It was 1999, and Robert Downey, Jr., an Oscar-nominated actor, teetered on the edge of a chasm. If Superior Court Judge Lawrence Mira — who had seen Downey stand before him on several occasions — had taken mercy on him, he might be dead now; it’s a fact that the actor recognizes. But Mira had no mercy left to grant. Downey had used up the judge’s goodwill with a series of bad choices, and the judge no longer saw the benefit of court-mandated rehabs and facilities.
“It’s like I’ve got a shotgun in my mouth, my finger on the trigger and I like the taste of gun metal,” Downey said, pleading his case to stay free of prison.
“We tried rehabilitation, and it simply hasn’t worked,” the judge responded.
With a slam of the gavel, Downey’s fate was decided… three years in prison. It was the culmination of missteps in the actor’s personal life, but it wasn’t the end of his troubles, nor was it the start.
In The Family
Downey was born into a showbiz family. His father, Robert Downey, Sr., was known as a maverick filmmaker, part of the underground scene. Downey, Sr.’s satirical takes on Hollywood and politics began in 1961, and he acted in and directed a number of films through the ’60s and ’70s, including 1970’s Pound, which featured the acting debut of a 5-year-old Robert Downey, Jr. The counter-culture of the times also contributed to what would become Downey, Jr.’s dangerous obsession with substances. When he was just 8 years old, his father introduced him to marijuana. The drug use between father and son would continue for some time.
“There was always a lot of pot and coke around. When my dad and I would do drugs together,” Downey said in the 1988 book The New Breed, “it was like him trying to express his love for me in the only way he knew how.”
Downey, Jr. began settling into the Hollywood role he was seemingly destined for. At 17, he dropped out of school, left L.A. and trekked to New York to become a serious thespian. He starred in one season of Saturday Night Live and had a small role in the cult comedy classic Weird Science. In 1987, he filmed his breakthrough role in Less Than Zero, in which he played a drug-addled youth whose life was spinning out of control. “Until that movie,” Downey said, “I took my drugs after work and on the weekends. That changed on Less Than Zero. The role was like the ghost of Christmas Future. I became an exaggeration of the character.”
Downey’s life began rotating in perilous fashion: He entered his first rehab in 1988. His manager at the time received the brunt of his frustration when he exited the rehab facility. “I couldn’t stand to see him demolish himself,” she told People in 1996. “And when he came out, he fired me for making him face it.”
Still, the thespian continued to turn in great performances in films like Chances Are and Soapdish. In 1992, he married Deborah Falconer, and the two bought a place in Malibu. But Downey’s demons were clawing at him badly, and his binges became more and more pronounced. At 26, Downey would get his biggest role as Charlie Chaplin in the film Chaplin. Despite the film getting less than positive reviews, Downey’s performance was so strong that he received an Oscar nomination.