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Robert Downey Jr.: What’s hard is the decision to actually do it
Unless you have been living under a rock for the past two decades, or you’re not a follower or a fan of Hollywood’s “beautiful but troubled people”, you are very likely familiar with the amazing up-and-down career of actor, singer and songwriter Robert Downey Jr.
Downey, who’s career is definitely on the upswing after several years of decline, is the multi-award-winning, two-time-Oscar-nominated, fiercely brilliant actor who most recently thrilled audiences as the comic book hero Tony Stark, better known as Iron Man.
After decades of drug addiction, multiple arrests, jail sentences, numerous stints in rehab, and being the subject of lurid tabloid coverage, Downey has fought his way back to acceptance by Hollywood’s power brokers as well as his legions of fans. By the mid 1990s, Downey was on the way out professionally, and quite possibly personally. By the end of the ‘90s, he couldn’t get a decent movie job and was fired from a TV gig. And his drug use was in the range that often leads to sudden, unexpected overdose deaths.
The major testament to his successful career revival, which has spanned 2001 to the present, came in 2008, when he received rave reviews for playing the title character in the high-grossing, smash hit Iron Man. That year, he also received his second Oscar nomination, for his role in another smash hit, Tropic Thunder. His first Oscar nomination had come in 1992 for his title role in the film Chaplin.
The route back to stardom has been long and arduous, and almost didn’t happen. Beginning in the mid-‘90s, the media carried almost daily news about Downey’s myriad troubles with drugs and run-ins with the law. First came a 1996 arrest for speeding down Sunset Blvd. with heroin, cocaine, and an unregistered .357 Magnum handgun in the car.
A month later, we were treated to tabloid pictures at the supermarket checkout counters of his arrest for wandering into a neighbor’s house and passing out on a child’s bed. For this little infraction, he was sentenced to three years probation, with mandatory drug testing. The opportunities for work began to decline.
More tabloid coverage came in 1997 when Downey missed a court-ordered drug test. He was sent to the Los Angeles County jail for four months, and the mainstream media joined the massive tabloid coverage in publishing images of the actor in the bright orange prisoner jumpsuits favored by the L.A. County Dept. of Corrections.
After Downey was released, his drug use was undiminished and he continued to have brushes with the law. The next one came in 1999, when he missed another mandatory drug test and was again arrested. Treatment programs had continued to fail, and Downey was hovering on the brink of personal meltdown.
Malibu Judge Lawrence Mira told the actor that he was out of options, and that only a prison sentence could save Downey’s life because the actor would not, or could not, take responsibility for his alcohol and drug abuse. “It’s like I’ve got a shotgun in my mouth with my finger on the trigger, and I like the taste of the gun metal,” he told the judge. Mira sentenced Downey to three years in the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison, in Corcoran, CA.
After a year, on condition of posting $5,000 bail, Downey was unexpectedly freed when a judge, on evidence from Downey’s lawyers, ruled that the actor’s collective jail time, stretching back to his first arrests in 1996, qualified him for early release.
He was hired for the hit TV series Ally McBeal in a role that won him an Emmy and a Golden Globe award. But the year at Corcoran had failed to halt Downey’s self-destructive behavior. He was arrested in Palm Springs, CA, when an anonymous tip sent police to the actor’s room at a luxury hotel, where they found him under the influence of cocaine. And then, while on bail, he was arrested again in 2001 when he was found wandering, drugged-out and barefoot, in an alley in West L.A. Tests revealed cocaine in his system again.
This last run-in with the cops cost him his role on Ally McBeal. Producer David E. Kelley fired him even though the actor’s captivating performances had revitalized the series’ waning popularity.
Even his good friend Mel Gibson, who had planned to stage a revival of Hamlet with Downey in the title role, was forced to cancel the show. This last arrest also cost Downey a coveted role in a high-profile film, America’s Sweethearts.
What we need to keep in mind here, while we read through this litany of drug addiction and arrests, is the fact that before all the publicity surrounding Downey’s troubles, that began sometime in 1996, he had already received massive acclaim for over a decade for talented portrayals of all sorts of fascinating characters.
During the years before the media went wild about his drug abuse, Downey had received his first Oscar nomination for his tour de force performance as Charlie Chaplin, and he was already a dedicated drug addict and constant drug abuser.
Throughout the whole time, from the ‘80s onward to 2001, Downey simultaneously wowed audiences with his blisteringly spot-on performances and spent his private time immersed in drugs and alcohol.
How did Robert Downey Jr. manage to perform magically on screen, while nurturing a drug habit that knew no bounds?
It turns out that Downey had a lot of practice with being stoned and “acting natural”. He had been abusing drugs since he was 8 years old. His family, who lived in Manhattan when he was a kid, was deeply involved in making independent films – and doing a lot of drugs. Robert was cast in one of their movies when he was only 5 years old. But his father, the actor, writer and director Robert Downey, Sr., shared more than his interest in films with his son. A drug addict himself, he began sharing marijuana and other drugs with his son by the time young Robert Jr. was only 8 years old.
In spite of Downey’s ability to juggle a career and drug addiction for so long, it all began to crumble in the mid-90s. From 1996 through 2001, the multiple arrests and jail time – and multiple failed rehabs – show how life in the presence of the cumulative effects of drug addiction cannot be sustained.
From 2001 until just a few years ago, Downey’s creative talents were not in question, just his reliability. But through hard work and a dedication to sobriety, he slowly rebuilt the confidence of producers, directors and studio financiers. Sober for nearly a decade, Downey’s admirable turnaround of his life has been acknowledged by numerous writers, broadcasters and fellow performers.
On a David Letterman show not too long ago, the host remarked: “Sadly, a lot of people go through this stuff. But I’m happy to say that you would be the shining example of how one can turn one’s life around, and succeed as deserved.”
When asked what he might say to another famous Hollywood star, one who has demonstrated a serious need for drug and alcohol detox and rehab, Downey told Letterman that, rather than preaching to others, he prefers to “Keep the plug in the jug, and stay out of trouble myself,” and simply set a personal example.
In a deeply revealing 2004 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Downey described how his last arrest in 2001 finally flipped a switch for him. “When someone says, ‘I really wonder if maybe I should go to rehab?’, well, duh, you’re a wreck, you just lost your job and your wife left you. Uh, you might want to give it a shot. I finally said, ‘You know what? I don’t think I can continue doing this.’”
He said he reached out for help, and found some. But he points out that it’s not the help that counts, it’s the reach. “You can reach out for help in kind of a half-assed way and you’ll get it and you won’t take advantage of it. It’s not that difficult to overcome these seemingly ghastly problems. What’s hard is to decide to actually do it.”
At Novus, we help our patients achieve their goals of sobriety, but each one of them has made that all-important decision to “actually do it.” We delight in their wins and wish them well as they return home, or continue their recovery.
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