Robert Downey Jr. has more than earned his street cred as one of the world’s highest-paid and quite frankly adored actors. Over the last five decades, he’s become regarded as one of the greatest actors of his generation, best known on-screen for his performances as Charlie Chaplin in 1992’s Chaplin, Sherlock Holmes in Guy Ritchie’s movie trilogy, and, of course, Tony Stark/Iron Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
However, this industry vet’s rise to fame began with an unconventional upbringing as the son of writer-actress Elsie Ford Downey and avant-garde filmmaker Robert Downey Sr., which included an early immersion into a drug-addled Hollywood lifestyle. Even while serving as the box office’s golden boy, RDJ would later battle several highly-publicized personal demons, including addiction … but more on all of that below.
This fan-favorite movie star eventually turned his life around in the mid-2000s, rising up from the ashes of a seemingly dead career through a miraculous comeback after kicking the habit with the help of his future wife, producer Susan Downey (née Levin). But where did this inspirational journey toward sobriety and Tinseltown reign begin? This is the tragic, real-life story of Robert Downey Jr.
Robert Downey Jr.’s troubled childhood
In Robert Downey Jr.’s words, he had an “interesting” childhood (via Vanity Fair) — but as you delve further into his past, you’ll find that’s quite the understatement. Both of his artistic parents, who divorced when he was 13, struggled with drug and alcohol addiction and led lifestyles that meant traveling for work and wild party invites. Naturally, Downey caught the acting bug at a young age, but, according to Biography, never stayed in one place for too long during his youth, living in New York City, London, and Santa Monica. He also infamously had his first taste of marijuana when he was just six or seven.
As his dad, Robert Downey Sr., later admitted to The Guardian: “I passed him a joint. And suddenly I knew I had made a terrible, stupid mistake … giving a little kid a toke of grass just to be funny.” For his part, RDJ once explained that the father-son duo used drugs to bond, saying in an interview for the New Breed book (via People), “It was like him trying to express his love for me in the only way he knew how.”
While an Urban Institute study shows that this type of instability can have a negative effect on children, Downey has maintained an optimistic outlook on his unusual upbringing. “To me, we were an artistic family trying to find normalcy,” he told Vanity Fair, before quipping that marijuana “was a staple — like rice!”
The movie role that worsened Robert Downey Jr.’s drug use
20th Century Fox
1987 was an exciting year for Robert Downey Jr., who nabbed his breakout role in the movie, Less than Zero. The young actor’s vulnerable portrayal of drug addict Julian Wells, whose addiction spirals amid an attempt to get sober, captivated audiences. The New York Times referred to his performance as “desperately moving.” Unfortunately, the role proved to be too much to handle, and Downey’s life began to imitate his art.
By the time the drama was released, Downey was 22 and his lifelong battle with addiction began to get worse. “Until that movie, I took my drugs after work and on the weekends,” he later explained to The Guardian. “Maybe I’d turn up hungover on the set, but no more so than the stuntman.” However, Downey went on to say that this changed while filming Less Than Zero. “For me, the role was like the ghost of Christmas future,” he noted. “The character was an exaggeration of myself. Then things changed, and, in some ways, I became an exaggeration of the character. That lasted far longer than it needed to last.”
Downey’s downward spiral into addiction would unfortunately become infamous over the next 15 years, landing him not only in rehab, but also behind bars, until finally kicking the habit for good in the summer of 2003.
Robert Downey Jr.’s addiction led to his breakup with Sarah Jessica Parker
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Before Robert Downey Jr. attained the glitz and glam of A-lister status, he and Sarah Jessica Parker met on the set of the movie Firstborn in 1984. At the time, the two 19-year-olds were on their way to becoming household names, and things got serious fast — two months after their first date, they moved in together.
When speaking about his time with Parker, Downey admitted to being far from mature, telling Parade in 2008 (via People), “I liked to drink, and I had a drug problem, and that didn’t jibe with Sarah Jessica, because it is the furthest thing from what she is.” He went on to say that Parker did her best to cope with his lifestyle: “She provided me a home and understanding. She tried to help me. She was so miffed when I didn’t get my act together.” The duo broke up after seven years together, and Parker shed some light on the split in 2018.
“There was a huge amount of time spent making sure he was okay,” she told People. “At a certain point, I had the courage to say, ‘I’m going to walk away and I’m just going to pray that you don’t die.'” Meanwhile, Downey previously explained to Howard Stern (via Entertainment Tonight), “We were at a very conservative relationship concerning the fact that she was normal and I was out of my mind. I did the best I could.”
Robert Downey Jr.’s first brushes with the law
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By his early 30s, Robert Downey Jr.’s drug addiction had led him down a dangerous path, resulting in his June 1996 arrest. According to UPI, the actor was pulled over for speeding in Malibu, with authorities claiming he’d been “driving erratically and appeared to be under the influence of alcohol,” before finding “black tar heroin, crack and powdered cocaine and an unloaded .357 Magnum handgun in his pickup truck.” Downey later posted bail but was charged with felony counts of drug possession, along with misdemeanor charges for DUI and possession of a concealed weapon.
The following month, Downey was infamously found asleep amid a drugged stupor — clad in just his underpants, with his clothes folded nearby — in his neighbor’s child’s empty bed, in what became known as “the Goldilocks incident,” per The Washington Post. Luckily, his neighbors decided not to press trespassing charges, but he was court-ordered to attend rehab. He escaped after two days, hitchhiked to a friend’s house, and was taken to jail for violating the order hours later, before finding himself sent off to another rehab center.
Downey was an Oscar-nominated actor for Chaplin by this time in his career, but that didn’t mean Judge Lawrence Mira let him off the hook when he pleaded no contest to his initial charges. That November, Downey was sentenced to an additional six months of live-in rehabilitation with periodic drug tests and three years of probation (via Vanity Fair).
Robert Downey Jr. found himself behind bars
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By the time Robert Downey Jr. was accused of skipping a drug test in late 1997, Judge Lawrence Mira had grown frustrated and sentenced the actor to 180 days at the Los Angeles County Jail for violating probation, according to Vanity Fair. “I’m going to incarcerate you in a way that is very unpleasant to you,” he told Downey. “… I am willing to send you to a state prison. I don’t care who you are.”
Downey was moved to solitary confinement after getting into a fight with a few inmates, and was eventually released over two months early to attend another 120 days in rehab. Unfortunately, he was still battling addiction in mid-1999, and, after missing more court-ordered drug tests, was thrown back into the legal system. Per the New York Post, Downey requested remaining in the county’s rehab program at his hearing that August, saying of his ongoing struggle, “It’s like I have a shotgun in my mouth, and I got my finger on the trigger, and I like the taste of the gun metal.” But that emotional statement garnered little sympathy from the judge, who told Downey, “We tried rehabilitation … and it simply hasn’t worked.”
Downey’s A-list lawyer, Robert Shapiro, was shocked when Mira handed down the maximum sentence of three years in state prison, telling reporters that the judge had “interrupted” the actor’s “progress” in his journey toward sobriety. Downey left the courtroom as inmate number P50522.
Robert Downey Jr. on his time in prison
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While locked up at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison in 2000, Robert Downey Jr. gave an exclusive interview to Vanity Fair’s Steve Garbarino, in which he revealed that his time on the inside gave him a lot of time to think.
“It is my newfound experience that in order to get things done, I must be still,” Downey wrote in a letter. “When that is afforded by an imposed restriction (illness, weather, incarceration, generally being grounded), I now believe it is God’s way of giving you some true freedom to ‘catch up’ on what you need to accomplish … inwardly.” Despite his optimistic outlook, the actor decidedly did not get the A-list treatment during his stay. Instead, he worked in the kitchen (where he made just eight cents per hour), was forced to ward off threats of violence, lived in a group cell, and attended classes or drug-treatment sessions or classes almost every day. Unfortunately, Downey’s new routine eventually impacted his mental health, as he later said during one of Garbarino’s visits, “I’m just sinking deeper into my depression sessions. Sometimes I’m just dead, living in a f**king warehouse. I’m ready to get out.”
Downey was eventually released from prison in August 2000, per CNN, and quickly began work on his comeback in Tinseltown.
The TV role that got away from Robert Downey Jr.
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Even when his personal life was at its most complicated, Robert Downey Jr. continued to shine on-screen — and after his stint in prison, Fox became the first company to take a chance on the troubled actor. According to CNN, Downey was offered the chance to play Larry Paul, the love interest of Calista Flockhart’s title character on the hit series, Ally McBeal.
Fans quickly fell in love with the televised couple and ratings sky-rocketed … but behind the scenes, Downey was still struggling. Three months into his new gig, the actor was arrested for cocaine and methamphetamine possession in Palm Springs, Calif. Surprisingly, the November 2000 incident didn’t scare Fox away: instead, they decided to cast him in more episodes to finish out the season. However, their loyalty to Downey was further tested when he was arrested again in April 2001, this time for being under the influence of drugs in Los Angeles. The network parted ways with Downey hours later and he was swiftly written off the show, with producer David E. Kelley telling Fox News, “Robert is a unique talent and a very special person, and we wish him the best and hope for his full recovery.”
While Downey saw success amid battling his demons, winning a Golden Globe for his performance and receiving a standing ovation from the audience, it would be another seven years before he officially turned things around professionally in Iron Man.
Robert Downey Jr. was crushed when his mom died
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When Robert Downey Jr.’s mother, Elsie, passed away in September 2014, her death understandably hit the actor hard — particularly considering they’d grown closer than ever before while he was in prison. In a since-deleted Facebook post (via E! News), Downey detailed their complicated, yet loving relationship.
“She was my role model as an actor, and as a woman who got sober and stayed that way,” he wrote in part in the touching post. “She was also reclusive, self-deprecating, a stoic Scotch-German rural Pennsylvanian, a ball buster, stubborn, and happy to hold a grudge. My ambition, tenacity, loyalty, ‘moods,’ grandiosity, occasional passive aggression, and my faith … That’s all her … And I wouldn’t have it any other way. If anyone out there has a mother, and she’s not perfect, please call her and say you love her anyway.”
Downey has long-credited his wife, Susan, for aiding him in his journey toward sobriety. However, Elsie’s most special gift to her son may have been further inspiring him to kick his addiction for good in 2004: “I was in bad shape. She called me out of the blue, and I admitted everything. I don’t remember what she said, but I haven’t drank or used since.” A year after Elsie’s passing, Governor Jerry Brown pardoned Downey’s 1996 drug conviction, stating (via CNN), “He has lived an honest and upright life, exhibited good moral character and conducted himself as a law-abiding citizen.”
Robert Downey Jr.’s eldest son has also battled addiction
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In 2013, Robert Downey Jr. learned once again that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, when his eldest son, then-20-year-old Indio Downey, attended a homeopathic treatment facility after taking prescription pain medication. At the time, Indio’s mother, Deborah Falconer, told the National Enquirer, “He was not addicted. He was taking one pill a day.” However, the issue soon came to haunt Indio when he was arrested for possession of cocaine and drug paraphernalia (a felony) in West Hollywood the following year.
In a statement to CNN, Robert’s representative said in part, “Unfortunately there’s a genetic component to addiction and Indio has likely inherited it … We’re all determined to rally behind him.” According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, this alleged link between addiction and genetics does have some validity to it, as “researchers estimate that genetics contributes 42 to 79 percent of the risk for cocaine use and dependence.”
By 2016, Indio’s drug charges were dismissed after he completed a 20-month rehab program. At his hearing, he told the judge (via Entertainment Tonight), “I’ve gained so much. I’m so blessed to have my life back. I hope to be an inspiration to others in the future.” Three years later, Falconer told Radar Online that Robert had helped their son in his recovery — hopefully breaking the cycle of addiction that has sadly plagued the Downey family for generations.