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Biggest Robert Downey Jr. Moments That Transformed His Life

Robert Downey Jr. is one of today's most beloved and recognizable movie stars. His long-running status as the first star of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has made him the face of several billion-dollar blockbusters and modern cinema's most dominant franchise, and other hits like "Sherlock Holmes" and "Tropic Thunder" ensure that he's not just associated with Tony Stark. And he has the respect of critics in addition to moviegoers, particularly for his pre-Marvel run of working with major American directors like David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, and Richard Linklater.

But Downey lived many lives before he came out on top. His career was one of triumphant highs and debilitating lows, and those lows became so public that they defined him for much of the 1990s and 2000s. He weathered the storm of drug addiction and has now been sober for 20 years, but the path to sobriety was not easy and every step was documented and scrutinized by news outlets. These are a few of the biggest moments in his arduous journey to success, with the ups and downs almost always occurring in the public eye.

Starring in his dad's movies

Downey became involved in show business very early in life. His father was respected counterculture filmmaker Robert Downey Sr., whose cult comedy "Putney Swope" has influenced directors such as Paul Thomas Anderson. Downey Sr. gave his son his first film role when he was only five years old, having him play a puppy in 1970's "Pound." Two years later, he gave him another role in "Greaser's Palace" opposite his mother — and Downey Sr.'s wife — Elsie Downey.

Downey Sr. also introduced his son to more than just the movie industry. The Downeys grew up in the normalized drug culture of 1960s and '70s New York, and the easy access to drugs rubbed off on Downey Jr. from a young age. As early as six years old, Downey Sr. allowed his son to smoke marijuana, and the two soon began using drugs together. Downey Jr. said in a 1988 interview that his father doing drugs with him "was like him trying to express his love for me in the only way he knew how." But what began as father-son bonding would eventually spiral into a self-destructive pattern, one that almost cost Downey both his career and his life.

Season 11 of Saturday Night Live

After a few small parts in movies, Downey got what seemed like his big break in 1985. That year, "Saturday Night Live" producer Lorne Michaels assembled an entirely new cast for the show's 11th season. Downey was one of several non-comedians selected for the cast, including Randy Quaid, Joan Cusack, and Anthony Michael Hall. It was a cast full of future stars, but the season did none of them any favors.

Season 11 turned out to be an infamous failure in "Saturday Night Live" history, sunk by bad writing and cast members who weren't trained in comedy. Six of the nine new cast members, including Downey, did not return to the show in Season 12, and that next season opened with Madonna telling the audience that Season 11 was only "a horrible, horrible dream." Downey received special criticism for the season, with Rolling Stone calling him the worst performer in "Saturday Night Live" history. If the season had a silver lining for Downey, it's that working alongside Anthony Michael Hall ensured his place in the Brat Pack, the popular group of teen and young-adult actors in the 1980s. His association with them would soon get him widespread recognition.

Less Than Zero added up to stardom

Downey's breakthrough finally came in 1987, when he starred in two movies opposite fellow Brat Pack members. The first of the two, "The Pick-up Artist" with Molly Ringwald, was a flop, but the second, "Less Than Zero" with Andrew McCarthy, got him significant attention and acclaim. Early in his career, Downey mostly acted in comedies like "Back to School" and "Weird Science," but "Zero" was a dark drama where he played a privileged cocaine addict on a downward spiral. The change in genre made critics take notice of Downey: He was singled out as a standout element of the film, with Roger Ebert calling his performance "so real, so subtle and so observant that it's scary."

Downey has called his "Less Than Zero" character his "ghost of Christmas future," predicting the worst of his drug addiction that was to come. Downey was already a regular drug user when filming began on "Zero," but he told the Guardian that he had previously kept the drug use separate from his job by doing it "after work and on the weekends." The production and subject matter of "Zero" escalated the drug use to the point that his then-manager demanded that he go to rehab in 1988.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Air America and Mel Gibson

The 1990 action comedy "Air America," about drug smuggling during the Vietnam War, was a critical and commercial flop that did nothing to help Downey's career. But it served one crucial purpose by introducing him to Mel Gibson. The two became friends during filming, bonding over their shared struggles with substance abuse and both being impressed by the other's commitment to the craft of acting, even when filming a throwaway action movie. Downey told Vanity Fair that working with Gibson was "like playing with Ted Williams — that effortless talent he had to step up and hit a home run."

Gibson and Downey's friendship has lasted even as both men have had their share of public controversies. Downey's first post-sobriety movie, "The Singing Detective," was produced by Gibson, and Gibson paid Downey's insurance bond for it out of his own pocket. Gibson's history of anti-Semitic, violent, and racist remarks made him a Hollywood pariah for several years, but Downey publicly spoke out in support of him. In 2011, after domestic violence charges were filed against Gibson, Downey gave a speech saying that Hollywood "should forgive [Gibson] and let him work."

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.

Chaplin was a major spotlight for Downey

Downey got the biggest showcase of his early career in 1992 when he was hired to play legendary actor/director Charlie Chaplin in Richard Attenborough's biopic "Chaplin." It's not an easy job to convincingly play one of history's most distinctive entertainers, and Downey took the assignment very seriously. To prepare, he reviewed Chaplin's films to study and replicate his posture, and even learned how to play violin left-handed like Chaplin. By the end of the shoot, Attenborough was so impressed by Downey's commitment that he told the Los Angeles Times, "Robert is now Tom Cruise and a great character actor in one," while also predicting that "the world will be his oyster."

"Chaplin" was not well-received, and both critics and audiences didn't find much to like in it except Downey's performance. But they liked Downey's performance so much that he received his first Oscar nomination for it, the only major nomination the movie received. While he lost the Oscar, the nomination still cemented Downey's reputation as one of the best actors of his generation, and seemed to predict a future career for him like the one Attenborough described. Attenborough would eventually be correct, but the years to come would make it seem like Downey was a lost cause.

Arrested in 1996

While Downey stayed clean for "Chaplin" and "Air America," he fell off the wagon sometime in the early '90s. Despite his addiction, Downey continued to score high-profile roles for renowned directors like Robert Altman and Oliver Stone throughout the first half of the decade. But his fortunes began to turn in 1996, when he was pulled over for speeding and then arrested for possessing heroin, cocaine, and a handgun in his car. Three weeks later, he was arrested again when he was found trespassing in his neighbors' home, intoxicated and sleeping in one of their beds.

1996 opened the floodgates for a series of high-profile arrests and misadventures for Downey, making him more of a tabloid fixture than a movie star. Even with these distractions, he maintained professionalism on-set, including completing work with no issues on the film "One Night Stand" just days after his first arrest. But fewer directors and studios wanted to take the risk associated with hiring him, and he began having more court appearances than film appearances in the late '90s. Following a missed drug test in 1999, he served one year of a four-year prison sentence, getting out early because he had spent so much time in jail in between his previous arrests. At his sentencing, Downey told the court (via BBC) that his addiction was "like I've got a shotgun in my mouth, with my finger on the trigger, and I like the taste of the gun metal."

He almost made a comeback on Ally McBeal

Soon after Downey was released from prison in 2000, he was given a potential comeback role on Season 4 of the Fox TV show "Ally McBeal." "McBeal" was one of the biggest hits on TV at the time, even getting star Calista Flockhart on the cover of Time magazine. Downey's character was written as a love interest for Flockhart's McBeal, and he was a big hit with audiences and critics. He won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Emmy for the performance. But during production of the season, Downey was arrested two more times for drug-related incidents, and was then fired from and written off the show. The intended season finale where Downey and Flockhart got married had to be completely rewritten as a result.

Downey later gave interviews downplaying the quality of his work on "McBeal". He told The Guardian that his time on the show coincided with him no longer caring whether he would ever act again or not. He even wrote off the acclaim his performance received as people's response to the idea that he "manages to perform like he isn't a drooling goo-goo" more than him actually giving a strong performance.

Gothika was an important test

Downey finally achieved sobriety in 2001 after a stay in rehab, making the indie "The Singing Detective" soon afterwards. But the memory of his arrests and bad behavior made the major studios reluctant to hire him, fearing that he'd relapse and not be able to complete shooting a movie without a problem. The 2003 Halle Berry thriller "Gothika" would be the first test of Downey staying sober during a studio production. The film's producers agreed to hire him in a supporting part, under the condition that 40% of his salary would be withheld until the end of the shoot and not given to him at all if he fell into bad behavior during production. Downey remained clean for the duration of the shoot. "Gothika" didn't make an impact when it was released, but the success of Downey getting back to work was all the victory he needed at the time.

The shooting of "Gothika" also marked another personal milestone for Downey. He had been married and divorced once before, and while filming "Gothika," he met the woman who would soon become his second wife, producer Susan Levin, now Susan Downey. By the time "Gothika" came out, Downey had gotten a tattoo of Susan's name. Two years after its release, they would be married.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was a personal milestone

Downey's hard work on "Gothika" endeared him to that movie's producer, Joel Silver. Susan Downey was Silver's producing partner, and she and Downey often hung around Silver's office. After the release of "Gothika," screenwriter Shane Black went to Silver's office to discuss his directorial debut that Silver was producing. Downey was there and Black asked him to read for the movie's main character. This is how Downey got the lead role in Black's "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," where Downey doesn't just star but narrates in stream-of-consciousness ramblings. The movie, a buddy comedy in the vein of Black's "Lethal Weapon," was a showcase for Downey's motormouth sense of humor, allowing him to barrel through dialogue with impressive speed and timing.

Despite great reviews, "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" was not a financial success. Downey was disappointed that his work had gone mostly unnoticed by audiences, telling The Hollywood Reporter that "it wasn't the coming-out party I'd thought it would be." But Downey was so heartened by Black giving him the opportunity that he stuck by Black even after its failure, eventually insisting that he write and direct "Iron Man 3."

Iron Man launches both Downey and the MCU

Downey spent the mid-2000s working his way back up in Hollywood, receiving critical acclaim for supporting parts in films like "Zodiac" and "A Scanner Darkly." But even in the prime of his career, he hadn't led a production that was nearly as big as the first Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, "Iron Man." Director Jon Favreau had been impressed by Downey's "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" performance, and he also felt that Downey's troubled past made him perfect to play reformed playboy Tony Stark, telling Texas radio station 100.3 Jack FM (via Cinemablend) that "the story of Iron Man was really the story of Robert's career."

Even after Downey proved that he could make a studio movie without incident, Marvel was skeptical about hiring him and rejected the idea multiple times when Favreau presented it to them. According to a Time magazine profile, Downey wanted the part so badly that he "prepped for three weeks for his one-hour screen test" for it. Even after Favreau and Downey finally convinced Marvel he was the right choice, Downey was only paid $500,000 for the part. But Marvel's fears about Downey turned out to be unfounded, as he not only got great reviews for his performance, he led the film to make almost $600 million worldwide. With one just one film, Downey was back on the A-list.

Tropic Thunder brought him back to the Oscars

The success of "Iron Man" could have just been a fluke, but just three months after it, Downey was back in theaters with another hit, proving that he was here to stay. His second 2008 film was "Tropic Thunder," where he took on a part far riskier than a comic book superhero. He would be satirizing the pretensions of method actors, and he would do so by spending the entire movie in blackface as a white Australian actor committing too hard to a part that shouldn't be his in the first place. Downey's director and costar Ben Stiller was so nervous about the character that he tested the film multiple times with Black audiences, including members of the NAACP. They responded positively to both the movie and the character.

"Tropic Thunder" was a hit critically and commercially, and the risk of Downey's performance paid off with some of the best reviews of his career. Despite the controversial nature of Downey's performance and it being a vicious parody of the kind of actor the Academy typically loves to reward, he received his second Oscar nomination for the part. The nomination was a cherry on top of Downey's 2008, proving that he had regained both respectability and box-office power.

The success of Sherlock Holmes was no mystery

If there was any remaining doubt about Downey's ability to lead a movie, it was erased in 2009, when he added another blockbuster franchise to his career. This one would return him to the challenge of "Chaplin," playing another iconic (if fictional) Brit: Sherlock Holmes. Downey's connections to Joel Silver once again made sure he was in the right place at the right time, as Silver was producing a new Holmes movie directed by Guy Ritchie. Susan Downey gave him the script and Downey was drawn to this new conception of Holmes. In a press conference held before production on "Holmes" began, Downey said that what attracted him to it was that this Holmes was "quirky and kind of nuts," qualities Downey also found in himself.

The quirkiness of Downey's performance did nothing to turn audiences off. If anything, "Sherlock Holmes" proved that Downey didn't need to tone down his eccentricities to win over the public, as it was such a big hit that it gave Downey his second blockbuster franchise in two years. His "Holmes" performance also won him his second Golden Globe, closing Downey's 2000s on another note of triumph.

The Judge did not make the case for Team Downey

In 2010, Robert and Susan Downey created the production company Team Downey, their intention being to produce movies for Downey to star in. Team Downey's first film was 2014's "The Judge," a drama starring Downey as a slick lawyer going back home to his ailing father. "The Judge" was intended as an Oscar play, even premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, famous for debuting Best Picture nominees and winners. But "The Judge" received mixed reviews and only got one Oscar nomination, for Robert Duvall and not Downey. Team Downey would not produce another movie for six years, returning with "Dolittle" in 2020 and suffering another flop in the process. 

As Downey became increasingly involved in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he stopped making non-franchise movies almost entirely, even turning down lead roles in acclaimed films like "Inherent Vice" and "Gravity" to focus on playing Tony Stark and Sherlock Holmes. "The Judge" was his first starring vehicle in four years where he played neither Stark nor Holmes. The failure of "The Judge" made him even more reluctant to step out of the Iron Man armor. In 2015, he told Entertainment Weekly that he had no interest in making any more small-budget movies, and his only non-Marvel film appearance since "The Judge" was the $175 million "Dolittle." The only movie he and Team Downey have on their slates is "Sherlock Holmes 3."