm and clear away the accumulated neuroses that drag you down.
Being able to afford your own private chef is probably one of the best perks anyone can have in life. Just imagine being able to have filet mignon or the best lasagne on Earth whenever you want. I’m sorry, I won’t apologise for being able to eat like a king.
I never had more fun than wearing Bavarian lederhosen while doing a press conference in Munich.
When I die I don’t want to go to heaven or hell. I want to stay on Earth and haunt people. I want to surprise you when you’re driving alone along a dark country road and suddenly I appear in your rear-view mirror sitting in the back seat smoking a cigar.
Look, even if I don’t get [an Oscar] directly, eventually they’re just going to have to give me one when I get old. So no matter how you slice it, I’m getting one.
I didn’t get The Dark Knight. I still can’t tell you what happened in the movie. I’m like, ‘I get it. This is so high brow and so f***ing smart, I clearly need a college education to understand this movie.’ That’s not what I want to see. You know what? F*** DC comics.
I would never tell you the worst things that have happened to me in jail. [He was badly beaten up in jail back in 1997.]
You don’t worry about something that has already happened. You don’t need to worry about your car breaking down when you’re already on the side of the street with the hood up. Worrying is done.
It’s important to be respectful and kind to others. I consider myself to be a pain-in-the-as** artist who’s self-aware enough to still be tolerable.
Downey Jr stars in Chef, an indie comedy directed by and starring Jon Favreau. Out in the US on May 9.