Love him or loathe him, Robert Downey Junior always provokes a strong reaction in people. With his dark, brooding looks and rock-star lifestyle, he has spent much of his life in and out of the tabloids, rehabilitation and prison. Living life on the edge, Downey Jr managed to weather his personal storm and finally overcame his addiction to drugs.
As a youngster, he was afraid of mediocrity rather than of failure, and grabbed life with both hands to pursue his dreams of becoming an actor, determined to succeed. In over three decades in the industry, Downey Jr has come to be recognised as an extremely versatile, not to mention award-winning, actor. Further exploring his musical potential, Downey Jr released his debut album ‘The Futurist’ in 2004.
Robert Downey Junior was born in Greenwich Village, New York, to parents already in the entertainment industry. His father, Robert Downey Senior, was an actor, producer, writer, cinematographer and independent filmmaker, and his mother, Elsie Ford, a singer and dancer. His older sister, Allyson, was born two years before him in 1963. Downey Jr made his film debut at the age of five, cast as a puppy in his father’s film, ‘Pound’ (1970). Next he was given a small role, along with his mother, in another of his father’s films, ‘Greaser’s Palace’ (1972).
The family moved frequently, due to Downey Sr’s work, living in New York, California, Woodstock, Connecticut, Paris and London. Whilst in London, at age ten, Downey Jr attended the Perry House School in Chelsea, where he studied classical ballet. The following year, 1977, his parents divorced. Downey Jr moved to New York with his mother whilst his sister, Allyson, moved with their father to California.
A few years later, Downey Jr joined his father and sister in Los Angeles, where he attended the Santa Monica High school. He immediately joined the school theatre club and was cast in several school productions. Once more in a Downey Sr film, the 15-year-old Downey Jr played a bit part in ‘Up the Academy’ (1980). His passion for acting was growing strong and in 1982, aged 17 and with his father’s permission, he dropped out of high school to become a professional actor.
Downey Jr moved to New York City, where he shared accommodation with his sister, whilst trying to get his acting career started. He took on a number of part-time jobs, including working as a restaurant busboy, working in a shoe store and performing in Soho underground nightclubs as ‘living art’. He had also joined his local theatre group and began to earn roles in off-Broadway theatre productions. An agent finally spotted Downey Jr and arranged for him to audition for Hollywood films.
Initially, Downey Jr found himself cast mainly in school-themed romantic comedies, such as ‘Baby It’s You’ (1983), ‘Firstborn’ (1984), ‘Weird Science’ (1985) and ‘Back to School’ (1986). Expanding into television at the age of 20, in 1985 he joined the cast of the ever-popular television series ‘Saturday Night Live’ (1975), but only for one season.
Downey Jr was offered increasingly substantial roles, alongside A-list actors. He played the lead in ‘The Pick-Up Artist’ (1987) with Molly Ringwald, Dennis Hopper and Harvey Keitel; co-starred with Cybill Shepherd and Ryan O’Neal in ‘Chances Are’ (1989); and starred with Uma Thurman in ‘Johnny Be Good’ (1988).
Finally achieving recognition for his acting, Downey Jr played Julian Wells, a rich college boy addicted to drugs, in ‘Less than Zero’ (1987) to critical acclaim. Shortly after starring with Sally Field and Kevin Kline in ‘Soapdish’ (1991), Downey Jr played the title role in Richard Attenborough’s ‘Chaplin’ (1992) for which he received an Academy Award nomination and won a BAFTA award for Best Actor. The star was beginning to shine.
After a six-week whirlwind romance, Downey Jr married Deborah Falconer on 29th May 1992. The couple had a son, Indio, on 7th September 1993. Downey Jr’s acting dreams were being realised and he began working with respected directors and producers. He starred briefly with his wife in Robert Altman’s collage of everyday Los Angeles life, ‘Short Cuts’ (1993), before being cast in the seminal Quentin Tarantino movie ‘Natural Born Killers’ (1994), directed by Oliver Stone. Proving he was adept at other genres, Downey Jr starred in Michael Hoffman’s period drama, ‘Restoration’ (1995), with Sam Neill and Meg Ryan.
It seemed to all observers that everything was going swimmingly in Downey Jr’s life until in August 1996, age 31, he had his first brush with the law. Initially stopped for speeding, he was promptly arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol as well as possession of heroin and an unloaded firearm. He was remanded to a secure drug rehabilitation centre and given a suspended prison sentence of three years. He was granted permission of bail, with requirements of random drug testing and drug counselling.
Despite the dent to his image, negative press and battling his personal demons, the by now well-respected actor continued to receive offers of film roles, including Robert Altman’s ‘The Gingerbread Man’ (1998) and ‘Wonder Boys’ (2000), in which he played a bisexual literary agent. There was ‘Gothika’ (2003), a horror film with Halle Berry and Penelope Cruz and ‘The Singing Detective’ (2003), produced by Mel Gibson, who also had a supporting role.
The story of Downey Jr’s continuing love affair with drugs and the consequences he faced as a result became what most people wanted to know about this interesting and sometimes enigmatic man. He later claimed it all began when his father offered him a cannabis joint at the tender age of eight.
On the set of the first film after his arrest, ‘Two Girls and a Guy’ (1997), Downey Jr was required to take daily drug tests. Whilst he remained ‘clean’ during filming, he was soon back to his old habits and, on 17th October 1997, he had his probation revoked after continued drug use. In December 1997 he was sentenced to 180 days at the Los Angeles County Jail, for violating probation and missing his mandatory drug tests.
Unable to stay out of trouble, even whilst in prison, Downey Jr was involved in a fight with another inmate on 13th February 1998. On 31st March 1998 he was moved from jail to a drug rehabilitation centre to complete his six-month sentence and provoked a flurry of objections when he was released to work on a film.
On 6th August 1999, Malibu Judge Lawrence Mira claimed to have no other option than to sentence Downey Jr to prison, in order to save his life. Following three violations of probation for drug and alcohol abuse in a three-year span, since 1996, it seemed clear that Downey Jr could not give up his destructive habits on his own. Judge Mira invoked Downey Jr’s three-year suspended sentence and he was moved to a state prison Reception Centre in Wasco, California.
He remained there for a two-week orientation programme before being transferred on 25th August 1999 to a Department of Corrections prison, SATF, the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility, for drug dependent prisoners in California. On 2nd August 2000 Downey Jr was released from prison on bail.
In a refreshing boost to both his career and his image, Downey Jr made his primetime television debut in 2000 in the popular Fox series ‘Ally McBeal’ (1997). For the following two years, he played the role of Ally’s attorney boyfriend, Larry Paul, for which he received much critical acclaim. Downey Jr won a Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture made for Television; and a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male in a Comedy Series. He was also nominated for an Emmy award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series.
Despite his work achievements, Downey Jr could not keep on the right side of the law and was re-arrested on drugs and weapon charges on 25th November 2000. Having received an anonymous tip, police apprehended him at the glamorous Merv Griffin resort in Palm Springs, California. He was searched and found to be in possession of cocaine and diazepam. Proclaiming his innocence, he nonetheless co-operated with the police, was kept overnight in police cells and released on bail the following morning. He was remanded to Wavelengths, a live-in drug rehabilitation centre in Malibu, until his court hearing.
Following the arrest, ‘Ally McBeal’ producer David Kelly dropped Downey Jr from the show on 24th April 2001, claiming he was not being fired but would not be available for filming. On 16th July 2001, Downey Jr was sentenced by Californian Superior Court Judge Randall White to remain in rehabilitation for one year, with three years probation. Judge White reported that Downey Jr appeared to be sincere in his determination to overcome his drug addiction and set another progress hearing for March 2002.
Downey Jr’s somewhat turbulent life and addictive personality had taken its toll on his marriage and on 26th April 2004 he and his wife, Deborah, divorced. Becoming more introspective, Downey Jr turned his attention to writing music. He had already proved to audiences that he could also sing, by performing Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’; ‘Every Breath You Take’ with Sting; and ‘Chances Are’ in a duet with Vonda Shephard. He also sang an original song, ‘Snakes’ on the ‘Ally McBeal’ show, that was released on the ‘Ally McBeal’ ‘For Once in My Life’ (1997) album, as well as writing songs for films. For years, his friends had been begging him to record his own songs and, following his divorce, the time seemed right for Downey Jr to finally do just that.
Heading for the studio, Downey Jr recorded his debut album, ‘The Futurist’, released in November 2004 on Sony’s Classical label. The album consisted of eight original tunes, as well as two unforgettable covers, of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Smile’ and ‘Your Move’ by Yes. Incredibly proud of his achievement, Downey Jr also designed the cover for the album, which, in his own words, is in the music style of “highbrow pop with jazz and classical influences”.
Having met his second wife, producer, Susan Levin, on the set of ‘Gothika’ (2003), Downey Jr proposed to her on her 30th birthday. They were married in a Jewish ceremony on 27th August 2005 in New York. The couple enjoyed a lavish wedding reception, with Sting and Billy Idol performing for their guests, and are still happily married and living in Los Angeles.
His life finally back on track and his addictions a thing of the past, Downey Jr’s more recent films have included playing a thief posing as an actor in ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ (2005), with Val Kilmer; ‘Good Night and Good Luck’ (2005), directed by George Clooney; and crime drama ‘A Guide to Recognising Your Saints’ (2006) in which he both played a role and co-produced. Futuristic animated drama ‘A Scanner Darkly’ (2006), co–starring Keanu Reaves, was followed by ‘Zodiac’ (2007), David Fincher’s thriller based on the true story of the infamous San Francisco Zodiac serial killer, co-starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffolo.
Later, Downey Jr starred in ‘Charlie Bartlett’, a comedy drama in which Downey Jr plays the somewhat jaded Principal Gardner at a wealthy public school; ‘Tropic Thunder’, a Ben Stiller comedy starring Stiller and Jack Black and ‘The Soloist’, a fact-based drama about a violin prodigy.
It seems that this talented but troubled man has reached a point in his life where he is able to balance acting success and other creative outlets with a happy and drug-free personal life - he has worked hard to achieve this. Downey Jr sums it up succinctly, “You can make miraculous recoveries from seemingly hopeless situations if you put your mind to it and you have enough support. I think it’s the process of maturing.”
With a relatively quiet private life of late, Downey Jr has focused on his craft, and as a result has starred in some of the biggest films of the last four years.
Probably most notable is his portrayal of multi-millionaire playboy Tony Stark in the film adaption of Marvel's comic book hero 'Iron Man'. Not just playing the character in the title trilogy, the star also reprised the role for 2012’s 'The Avengers' and its sequel.
An adaption of 'Sherlock Holmes' (2009), with Downey Jr in the lead role, secured him firmly in his place at the top of the box office, grossing $62.3million (£40million) in its opening weekend. The sequel 'Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows' was released in late 2011.
Meanwhile, comedy 'Due Date' (2010), in which he starred alongside 'The Hangover' breakout star Zach Galifinakis, allowed a return to his comedy roots, which turned out to be a hit with the audience.
For now, Robert Downey Jr should never be far from our screens, with his position set firm in two of Hollywood’s biggest growing franchises.