‘Iron’ Will: 23 Facts About Robert Downey Jr.’s Incredible Comeback Story
It’s not rare for a Hollywood star to fall from grace. But not many make a comeback like Robert Downey Jr. Despite getting into drugs at a very young age and spending time in prison, he remains one of the hottest — and highest grossing — movie stars of all time.
Here are 23 things you might not know about the actor who overcame addiction to become a superhero — both on and off screen — amassing a whopping $300 million net worth in the process.
Acting Is in His Blood
Robert Downey Jr. was born in New York City on April 4, 1965, to filmmaker father Robert Downey Sr. (best known for the 1969 film “Putney Swope”) and actress mother Elsie Ford.
Downey Jr. followed in their footsteps from a young age, making his screen debut playing Puppy in his father’s 1970 film “Pound,” the first of many small parts he had in his father’s productions.
He Moved a Lot as a Kid
The nature of his parents’ work meant that Downey Jr. and his older sister Alison, who was born in 1963, moved a lot during their childhoods. Outside the U.S., they spent time in Paris and London.
When Downey Jr. was 13, his parents divorced, and the teenager moved to Los Angeles with his father. But it wasn’t long before he was on the move again. By age 16, he had dropped out of high school and was back in New York with his mother.
He’s a Top Dancer
While he lived in London as a young boy, Downey Jr. took ballet classes at the famous Perry House School. While he hasn’t taken many movie roles that required him to dance on screen, he’s taken every possible opportunity to show off his moves.
He danced onto the stage to accept the Generation Award at the 2015 MTV Movie Awards — which was presented by his Avengers family (Jeremy Renner, Scarlet Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans), and he danced his way through the entire “Avengers: Endgame” press tour in early 2019.
Drugs Were Part of His Childhood
From a very young age, Downey Jr. was dabbling in alcohol and THC — at the encouragement of his father. According to The Guardian, Robert Downey Sr. (pictured, right) once recalled telling his son, “You ought to try a little of this instead of drinking," and passing 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,” he added.
During his teenage years, Downey Jr. started taking harder drugs. In 2014, he told Vanity Fair that he likely inherited his addictions and, in turn, passed them on to his oldest son, Indio Downey, a musician who had been charged with felony drug possession in recent years. “Pick a dysfunction, and it's a family problem,” Downey said.
His Breakthrough Role Was in ‘Less Than Zero’
Downey Jr. counts several 1980s classics amongst his early film roles. After “Baby, It’s You” and “Firstborn,” he starred as Ian in the hit “Weird Science” and took the lead role of charming womanizer Jack alongside Molly Ringwald in “The Pick-Up Artist.”
He was almost cast as Duckie in “Pretty in Pink,” losing out to Jon Cryer. But his breakthrough role was as party boy Julian in 1987’s “Less Than Zero,” which co-starred Andrew McCarthy and James Spader.
But It Came With a Price
According to Downey Jr., “Less Than Zero” marked a huge turning point in terms of his lifestyle. "Until that movie, I took my drugs after work and on the weekends," he told The Guardian. "Maybe I'd turn up hungover on the set, but no more so than the stuntman.
"That changed on ‘Less Than Zero.’ ... [T]he 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.”
His Drug Use Affected His Relationships
In 1984, Downey Jr. started a relationship with Sarah Jessica Parker after the two met on the set of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” They stayed together for seven years until Parker ended the relationship over his substance abuse.
In 2018, Parker told People that she didn’t regret any of the time she spent with Downey Jr., saying, "I learned how to take care of myself. There was a huge amount of time spent making sure he was OK. 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.'"
In 2008, Downey said of their relationship, "She provided me a home and understanding. She tried to help me. She was so miffed when I didn't get my act together… I was in love with Sarah Jessica, and love clearly was not enough."
He Was a ‘Saturday Night Live’ Regular
In 1985 and 1986, Downey Jr. was a regular cast member of NBC’s hugely popular sketch show “Saturday Night Live.” However, Downey’s season was slammed by critics; Rolling Stone even ranked the young actor as the least successful performer in the history of SNL.
Still, Downey Jr. remains only one of two former SNL cast members to have been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor (his was for “Chaplin” in 1993, and Bill Murray’s was for “Lost in Translation” in 2004).
He Worked Steadily Throughout Years of Substance Abuse
Despite his addiction issues, Downey Jr. worked steadily, and by the early 1990s, he was a bonafide A-list actor. His role as the dodgy soap opera producer David Seaton Barnes (pictured) in the comedy “Soapdish” (1991) alongside Kevin Kline, Sally Field and Whoopi Goldberg, was particularly well received.
An even bigger success came the following year with “Chaplin,” directed by Richard Attenborough.
He Took His Role as Charlie Chaplin Very Seriously
It’s no secret that Downey Jr. threw everything into playing Charlie Chaplin. He studied Chaplin’s entire film catalog, learned to play the violin with his left hand, employed a coach to help him perfect Chaplin’s distinctive walk and posture, and even persuaded the Museum of the Moving Image to let him try on one of Chaplin’s original costumes.
According to Geraldine Chaplin (who played her grandmother Hannah in the film), she was so struck by the resemblance between Downey Jr. and her father that she had to do a double take when she first saw him in costume.
He Lost Out on an Oscar for ‘Chaplin’
Downey Jr. didn’t win an Academy Award for his “Chaplin” performance — he lost out to Al Pacino for his role in “Scent of a Woman” — but it secured his place as an actor with great dramatic range and a natural talent for physical comedy. Another critically acclaimed role in Robert Altman’s 1993 ensemble film “Short Cuts” quickly followed.
In 1994, he appeared in the romantic comedy “Only You” and as news anchor Wayne Gale in Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers,” alongside Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis. In the lead up to playing Gale, he spent time with controversial Australian journalist Steve Dunleavy, which inspired him to give his character an Aussie accent.
He Got Married After 42 Days of Dating
Downey Jr. married actress Deborah Falconer (right), his “Short Cuts” co-star, in 1992 after only 42 days of dating. In 1994, the couple had a son, Indio.
However, fatherhood did little to curb Downey’s party-loving ways. In 1996, he was stopped by police after driving naked in his Porsche on Sunset Boulevard and found in possession of cocaine, heroin and a .357 Magnum.
He Reached a Low Point in 1999
In 1999, Downey Jr. was at a personal low point following several arrests and failed drug treatment programs. At one point that year, he told a judge, “It’s like I have a shotgun in my mouth, and I’ve got my finger on the trigger, and I like the taste of gunmetal.”
Following a 12-month stint in prison and yet another rehab stay, he was arrested again in late 2000 and charged with felony drug possession. Unbelievably, at this time he was starring in the TV show “Ally McBeal” and receiving great critical acclaim for his role as McBeal’s love interest Larry Paul — he was even credited with reviving interest in the show.
He Got Lots of Fan Mail in Prison
During his jail stints, Downey received a huge number of letters from fans — around 100 messages a week from women he had never met, according to Vanity Fair. Among them were regular letters from a woman who signed off with, “Consider yourself hugged.”
While he was serving a three-year sentence for drug possession in a California state prison, his “Wonder Boys” co-star Michael Douglas said, “I sure hope he gets himself squared away. I guess we’ll have to wait for the next chapter.”
He Threw All His Drugs Into the Sea
In 2003, Downey Jr. threw all his drugs into the sea, pledging to turn his life around. Mel Gibson asked him to star in a film he was producing, “The Singing Detective," Dennis Potter's adaptation of his classic BBC serial.
At this time, Downey was too risky for most producers (Woody Allen couldn’t cast him in “Melinda and Melinda” due to insurance difficulties), but Gibson vouched for him personally. “The Singing Detective” wasn’t a commercial or critical success, but Downey was praised for his performance.
He Got a Big Assist on His Comeback
Producer Joel Silver also played a crucial role in Downey Jr.’s comeback. He cast him in the film “Gothika” on the condition that he withheld 40 percent of Downey’s salary until the film was completed. Subsequently, Silver also helped Downey Jr. land a role in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (pictured) alongside Val Kilmer and Michelle Monaghan, which received great critical acclaim despite not being a big commercial hit.
Roles followed in “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” (which he also co-produced) and “Zodiac.”
He Has a Stable Home Life
Downey Jr. met his current wife, producer Susan Levin, when they were both working on “Gothika.” Later that year, he broke the news of their engagement in the middle of an interview with Frank Skinner while he was promoting “The Singing Detective.”
They got married in 2005 and welcomed their first child together on Feb. 7, 2012 — a son they named Exton Elias. On Nov. 4, 2014, their daughter Avri was born.
He Was Only Paid $500,000 for ‘Iron Man’
In terms of commercial and financial success, the biggest role of Downey’s career so far is Iron Man. Although he only made $500,000 for his performance in 2008’s “Iron Man,” the payment took a huge jump to $10 million for the 2010 sequel “Iron Man 2.”
For “The Avengers” (2012), Downey was paid $50 million, and his fee for 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War" was $40 million plus a back-end, profit-sharing deal for his involvement in the film.
He Got an Oscar Nomination for Comedy
In 2009, Downey Jr. received his second Oscar nomination, this time for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as the extreme method actor Kirk Lazarus in the film “Tropic Thunder.”
He lost out to Heath Ledger for “The Dark Knight,” but his nomination was important, as it was one of only two supporting actor nominations given to men for a comedic performance (the other went to Chris Cooper for “Adaptation”).
He’s an Acclaimed Film Producer
In 2010, Downey Jr. and his wife co-founded an entertainment company called Team Downey. Their first film release was the Oscar-nominated “The Judge” in 2010, which also starred Downey Jr. alongside Robert Duvall.
eam Downey also has a digital division, which produces online videos and games, and an investment division, Downey Ventures, which invests in digital media start-ups and incubates consumer entertainment technology companies.
He Gave a Boy a Robotic Arm
In 2015, Downey Jr. gave a very special gift to a young boy named Alex Pring. Pring, 7, was missing his right arm above the elbow. He was also a huge superhero fan.
Downey Jr. met Pring and gave him a robotic arm designed to look like that of Iron Man.
He’s One of Hollywood’s Highest Paid Actors
From 2012 to 2015, Downey Jr. made No. 1 on Forbes’ list of the highest paid actors in Hollywood. He’s rumored to have made $100 million per movie for “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame.”
While his days as Tony Stark/Iron Man may be over, Downey Jr. isn’t going anywhere. He starred in one of the biggest of 2023, "Oppenheimer." 2024 might be his year for a golden statuette — he's already won several awards for his role villain Lewis Strauss.