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How Robert Downey Jr. saved his career

American actor Robert Downey Jr. is wildly popular around the world for his portrayal of Marvel’s Iron Man. Although he has been named among the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME Magazine, and was the highest-paid actor in Hollywood at one point, Robert Downey Jr.’s professional life has been marked by several ups and downs. On his 56th birthday, we revisit the actor’s career in order to understand how he saved his career from going downhill.

Born in New York City to the celebrated actor and filmmaker Robert Downey Sr., Downey Jr. grew up in an environment that facilitated the future potential for substance abuse. His father, who also struggled with drug use, allegedly later explained how those drug sessions were his father’s way of connecting with his son: “When my dad and I would do drugs together, it was like him trying to express his love for me in the only way he knew how.” Despite his troubled childhood, Downey Jr. displayed a penchant for the performing arts from an early age, appearing in minor roles in several of his father’s films, including Pound in 1970 and Greaser’s Palace two years later in 1972. Looking further for modes of expression, he later studied classical ballet in England and trained at the Stagedoor Manor Performing Arts Training Center during his teenage years in New York. After the divorce of his parents in 1978, Downey Jr. settled down in California with his father, but he eventually decided to drop out of high school and pursue a career as an actor in 1982.

Later though, he started his adult acting career by taking on parts in off-Broadway theatrical projects and even managed to make it to Saturday Night Live but was released after the new cast received poor feedback from audiences. Rolling Stone even named the actor as the worst SNL cast member of all time. However, Downey Jr. soon started gaining recognition for appearances in films like Tuff Turf and Weird Science. His relatively successful run led him to his first major role in the 1987 romantic comedy The Pick-Up Artist, where he starred alongside Molly Ringwald. The same year, he earned critical acclaim for playing a privileged rich guy with a debilitating drug habit in Less Than Zero. Due to the complications of his substance abuse problems in real life, Downey Jr. considered the part to be “the ghost of Christmas Future”. Although he followed it up with bigger productions like Chances Are and Air America, the burgeoning actor would have to wait for a few years before his next breakthrough.

In 1992, Downey Jr. prepared extensively for a biopic on Charlie Chaplin, where he played the titular role. For his well-researched performance, the actor earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor at the age of 27, which signified a major turning point in his career. He would go on to appear in several projects during the late ’90s, like U.S. Marshals and Black and White, but it was a difficult period for the actor. Starting from 1996, Downey Jr. was arrested on numerous occasions for possession of cocaine, heroin and other drugs. He attended several rehabilitation programs but kept spiralling, even breaking into a neighbour’s house and falling asleep on one instance. While talking about his self-destructive tendencies, Downey Jr. told a judge:

“It’s like I have a shotgun in my mouth, and I’ve got my finger on the trigger, and I like the taste of the gun metal.”

The actor was sentenced to three years in a correctional facility but was released after a year. After getting out of prison, he earned a Golden Globe for appearing in the television series Ally McBeal, but he was still in a very precarious position: “It was my lowest point in terms of addictions,” he once explained. “At that stage, I didn’t give a fuck whether I ever acted again.” He was fired from the show after the actor was found by the police to be under the influence of drugs multiple times over the next few months, including one time when he was spotted roaming around barefoot in Culver City. Although he was released after the arrest, this one cost him several high-profile gigs like the opportunity to star in America’s Sweethearts.

Thanks to Mel Gibson, who decided to sponsor Downey Jr.’s insurance band for The Singing Detective in 2003, the actor’s career was on an upward trend again. He signed onto productions like Gothika and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. He received critical acclaim for his performance in Richard Linklater’s dystopian film adaptation of A Scanner Darkly, as well as David Fincher’s psychological thriller Zodiac about the famous serial killer. Everything changed after he was cast as Iron Man in 2007, ushering in critical and commercial success. Director Jon Favreau explained why he insisted that Downey Jr. was the right actor for the role: “Downey wasn’t the most obvious choice, but he understood what makes the character tick. He found a lot of his own life experience in ‘Tony Stark’.” Favreau turned out to be absolutely right, as the film grossed over $585million worldwide. Since then, he has appeared in several sequels as well as Marvel’s wildly popular The Avengers franchise, which has propelled him towards global recognition.

Aside from the successful superhero films, the actor also appeared in comedy films like Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder. In an interview, Stiller said: “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.” He earned another Academy Award nomination for his performance in Tropic Thunder. Downey Jr. won the Golden Globe for Best Actor for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in Guy Ritchie’s 2009 film and appeared in other popular productions like the 2010 comedy Due Date, but it cannot be denied that his most well-known project has been his reign as Iron Man in the Marvel films.

He is reported to reprise the iconic role in the 2021 film Black Widow as well as play the part of Sherlock Holmes for the third time. Although most of the success of the latter half of his career has been predicated on his Iron Man roles, it will be interesting to see how Downey Jr.’s acting legacy evolves with the demands of different kinds of projects in the future. When he reflected on the pivotal moment in his life, Downey Jr. said: “It’s really not that difficult to overcome these seemingly ghastly problems. What’s hard is to decide to do it.”