Robert John Downey Jr. was born April 4, 1965 and is an American actor and producer.
Downey was born in Manhattan, New York City, the younger of two children. His father, Robert Downey Sr., is an actor and filmmaker, while his mother, Elsie Ann (née Ford), was an actress who appeared in Downey Sr.’s films. Downey’s father is of half Lithuanian Jewish, one-quarter Hungarian Jewish, and one-quarter Irish descent, while Downey’s mother had Scottish, German, and Swiss ancestry. Robert’s original family name was Elias which was changed by his father to enlist in the Army. Downey and his older sister Allyson grew up in Greenwich Village.
As a child, Downey was surrounded by drugs. His father, a drug addict, allowed Downey to use marijuana at age six, an incident which his father later said he regretted. Downey later stated that drug use became an emotional bond between him and his father. Eventually, Downey began spending every night abusing alcohol and making a thousand phone calls in pursuit of drugs.
During his childhood, Downey had minor roles in his father’s films. He made his acting debut at the age of five, playing a sick puppy in the absurdist comedy Pound (1970), and then at seven appeared in the surrealist Western Greaser’s Palace (1972). At the age of 10, he was living in England and studied classical ballet as part of a larger curriculum. He attended the Stagedoor Manor Performing Arts Training Center in upstate New York as a teenager. When his parents divorced in 1978, Downey moved to California with his father, but in 1982, he dropped out of Santa Monica High School, and moved back to New York to pursue an acting career full-time.
Downey began building upon theater roles, including in the short-lived off-Broadway musical American Passion at the Joyce Theater in 1983. In 1985, he was part of the new, younger cast hired for Saturday Night Live, but following a year of poor ratings and criticism of the new cast’s comedic talents, he and most of the new crew were dropped and replaced. That same year, Downey had a dramatic acting breakthrough when he played James Spader’s character’s sidekick in Tuff Turf and then a bully in John Hughes’s Weird Science. He was considered for the role of Duckie in John Hughes’s film Pretty in Pink (1986), but his first lead role was with Molly Ringwald in The Pick-up Artist (1987).
In 1987, Downey played Julian Wells, a drug-addicted rich boy whose life rapidly spirals out of his control, in the film version of the Bret Easton Ellis novel Less Than Zero.
Zero drove Downey into films with bigger budgets and names, such as Chances Are (1989), Air America (1990) with and Soapdish(1991). In 1992, he starred as Charlie Chaplin in Chaplin, a role for which he prepared extensively, learning how to play the violin as well as tennis left-handed. He had a personal coach in order to help him imitate Chaplin’s posture, and a way of carrying himself. In 1993, he appeared in the films Heart and Souls with Alfre Woodard and Kyra Sedgwick and Short Cuts with Matthew Modine and Julianne Moore, along with a documentary that he wrote about the 1992 presidential campaigns titled The Last Party (1993). He starred in the 1994 films, Only You with Marisa Tomei, and Natural Born Killers with Woody Harrelson. He then subsequently appeared in Restoration (1995), Richard III (1995), Two Girls and a Guy (1997), as Special Agent John Royce in U.S. Marshals (1998), and in Black and White (1999).
From 1996 through 2001, Downey was arrested numerous times on charges related to drugs including cocaine, heroin, and marijuana and went through drug treatment programs unsuccessfully.
In April 1996, Downey was arrested for possession of heroin, cocaine, and an unloaded .357 Magnum handgun while he was speeding down Sunset Boulevard. A month later, while on parole, he trespassed into a neighbor’s home while under the influence of a controlled substance, and fell asleep in one of the beds. He received three years of probation and was ordered to undergo compulsory drug testing. In 1997, he missed one of the court-ordered drug tests, and had to spend six months in the Los Angeles County jail.
After Downey missed another required drug test in 1999, he was arrested once more. Despite Downey’s lawyer, Robert Shapiro, assembling the same team of lawyers that successfully defended O.J. Simpson during his criminal trial for murder, Downey was sentenced to a three-year prison term at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison in Corcoran, California. At the time of the 1999 arrest, all of Downey’s film projects had wrapped and were close to release. He had also been hired to provide the voice of the devil on the NBC animated television series God, the Devil and Bob, but was fired when he failed to show up for rehearsals.
After spending nearly a year in the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison, Downey, on condition of posting a $5,000 bail, was unexpectedly freed when a judge ruled that his collective time in incarceration facilities (spawned from the initial 1996 arrests) had qualified him for early release. A week after his 2000 release, Downey joined the cast of the hit television series Ally McBeal, playing the new love interest of Calista Flockhart’s title character. Despite the apparent success, Downey claimed that his performance on the series was overrated.
Before the end of his first season on Ally McBeal, over the Thanksgiving 2000 holiday, Downey was arrested when his room at Merv Griffin’s Hotel and Givenchy Spa in Palm Springs, California was searched by the police, who were responding to an anonymous 911 call. Downey was under the influence of a controlled substance and in possession of cocaine and Valium. Despite the fact that, if convicted, he would have faced a prison sentence of up to four years and eight months, he signed on to appear in at least eight more Ally McBeal episodes.
In April 2001, while he was on parole, a Los Angeles police officer found him wandering barefooted in Culver City. He was arrested for suspicion of being under the influence of drugs, but was released a few hours later, even though tests showed he had cocaine in his system. After this last arrest, producer David E. Kelley and other Ally McBeal executives ordered last-minute rewrites and reshoots and fired Downey from the show, despite the fact that Downey’s character had resuscitated Ally McBeal‘s ratings. The Culver City arrest also cost him a role in the high-profile film America’s Sweethearts, and the subsequent incarceration prompted Mel Gibson to shut down his planned stage production of Hamlet as well. In July 2001, Downey pleaded no contest to the Palm Springs charges, avoiding jail time. Instead, he was sent into drug rehabilitation and received three years of probation, benefiting from California Proposition 36, which had been passed the year before with the aim of helping nonviolent drug offenders overcome their addictions instead of sending them to jail.
After five years of substance abuse, arrests, rehab, and relapse, Downey was ready to work toward a full recovery from drugs and return to his career.
Downey got his first post-rehabilitation acting job in August 2001, lip-syncing in the video for Elton John’s single “I Want Love”.
Downey was able to return to the big screen after Mel Gibson, who had been a close friend to Downey since both had co-starred in Air America, paid Downey’s insurance bond for the 2003 film The Singing Detective (directed by his Back to School co-star Keith Gordon). Gibson’s gamble paved the way for Downey’s comeback and Downey returned to mainstream films in the mid-2000s with Gothika, for which producer Joel Silver withheld 40% of his salary until after production wrapped as insurance against his addictive behavior. Similar clauses have become standard in his contracts since.
After Gothika, Downey was cast in a number of leading and supporting roles, including well-received work in a number of semi-independent films: A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Good Night, and Good Luck, Richard Linklater’s dystopian, rotoscoped A Scanner Darkly (in which Downey plays the role of a drug addict), and Steven Shainberg’s fictional biographical film of Diane Arbus, Fur, where Downey’s character represented the two biggest influences on Arbus’s professional life, Lisette Model and Marvin Israel.
In 2006, Downey returned to television when he did voice acting on Family Guy in the episode “The Fat Guy Strangler”. Downey had previously telephoned the show’s production staff and asked if he could produce or assist in an episode creation, as his son Indio is a fan of the show. The producers of the show accepted the offer and created the character of Patrick Pewterschmidt, Lois Griffin’s long lost, mentally disturbed brother, for Downey.
In 2007, Downey appeared in David Fincher’s mystery thriller Zodiac, which was based on a true story. He played the role of San Francisco Chronicle journalist Paul Avery, who was reporting the Zodiac Killer case.
With all of the critical success Downey had experienced throughout his career, he had not appeared in a “blockbuster” film. That changed in 2008 when Downey starred in two critically and commercially successful films, Iron Man and Tropic Thunder.
In 2007, Downey was cast as the title character in the film Iron Man, with director Jon Favreau explaining the choice by stating that Downey wasn’t the most obvious choice, but that he understood what makes the character tick. Favreau insisted on having Downey as he repeatedly claimed that Downey would be to Iron Man what Johnny Depp is to the Pirates of the Caribbean series: a lead actor who could both elevate the quality of the film and increase the public’s interest in it. For the role Downey had to gain more than 20 pounds (9 kilograms) of muscle in five months to look like he “had the power to forge iron”.
By October 2008, Downey had agreed to appear as Iron Man in two Iron Man sequels, as part of the Iron Man franchise, as well as The Avengers, featuring the superhero team that Stark joins, based on Marvel’s comic book series The Avengers. He first reprised the role in a small appearance as Iron Man’s alter ego Tony Stark in the 2008 film The Incredible Hulk, as a part of Marvel Studios’ depicting the same Marvel Universe on film by providing continuity among the movies.
Opening in late April 2009 was a film Downey finished in mid-2008, The Soloist. The film was delayed from a November 2008 release by Paramount Pictures due to the studio’s tight end-of-year release schedule.
The first role Downey accepted after Iron Man was the title character in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. Warner Bros. released it on December 25, 2009. The film set several box office records in the United States for a Christmas Day release, beating the previous record-holder, 2008’s Marley & Me, by nearly $10M, and finished second to Avatar in a record-setting Christmas weekend box office. Sherlock Holmes ended up being the 8th highest-grossing film of 2009.
Downey returned as Tony Stark in the first of two planned sequels to Iron Man, Iron Man 2, which released in May 2010. Downey’s other commercial film release of 2010 was the comedy road film, Due Date.
In 2012, Downey reprised the role of Tony Stark in The Avengers. Downey played Tony Stark again in Iron Man 3 (2013), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Captain America: Civil War (2016), Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), and Avengers: Endgame (2019).
Downey hosted The Age of A.I., a YouTube documentary series released in 2019. In 2020, he starred in Dolittle, playing the titular character, depicted in the film as a 19th-century English physician who can speak to animals.
Downey maintains that he has been drug-free since July 2003, and has credited his wife with helping him overcome his drug and alcohol habits, along with his family, therapy, meditation, twelve-step recovery programs, yoga, and the practice of Wing Chun kung fu, the martial art he learned from Eric Oram, who is also a fight consultant in several of Downey’s movies. Oram was Downey’s personal fight coordinator in Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War. In December 2015, Downey received a full and unconditional pardon from Governor of California Jerry Brown for his prior drug convictions. Oram wrote a letter in support of Downey’s pardon to Governor Brown.
In January 2020, during the promotions of his film Dolittle, Downey announced that he had made the decision to adopt a vegan diet, in response to the debate about the climate crisis.
Downey previously announced his opening of The Footprint Coalition, an organization he launched to reduce carbon footprints around the world using advanced technology.