Drugs, Alcohol, and Arrests: The Downside to Robert Downey Jr.’s Acting Career

It is the 1960s. Imagine being the son or daughter to a filmmaker and an actress. As you grow up, you become exposed to drugs and alcohol that lead you into a downward spiral. Robert Downey Jr was born in Greenwich Village, New York. Greenwich Village is a neighborhood area on Manhattan Island where many aspiring artists and writers have lived.1 His parents constantly had friends over to their house for occasional gatherings, and most of those who came were actors and actresses who were considered hippies by many. There was mass distaste for hippies at the time, due mainly to their drug use, which they claimed was for creativity; thus, this negative view on the hippies eventually affected Downey and his family, given that drugs were easy to access with the coming and going of party guests. When he was only eight years old, Junior was offered some Marijuana by his father, and he did not realize the mistake he was making until it was too late.

By the time Robert was eight years old, he had witnessed drugs and alcohol as part of his normal childhood. He later understood it as a necessity within his family, only because his parents were constant users.2 Later, during his time as a young actor, he started to struggle with drug abuse and alcohol issues. In the film Less Than Zero, he played a crackhead character named Julian, and during the filming of the movie, he completed a treatment in rehab.3 When he played Charlie Chaplin in the film Chaplin, he received a lot of praise for it, however, he was still struggling with his emotions by using unhealthy coping mechanisms, particularly drugs. He met his first love, Deborah Falconer, in 1992. Deborah was also a drug addict, but she was not as heavily addicted to drugs as he was. They began to develop a connection, but during their first date, Robert’s family came in to stage an intervention. He was confronted about his drug abuse and they demanded that he seek treatment.4

In the mid 90’s, he changed his life by switching his addiction to heroin, leaving marijuana and cocaine in the past. This heroin was black-tar heroin, produced in Mexico. It was very addictive for drug users. In 1995, he played a gay son in the film Home for the Holidays, and he later admitted that he was high throughout the entire filming process. Director Jodie Foster wrote a letter to him to urge him to seek help, but Downey ignored the advice, since he convinced himself the drug abuse situation was under control. His heroin addiction affected his work life when he showed up late to the set or fell asleep; it also altered his appearance.5 Later, he got into trouble in 1996, when he was arrested. On June 23, 1996, he was pulled over for speeding and was under the influence. The police searched his car and found cocaine, heroin, and a handgun. He posted a bail bond of ten thousand dollars, and was released at night. On July 16, 1996, he was under the influence of drugs, again, but alcohol was involved. He had tried to go home that night, but he ended up at his neighbor’s home instead. He was then charged with being under the influence of a controlled substance and with trespassing. At the end of July in 1996, Robert Downey Jr appeared underweight and tired as he stood before Judge Lawrence Mira in his prison jumpsuit with his family and wife in the court room. It was at that moment that he became determined to beat his drug addiction after realizing that his drug issue was indeed horrible. His fans hoped that Robert’s sentence of several months in a supervised rehab facility the entire time with frequent drug tests and three years of probation would help save his career. He was unable to control himself with his addiction. When he was in the courtroom in 1999, he told the judge, “It’s like I have a loaded gun in my mouth and my finger’s on the trigger. And I like the taste of gunmetal.”6

Actor Robert Downey Jr. photographed by the California Department of Corrections August 1999 by California Department of Corrections | The Smoking Gun | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The experience he had with heroin couldn’t compare to other addicts who were abusing different drugs like he did. While he recovered, he would experience cravings an addict would experience which felt overwhelming.7 He then took two years off from acting to focus on rehab. During his time in rehab, he spent some time thinking about his life. He thought about his personal background and past experiences. Then, he found a clear perspective on his life. He realized that he grew up feeling rebellious and that he had no idea what to do with himself, but knew he wasn’t happy with what life threw at him. At the end of rehab, he found positive outlets for his energy and rebellious nature.8

He tried to get more roles in different films, but that meant the producers had to pay more for insurance because of the risk he posed. This was specially difficult for him because he could not work without insurance, and what made it worse is that he could not get any without proving his reliability as an actor.9 In an interview in 2003, he said, “I’m less of an insurance risk than anybody I am going to work with for the next while because I am aware of my limitations.” After he said this, he lost a role in a Woody Allen film.10 Then things changed when he met with his friend, Mel Gibson. Gibson previously worked with Downey on a film known as Air America when Downey had alcoholism issues. They also worked together in a film when Mel Gibson played a psychiatrist and he helped Robert come back to the silver screen.11 Mel Gibson helped Robert come back to the film life. Gibson offered a starring role to Downey in a film he was producing known as The Singing Detective, and agreed to pay for Downey’s insurance policy out of pocket. After a long battle with drugs and alcohol, things were starting to go great. He received help in rehab and support from his wife and his friend Mel Gibson.12

Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr at the premiere of Air America in 1990 | 23 December 2007 by Alan Light | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In the award ceremony, Downey Jr paid tribute to their friendship and said, “when I couldn’t get sober, Mel helped me. He gave me food and roof when I needed the most and in return, he just asked me to do the same for another person.”13

Time passed and Robert Downey Jr did not suffer from a relapse, since he was building up his reputation from scratch. Between 2005-2007, he broke out ten different film performances, including a role in 2007 where he played a constant drinking journalist on the hunt of the killer in the Zodiac film. The best outcome from his new life was that he was able to spend more time with his son and appreciated the fact that he achieved a normal family life. “I feel like because I’ve finally gotten out of my own way, I can enjoy my reputation. Because for all intents and purposes, what I should be right now is this never-do-well, embittered, unemployable guy arguing with some hooker outside a Malibu hotel scrambling for a syringe, but I’ve got it really good.”14

He became Iron Man, a teacher, a doctor, and many more roles from numerous films. He smiles at the success he has earned from acting, such as winning Academy awards within the past couple of years. Despite the impact drugs had on him, he overcame them. Currently, he’s full of life after just starring in Dolittle, doing a YouTube documentary, and still thriving with his wife and kids.15

  1. Laurie Collier Hillstrom, Robert Downey Jr (Detroit, MI: Gale, 2011), 11.
  2. Laurie Collier Hillstrom, Robert Downey Jr (Detroit, MI: Gale, 2011), 16.
  3. A. Petruso and Laura Avery, Newsmakers 2007 Cumulation (Detroit, MI: Gale, 2008), 151.
  4. Laurie Collier Hillstrom, Robert Downey Jr (Detroit, MI: Gale, 2011), 35.
  5. Laurie Collier Hillstrom, Robert Downey Jr (Detroit, MI: Gale, 2011), 39.
  6. Todd Howard, Recovering from Heroin Addiction (San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 2011), 81.
  7. Todd Howard, Recovering from Heroin Addiction (San Diego, CA: Lucent Books 2011), 81.
  8. Laurie Collier Hillstrom Robert Downey Jr (Detroit, MI: Gale, 2011), 57.
  9. Laurie Collier Hillstrom Robert Downey Jr, (Detroit, MI: Gale, 2011), 60.
  10. A. Petruso and Laura Avery, Newsmakers 2007 Cumulation (Detroit, MI: Gale, 2008),15.
  11. St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, 2013, s. v. “Downey, Robert Jr (1965-)” by Janet Mullane and Thomas Riggs, 157.
  12. Laurie Collier Hillstrom Robert Downey Jr (Detroit, MI: Gale, 2011), 60.
  13. Ankita Mehta, “Robert Downey Jr. Asks Hollywood ‘Forgive My Friend’ Mel Gibson,” International Business Times, Winter 2011. https://www.ibtimes.com/robert-downey-jr-asks-hollywood-forgive-my-friend-mel-gibson-323691.
  14. Laurie Collier Hillstrom Robert Downey Jr (Detroit, MI: Gale, 2011), 65.
  15. Isobel Asher Hamilton, “YouTube’s new documentary demystifying artificial intelligence features Robert Downey Jr. and an AI baby,” Business Insider, December 20, 2019. https://www.businessinsider.com/youtube-ai-documentary-series-hosted-by-robert-downey-jr-2019-12.

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68 Responses

  1. This was a very well written article. It caught my attention because I really like Robert Downey Jr. especially as Iron Man. I have seen a documentary on him before where he talks about his addiction a little bit. Your article went into good detail explaining his childhood then further explaining how drugs and alcohol influenced his later life and career. It is such a sad truth that many celebrities fall into the traps of drugs and alcohol abuse. It is very impressive that Robert Downey Jr. was able to overcome his addiction and become such a success regardless of his past.

  2. This was quite an interesting article.
    I really like Robert Downey Jr. as an actor, but I really didn’t know anything about his background. I was shocked to learn of all the addictions he went through and, more than anything, that he started at a very young age and because of the influence of his parents. However, I am glad that he overcame all this to have been able to continue his career and not end it like many other celebrities have. Thanks to leaving these problems behind, he got well-known roles and important opportunities, such as the leading role in Iron Man.
    I liked the images you added, and also that you included the video of “Less than Zero”.
    This was really a very well written and explained article.

  3. I personally never knew of Robert’s addiction but looking at the coming up of his stardom and the time of it, it makes sense almost. Actors like River Pheonix and Rockstars like in Motley Crue drugs run rampant among the celebrity scene and it’s always a scary thought to know that someone is highly addicted because it could lead to the death of someone whose art could just come to a halt at any moment. seeing this kinda reminds me of other stars who have battled addiction and were able to break free of it. Glad the best outcome came out of this story.

  4. Poor Robert Downey Jr. I had read about his struggles before but to know that they stemmed from his parents lifestyle is so sad. It must’ve been so tough for him to play those parts of an addict while he was trying to recover himself. I also never knew Mel Gibson helped him get back on his feet that is so neat. Now that’s a friend. Great Article!

  5. This is a very well written article! I already had so much respect for Robert as an actor but after knowing his struggles with drug addiction and alcohol abuse, my respect for him as a person grew. I really admire how he decided to seek the help he needed for his family and wife, and it is so beautiful how they are still his source to keep going. I also liked how he had a friend that supported him when he was trying to make his comeback to acting. It is always important to expose your children to a healthy environment so that they won’t be prone to develop an addiction.

  6. Okay, wow. I have always loved Robert Downey Jr. I knew he had a rough past but I didn’t know he grew up in it because of his parents. I have always loved him as his character Iron Man and how he has stated he relates to him so much. This article was so informative on his life and career. The struggles that he overcame are incredible and worth being proud of from a fan viewpoint.

  7. This is a very well done article, Nelly. it is true that Robert Downey Jr. did have some problems with drugs in the past, even as he began his acting career in the 1980s. I feel that you talked about his addiction and told the story about it with maturity and grace. i also really like your word choice in the article. My only complaint is that it is rather short. Otherwise, well done Nelly.

  8. Before reading the article I had not known about Robert’s drug addiction’s roots and how he grew up would be one of the biggest influences on his drug problem. His switch in drugs to heroin made me realize that this was ultimately a turn for the worst. His attempts to recover himself and go into rehabilitation were honorable as many would not. Robert’s return and experiences were new to me and these challenges he faced and went through to ultimately become a movie star essentially can be inspiring and seen as a come-back story.

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