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March 2, 2020

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.
  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.

Nelly Perez

My name is Nelly Perez and I am a Criminology major. I am a freshman, marking me in the class of 2023. I’m interested in the arts and I have created the featured image for my article on Jean Michel-Basquiat and Andy Warhol. I aspire to write and illustrate different topics within history.

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Recent Comments


  • Iris Reyna

    Good job on the article Nelly, it was interesting learning the true background of Robert Downey Jr.’s life. I’m a big fan of Robert Downey Jr. because I’m a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I knew that Downey had faced time in jail for drug charges but that’s about all I knew about the actor’s history. Seeing that Downey was introduced to drugs and taught that it was fine at such a young age was astonishing. Once he realized that it was wrong, he tried as hard as he could to get his life back and he did, he was able to recover from his addiction and come back better than ever. Without him, Iron Man would be as great as he makes himself.

  • Steven Valdez

    Robert Downey Jr. has always been one of my favorite actors to watch for as long as I can remember. I had no idea his family was a key factor for his drug abuse. It really shows you that everyone is human and has their flaws no matter what social class they’re in. Everybody goes through similar things in life. He has been through so much and has an amazing acting career. He shows us that if we push hard enough we can overcome many great challenges in our lives.

  • Helena Griffith

    Great work on this topic! Although I was aware of Robert Downey Jr.’s battle with alcohol and drug misuse, this piece taught me a lot more. I was unaware that, despite hearing about his difficulties, his addiction had its roots in his parents and began when he was so young. I really liked how the author introduced the piece; I thought it was quite interesting. In contrast to a biography, I thought this essay was really well written because it focused on the significant events that helped the author become who he is now.

  • Emily Rodriguez

    This was such a fascinating article to read! I would have to say that Robert Downey Jr. is arguably most known for his role in Iron Man. I appreciate that this was covered the least in this article and focused more on his troubled life and the side of him that the public doesn’t know as well. The author did a great job and bring out the reader’s empathy for Robert and his troubled childhood. Overall, a great article about a very well-known person!

  • Kelly Arevalo

    I feel so sorry that a child must experience something like that. It’s such a pity his parents weren’t more conscious about their child. I’m so glad he asked for help and was able to get out of that spiral. I knew about his issues, because of some interviews I saw, but your article has reached a little more about why he was struggling with those things in the first place and about his recovery.

  • Abigail Delarosa

    I have always been a fan girl of Robert Downy Jr. and every single movie he played in. I however was not aware of his young life and the drugs and alcohol and rough start he had growing up. It was sad and interesting how he overcame these problems and obstacles. I think it makes him an even bigger role model to people and it shows how impactful it is just to have someone there for you. A best friend like Mel was to Robert. It was a great article I enjoyed reading it and learning something about Robert Downy Jr.

  • Idaly Oropeza

    I have heard of Robert Downey Jr’s struggle with his addiction. However, I was unaware of how his struggle with alcohol began. It is so sad to hear that Downey was struggling at an early age in life and had little to no help from his parents. I found that this article really put into his perspective the journey Downey was on on his way to success. Personally, I am not surprised as many actors in Hollywood seem to face alcoholism and substance abuse. Unfortunately Downey won’t be the last story we hear like this but hopefully as the industry evolves, actors are given useful resources to get help.

  • Alexandra Camarena

    This article was great! I had personally heard of Robert Downey Jr.’s struggle with alcohol and substance abuse, but I learned so many things from this article. Even though I had heard of his struggles I didn’t know that his addiction started from such a young age and because of his parents. I really enjoyed the way the author started the article; I found the intro very compelling. I found this article very well written because it really highlighted the key moments in his life that led him to where he is today rather than a summary of who is.

  • Yanelle Nicholson

    Reading this article, it makes you realize that you never really know someones full and true story. Many people today look at Robert Downy Jr. as the amazing actor who brought iron man to life, but what they don’t know is how he came to be Robert Downy Jr. Before reading this article, I had already heard about his past with drug abuse, but hearing this story really goes to show that you can really accomplish anything in life if you put in the work. It may have seemed like his drug abuse problem would be the end of not only his career, but him as a person. When he realized this he completely turned his life around for the better, and just like Robert, anyone can turn their life around.

  • Virginia Alonso

    When I saw the image of Robert you had chosen, it spoke a truth that not many had known before about his darker past struggling with drugs and incarceration. To many he is the Ironman we know and love on- and off screen while many global papers say quite the opposite about his persona. Even though he is a famous actor it seems as though generations including us get caught up in the dazzling limelight of fame and its worth to us in every rumored detail that is presented before our eyes. It was your article that I found the more human side of him be put out for many others to see for themselves what else their favorite Avenger , idol , director , or actor is through the lens of knowing what it is he has been through. In the end , there is more than meets the eye to us all. Thank you for showing us this side of Robert’s career and life.

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