For the last decade, Robert Downey Jr. has been in the spotlight for his shining role as Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, the leader of the most powerful squad of superheroes in the galaxy and the frontrunner for the most successful film franchise of all time. And while it’s been impressive to see the transformation of a B-list comic book character into box office gold, it’s been even more impressive to see Downey himself rise from the ashes of substance abuse to become one of the highest paid and highly revered actors in the world.
“He’s ebullient and mercurial, up and down like a yo-yo, but he’s grown, and he’s going to move forward and conquer the world. And you know what? He’s a good guy. That’s what he is. He always is, always has been, always will be, no matter what kind of hot water he gets in.” - Mel Gibson on Robert Downey Jr.
Robert Downey Jr. first got his big break in Hollywood starring in a number of roles in prominent eighties movies like “Weird Science” and “Back to School”, where he made a name for himself as a plucky and zany young actor. His rise to stardom landed him leading roles in two more eighties hits and even got him a spot on Saturday Night Live for a season. Despite his rapid rise to stardom, however, Downey was nursing a drug and alcohol addiction that would eventually land him in serious trouble.
In 1987, Downey starred in the film Less than Zero as a rich-kid junkie whose life goes off the rails amid a severe addiction to heroin. When looking back at this time, Downey has pointed out that there were strong parallels between himself at the time and the character he played in this movie.
“Until Less Than Zero, I took my drugs after work and on the weekends. Maybe I'd turn up hungover on the set, but no more so than the stuntman. ...I was playing this junkie guy, and, for me, the role was like the ghost of Christmas future. 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 spiral into addiction was even marked by an Academy Award nomination in 1992 for the biopic Chaplin. However, things would come to a head with multiple arrests and events of public intoxication following this. In 1996, the actor was arrested for possession of heroin and cocaine, an offense that would happen numerous times following. That same year he would be arrested for driving naked in his Porsche on Sunset Boulevard. In one incident, Downey even wandered into the home of a neighbor and passed out in their bed. In November of 2000, Downey was allegedly arrested with cocaine in a Palm Springs hotel room with a Wonder Woman costume.
Fellow actor and friend Sean Penn once took away Robert’s car keys, kicked down his front door, and drove him to rehab, saying:
“You have two reputations. I think you know what both of them are, and I think you’d do well to get rid of one of those reputations. If you don’t, it will get rid of the other one.”
Unfortunately, the advice didn’t seem to land and Downey left rehab early. For the next several years, Downey’s life was a series of minor successful roles and repeated appearances in the headlines for degeneracy. In 1999 he was sentenced to three years in prison but ended up only serving 12 months in the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison. While on parole, Downey was fired from an acting gig for showing up intoxicated and missing days. After being released from jail, Downey got started on the path to sobriety.
“I think part of my destiny has to be realizing that I'm not the poster boy for drug abuse. I'm just this guy who has a really strong sense of wanting home and wanting foundation and having not had it, I now choose to create it.”
He had difficulty landing roles again after so many years in the headlines, but gradually Downey was able to pick up some steady work and delivered praiseworthy performances in films such as A Scanner Darkly, Zodiac, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Downey finally landed a career second wind in the form of Iron Man and Tropic Thunder in 2008, two colossal films that catapulted him back into the spotlight and landed him on the forefront of the most successful film franchises of all time.
“I don't drink these days. I am allergic to alcohol and narcotics. I break out in handcuffs.”
According to an interview with the New York Times in 2008, Downey has been clean from hard drugs since 2003. In that time he has been outspoken about the benefits of sobriety, citing 12 Step programs, meetings, support from friends and family, and martial arts as the keys to his staying sober.
“And I’ve had all the stuff before. The big spread and the cars and the dough and all that. It is nice to have. But it’s nicer to be free from the attachment to identifying with it.”
Robert Downey Jr.’s story is one of hope and encouragement. The actor continued abusing drugs for many years because he was still able to find successes with films, filling his life with riches and drugs. However, his drug abuse gradually got more and more out of control until it threatened to destroy his marriage and career and possibly end his life.
On Christmas Eve of 2015, Downey was even given a pardon for his past crimes against the state of California because, “he has lived an honest and upright life, exhibited good moral character, and conducted himself as a law-abiding citizen”. Today he remains an ardent supporter of the sober lifestyle.
Robert Downey Jr. has shown that even the successful and seemingly happiest of us can be struggling with serious substance abuse issues. Despite a great family, wealth, and promising film career, Robert Downey Jr. could not control the disease of addiction and nearly destroyed his life. Thankfully, friends and family were able to intervene at a time when he reached rock bottom and help him find the path to sobriety and happiness. It’s never too late to get the help of a certified drug and alcohol rehab center to stop the progression of addiction. Trained counselors and certified medical staff will help you to get sober and learn how to stay that way. Visit Landmark Recovery to learn about more tools and resources for overcoming addiction.