Happy Birthday Robert Downey Jr: How Iron Man saved his career and made him an Avenger
Marvel did not want to cast Robert Downey Jr in the role of Tony Stark in the first Iron Man. In the mid-2000s, when the film was initially being planned and the ambitious Marvel Cinematic Universe was but a glimmer in producer Kevin Feige’s eye, Downey Jr was a star well past his prime, having developed a reputation as an unreliable screw-up with a history of drug abuse. But director Jon Favreau fought for him every step of the way, convinced that he was the only man for the job.
Ten years later, Downey Jr will apparently be paid close to $100 million for Avengers: Infinity War, the latest in the now 19 film-strong MCU. “Everybody knew he was talented,” Favreau recounted in a later interview to a Texas radio station. “Certainly by studying the Iron Man role and developing that script I realised that the character seemed to line-up with Robert in all the good and bad ways. And the story of Iron Man was really the story of Robert’s career.”
But what is the story of Robert’s career?
In 1987, he played a drug addicted rich boy in Less Than Zero, a film that earned him excellent reviews and Downey Jr later called his ‘Ghost of Christmas Future.’
A 2003 Guardian article alluded to this by saying that “for the greater part of the past decade, the focus on him has been fairly evenly split between 1) his reputation as the finest actor of his generation, and 2) his status as the ultimate poster boy for a particularly epic form of Hollywood self-destruction.”
Downey Jr’s ‘self destruction’ began in the late ‘80s, when he was arrested numerous times for the possession of cocaine, heroin and marijuana. The actor has said that he was exposed to drugs at a very young age by his father, the filmmaker Robert Downey Sr, who introduced him to cigarettes and pot before he became a teenager. By 1987, he had already had three stints in rehab facilities, and according to that Guardian article, his appetite for illegal substances was, “even by movie industry standards... mammoth, unquenchable, riotously insatiable.”
But things really unravelled in 1996, when he was pulled over by cops and was found to be carrying large amounts of cocaine, heroin and a .357 Magnum. Before he was sentenced for these crimes, he was found collapsed in his neighbour’s child’s bedroom, unconscious after a bender.
Over the next five years, Downey Jr spent several months in different facilities, which culminated in a year-long stint in prison. He was arrested twice after his receiving parole in 2000. What began as a recreational activity - “I used to take drugs after work and on weekends,” he said - turned into a well-publicised meltdown. During this time, he was fired off the TV show Ally McBeal and was unable to secure insurance for Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda.
But his fortune turned around in the early 2000s, after several attempts to remain sober. In the next few years, he appeared in several small films and earned great acclaim. After his last arrest in 2001, he told Oprah “‘You know what? I don’t think I can continue doing this.’ And I reached out for help, and I ran with it. You can reach out for help in kind of a half-assed way and you’ll get it and you won’t take advantage of it. It’s not that difficult to overcome these seemingly ghastly problems... what’s hard is to decide to do it.”
Ironically, Downey Jr’s return to the big screen in 2003 would not have been possible had it not been for the help of another Hollywood bad boy. Still uninsurable, Downey Jr’s bond was paid by Mel Gibson for The Singing Detective. He returned to star in Gothika, for which producer Joel Silver withheld 40% of his salary as a bond until Downey Jr completed the movie.
He went on to star in a string of acclaimed independent movies, which culminated with him securing the Iron Man gig. Writing Downey Jr’s entry in Time Magazine 100 most influential list for 2008, Ben Stiller noted, “Yes, Downey is Iron Man, but he really is Actor Man ... In the realm where box office is irrelevant and talent is king, the realm that actually means something, he has always ruled, and finally this summer he gets to have his cake and let us eat him up all the way to the multiplex, where his mastery is in full effect.”
The success of Iron Man was closely followed by Downey Jr’s first Oscar nomination since 1993’s Chaplin, for his supporting performance in Stiller’s comedy, Tropic Thunder. Downey Jr now juggles between two major franchises - Marvel and Sherlock Holmes - with a third - Doctor Doolittle - on the way. He has been married to producer Susan Downey since 2005, and has two children with her, son Exton (born 2012) and daughter Avri (born 2014). He also has another son, Indio, from a previous relationship.
He maintains that he has been drug-free since 2003.
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