In 2005, Carrie Morrow was a co-producer on the film, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” a low-budget feature film best known for serving as the directorial debut of action movie scribe Shane Black. One of the stars was Robert Downey Jr., who had been released from a California prison and drug treatment facility in 2000, had appeared on “Ally McBeal” later that year, was fired from the show in April of 2001 because of a relapse and then spent another year in a rehab center.
Downey’s climb back into Hollywood’s good graces began in earnest with two films in 2003, “The Singing Detective,” a musical fantasy produced by Mel Gibson, and “Gothika,” a horror-thriller starring Halle Berry.
He managed to come through those without a hitch, although he reportedly had to pay for his own completion bond insurance, which protects a film in case something unforeseen happens — like the sudden flaking of a star.
And on “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” recalled Morrow, just about everybody on the set anticipated just such an occurrence.
“Everybody was watching him,” she said. “Everybody was waiting for the other shoe to drop, especially because it wasn’t necessarily a sober set. I had problems with other people there. They were all waiting for him to fall.
“The funny thing about Robert,” she added, “is that he has awkward mannerisms to begin with. He’s kind of a quirky dude. People assumed he was wasted even when he was sober. I actually had somebody come up to me and say, ‘I’m sure he’s wasted. He’s out of his mind.’ It was projected onto him, almost like he couldn’t escape it.”
‘He has absolutely turned things around’Since those early days of his career renaissance, Downey has been working steadily. He stars in “Iron Man,” which opens Friday, but he has also played major roles in “Zodiac,” “The Shaggy Dog,” and the upcoming Ben Stiller-directed comedy, “Tropic Thunder.” Starting with “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” his presence on a film has not meant that extra insurance was necessary.
“They were just starting to trust him,” Morrow said of the studios. “They were willing to let the rope out enough to see if he would fall. And he didn’t.”
She described his behavior on that film this way: “He was punctual. He was professional. He was respectable.”
Although producer Jason Blumenthal has never worked with Downey, he had a meeting with him a few years back, during some of the actor’s worst times. Of that encounter, Blumenthal summed up Downey differently: “He was a mess. No way we would put him in a movie.”
And now? “He has absolutely turned things around,” said Blumenthal, who along with his Escape Artists production company counts films such as “The Pursuit of Happyness” with Will Smith and the upcoming remake of “The Taking of Pelham 123” with Denzel Washington among their credits.
It isn’t simply the fickle nature of Hollywood that causes a producer to avoid an actor one minute and embrace him the next. In a business where millions of dollars are riding on a film and a producer’s neck could be on the line if an actor implodes in a fit of drug- and/or alcohol-induced lunacy, one can never be too careful.
Downey is, of course, not the only current star with a notorious past.
Tom Sizemore has been in and out of trouble with the law over drug abuse and domestic violence charges involving former girlfriend Heidi Fleiss, the one-time Hollywood madam; he was released from prison in December after serving nine months on a drug charge. Lindsay Lohan has been a constant source of scrutiny over her partying and was chastised in a scathing memo by producer James G. Robinson over her irresponsible behavior on the film, “Georgia Rule,” an incident that went very public.
In a culture rife with insecurity and pressure, many stars over the years have made headlines for the wrong reasons, and had their careers placed in jeopardy. Fatty Arbuckle’s movie career was never the same after he was charged with manslaughter in the death of a woman at a party in 1921, even though he was ultimately acquitted. Robert Mitchum hit a bump when he was arrested for marijuana possession in 1948, although he eventually rebounded. Ingrid Bergman’s career was seriously wounded after she became pregnant out of wedlock by director Roberto Rossellini in 1949.
But the essential element to any Hollywood comeback, Blumenthal pointed out, is talent.
‘Talent usually wins out’“In my mind, talent usually wins out,” he said. “The bottom line for studios is that (Downey) is one of the best working actors out there.
He’s clean and sober, so studios say, ‘We should take a shot at him.’”
While Downey is worth the risk, he said, not all celebrities with personal demons or behavior problems can make the same claim. “With somebody like Lindsay Lohan, showing up late, it’s ridiculous, because she doesn’t have the talent to sustain that,” he said. “Robert has always been good about the work. I’ve never heard any negative feedback about him regarding the work, he’s good with the crew, he’s good with everybody. How you treat the film community is part and parcel of how the film community treats you.
“With Lindsay Lohan, there’s an air of entitlement that doesn’t hold up anymore. There are too many solid actors working right now to give work to somebody who feels entitled like that and doesn’t have the chops to back it up.”
Downey obviously has the goods. Well before his 1996 arrest for possession of drugs and weapons, which began his descent, he snagged an Academy Award nomination for the 1992 biopic “Chaplin.” He has also appeared in Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” and Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers.”
John Toll, a two-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer, shot “Tropic Thunder,” set for release this summer. A cinematographer is on set more often than just about anybody, either shooting or setting up the next shot, so he or she has a ringside seat for all goings-on, whether positive or negative. He said his experience with Downey was exemplary.
“It was a pleasure to work with Robert,” he said. “He’s a great actor, a consummate professional and a wonderful presence on the set.”
Obviously, that wasn’t always the case. Morrow could sense a change when she worked with him. She said he seemed warm and secure, funny and dedicated.
“I actually think that who I got was who he really is,” she said. “I think when people are strung out and wasted, that’s a room that they enter on their journey. He walked out of that room and he hasn’t reentered. Who he really is is who you see now.”
Michael Ventre lives in Los Angeles and is a regular contributor to msnbc.com.