If the last 10 years of Robert Downey, Jr.’s life were a movie, nobody would believe it. An Oscar nominee for 1992’s “Chaplin,” Downey’s drug use over the rest of the decade got worse and worse until finally, in 1999, a judge sentenced him to a three-year sentence in the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison. Released after one year, Downey continued to relapse until early 2001, when he finally took rehab seriously.
In the ensuing years, the talented actor has seen his star continue to rise, snagging an enviable two-fer in 2008: A second Oscar nomination for his controversial and hilarious turn in “Tropic Thunder” (as an Australian Method actor who becomes black via surgery to play an African-American character) and a starring role in a sequel-spawning franchise hit, the superhero epic “Iron Man.”
With another potential tentpole movie out this Christmas, “Sherlock Holmes,” it’s interesting to look back at Downey’s whirlwind decade and to see what other artists with similar addiction-related issues can learn from his experiences.
Sooner or later, you’ve got to get help. Neither some very public incidents of bad behavior — getting arrested for possession of cocaine, heroin and a handgun while speeding down Sunset Boulevard, stumbling into a neighbor’s home and falling asleep in one of the beds — nor a year of actual incarceration and tough love from peers like Jodie Foster and Sean Penn kept Downey from continuing to abuse drugs. But at some point, he finally he realized he had to stop.
In 2004, Downey told Oprah Winfrey, “For me, I just happened to be in a situation the very last time and I said, ‘You know what? I don’t think I can continue doing this.’ And I reached out for help and I ran with it, you know? Because you can reach out for help in a half-assed way, and you’ll get it, and you won’t take advantage of it. You know? It's really not that difficult to overcome these seemingly ghastly problems. ... What’s hard is to decide.”
Of course, being ready to go back to work isn’t the same as having other people ready to hire you.
Have powerful friends who believe in you. As the 21st century began, Downey found it hard to get work. He was written off of “Ally McBeal” despite having won a Golden Globe for his role as the lead character’s new love interest, and Woody Allen couldn’t get an insurance bond for Downey (or for his proposed co-star, Winona Ryder) for “Melinda & Melinda.”
Slideshow: Robert Downey Jr. Enter Downey’s “Air America” (1990) co-star Mel Gibson, who personally put up the money to insure Downey to star in “The Singing Detective” (2003), which Gibson produced. Likewise, producer Joel Silver cast Downey in 2003’s “Gothika,” but withheld 40 percent of the actor’s salary until shooting was completed.
With these two films clearly confirming that a clean and sober Downey was making a comeback, he was able to select from an eclectic variety of movies, ranging from “Zodiac” (2007) to “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005) to “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (2005) to “The Shaggy Dog” (2006). That variety was a smart move for the actor, insuring his visibility among all kinds of audiences.
Take everything you’re offered; you never know which role is going to stick. Much of the pre-release interest in “Iron Man” stemmed from the fact that Downey had signed on to play the title role. Sure, audiences expected to see him in edgy arthouse movies like “Fur” (2006) or gritty Sundance fare like “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” (2006), but a big-budget action movie? Based on a comic book, even?
Video: Robert Downey Jr. on ‘Sherlock Holmes’ Downey, of course, turned out to be the perfect choice for the film, bringing both breezy wit and gravitas to the movie. The fact that Tony Stark, the wealthy industrialist inside the metal suit, had addiction issues in the original comics probably didn’t hurt, either; it’s said that future installments of his big-screen adventures will touch upon this facet of the character.
This wasn’t a case of a big-name actor slumming it in a “Batman” movie by playing an over-the-top villain in an outrageous costume; Downey took the material seriously and played an essential part in making the film transcend its genre roots. (Heath Ledger, who beat out Downey for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar last year, achieved the same effect in “The Dark Knight.”)
With “Sherlock Holmes” making its way into theaters, Downey no doubt hopes to have another long-running franchise under his belt. In the meantime, the actor has made long-term commitments to the “Iron Man” series, not only in its upcoming sequels but also in the upcoming feature “The Avengers,” in which Iron Man will be part of a team of superheroes. (Downey’s cameo in “The Incredible Hulk” was part of the opening salvo for that franchise’s eventual creation.) But it seems a safe bet that he’ll also continue to work in off-Hollywood films as well.
That Robert Downey, Jr. is still alive is extraordinary; the fact that he continues to work is commendable. But for him to be both a critically acclaimed and marketable movie star 10 years after he was behind bars in drug rehab is the stuff that Hollywood dreams — and inspirational tales — are made of.
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