Downey on the up

After almost succumbing to the pitfalls of drugs, reformed wildchild Robert Downey Jr is clean, sober and one of Hollywood’s biggest stars once again. Continuing our Greatest Celebrity Comebacks countdown, we look at the star’s highs and lows on his road to redemption.

By Adam Zacharias (

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Published: Thu 15 Jan 2009, 9:45 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 11:30 PM

CHEEKY, CHARISMATIC AND undeniably talented, Robert Downey Jr is also a man prone to bouts of crass stupidity and willful self-destruction.

Born to a filmmaker father and an actress mother, Downey first entered the acting world as a five-year-old in the movie ‘Pound’. Directed by Robert Downey Sr and starring mum Elsie Downey, the story sees actors interpreting dogs’ feelings as they wait to be put to sleep. The youngster, listed as Bob Downey, played a puppy due to be adopted by a bald man.

As a teenager, Downey first came under the glare of the media as a member of the infamous 1980s ‘Brat Pack’. He also joined the cast of legendary sketch show Saturday Night Live, displaying a knack for comedy as well as serious acting, but left after just one season.

During the mid-1980s, the young actor dated future ‘Sex and the City’ star Sarah Jessica Parker and had supporting roles in lighthearted comedy flicks ‘Weird Science’ and ‘Back to School’.

However, it was 1987’s ‘Less Than Zero’ – in which Downey played the role of a debt-ridden cokehead – which really pricked critics’ interest. However, this portrayal would prove ominously accurate, as Downey had long since started his own descent into hard drugs.

“It’s the closest I’ve ever come to leaving a part of myself up there on the screen,” he said afterwards. “I consider myself lucky to have gone through that period with a career and a working respiratory system.”

His next career highlight came four years later, when the actor was selected to play screen legend Charlie Chaplin in biopic ‘Chaplin’ – beating out the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams and Billy Crystal.

Again, Downey’s performance had critics salivating – earning him a BAFTA Award for best actor and nods at both the Golden Globes and Academy Awards for the same category.

However, for the rest of the decade, Downey’s immense potential took a back seat to an endless torrent of drug abuse, erratic behaviour and legal woes – all gobbled up by an eagle-eyed press.

In 1996, Downey was stopped driving naked down LA’s Sunset Boulevard, throwing imaginary rats out of the window of his Porsche. Police found heroin, cocaine and an unloaded handgun in his car.

Just a few weeks later, he blundered into a neighbour’s empty Malibu home and fell asleep in one of the children’s beds. He was placed on probation after admitting a laundry list of crimes.

In August 1999, the actor was jailed for three years for repeatedly breaking his parole. The judge criticised him for failing to finish a single one of his seven court-ordered rehab courses, and accused the actor of manipulating those who were trying to help him.

Downey responded by saying: “It’s like I’ve got a shotgun in my mouth, with my finger on the trigger, and I like the taste of the gun metal.”

After his release in 2000, Downey again showed a glimpse of the talent he was so readily squandering. The star joined the cast of hit show ‘Ally McBeal’ as love interest Larry Paul, bolstering its ratings and scooping a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award in the process. However, he was eventually fired by producers after a fresh spate of drug-related arrests.

This prompted the troubled actor to finally begin tackling his demons in earnest, successfully completing 12 months of treatment in a live-in rehab facility. His committed attempts to sober up coincided neatly with Downey acquiring a handful of meatier cinematic roles, such as ‘Gothika’, ‘A Scanner Darkly’ and ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’.

However, it wasn’t until 2008 that Downey finally clawed his way back to the top of the Hollywood tree – with a pair of very different movie roles. To the surprise of many, he was selected as the lead in Marvel comic film ‘Iron Man’ – garnering numerous plaudits once more and helping the film gross a phenomenal $580 million worldwide.

Meanwhile, he also scored big in Ben Stiller comedy ‘Tropic Thunder’ as pretentious Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus, who is himself trying to portray an African-American sergeant, despite being white-skinned. Again, the film struck box office gold, and Downey looks likely to receive another nod for his performance at this year’s Oscars for Best Supporting Actor.

Now fully clean and sober, the married father-of-one is at last growing up as he approaches his mid-40s. He is also scheduled to do two ‘Iron Man’ sequels, as well as playing Sherlock Homes in a big-budget movie slated for release later this year.

‘Iron Man’ director Jon Favreau summed up Downey’s new-found focus on his career, saying: “He’s somebody who’s had it, lost it and now has it again, and it’s like a pit bull who’s got his jaws on a chew toy. Nothing will take this away from him.”

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