Robert Downey Jr.’s Epic Comeback: From Prison to Iron Man

Robert Downey Jr.’s life story is a complex tale of a Hollywood bad boy on the brink, a saga of damnation and redemption, and the story of a true superhero.

Back in 1999, however, Downey was dressed in orange jail clothes and shower sandals, pleading with a California judge to send him back to drug rehabilitation rather than prison: "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 the gun metal.”

It was a spectacular fall from grace for the Oscar nominee but everyone - including, it seems, Robert Downey Jr. - saw it coming. Having already blagged his way through six rehab programs and breached probation three times, the actor admitted that he possibly “showed up five minutes late for the miracle”.

He was sentenced to three years in prison and released early. Remarkably, it was just one of the many pivotal moments in the incredible life of Robert Downey Jr., aka Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, aka Inmate No. P50522.


Robert Downey Jr, True Superhero
Robert Downey Jr., true superhero

Greenwich Village, NYC, 1970

Robert was five years old when he starred in his first film, Pound (1970). By age six, he was sipping white wine and smoking marijuana at home, encouraged by his father. At eight, Robert was a drug addict. It was the only kind of childhood love he understood.


Robert Downey Jr.’s Epic Comeback: From Prison to Iron Man

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Robert Downey Jr.’s life story is a complex tale of a Hollywood bad boy on the brink, a saga of damnation and redemption, and the story of a true superhero.

Back in 1999, however, Downey was dressed in orange jail clothes and shower sandals, pleading with a California judge to send him back to drug rehabilitation rather than prison: "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 the gun metal.”

It was a spectacular fall from grace for the Oscar nominee but everyone - including, it seems, Robert Downey Jr. - saw it coming. Having already blagged his way through six rehab programs and breached probation three times, the actor admitted that he possibly “showed up five minutes late for the miracle”.

He was sentenced to three years in prison and released early. Remarkably, it was just one of the many pivotal moments in the incredible life of Robert Downey Jr., aka Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, aka Inmate No. P50522.


Robert Downey Jr, True Superhero
Robert Downey Jr., true superhero

Greenwich Village, NYC, 1970

Robert was five years old when he starred in his first film, Pound (1970). By age six, he was sipping white wine and smoking marijuana at home, encouraged by his father. At eight, Robert was a drug addict. It was the only kind of childhood love he understood.


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“When my dad and I would do drugs together, it was like him trying to express his love for me in the only way he knew how,” Downey explained in an interview published in The New Breed.


Drugs were always lying around the family home in Greenwich Village, a bohemian enclave in Manhattan. Downey was born in 1965 into an artistic family. His father - Bob Downey Sr. - was an avant-garde filmmaker at a time when underground counterculture movies and theater were thriving.

His mother, actress Elsie Downey, once Bob Sr.’s muse, was dealing with her own downward spiral of alcohol addiction that would eventually lead to his parents’ divorce in 1978.


Robert Downey Jr, True Superhero
Robert Downey Jr. quit high school at 16 and found fame in Hollywood


Robert idolized his father. “I remember walking around the Village, with my dad wearing a Superman shirt,” Downey Jr. recalled in Vanity Fair. “We also had a prop king’s chair, a throne, that he would sit in... He was a big guy, tall, dark, handsome - all that stuff.” 

"I mean, I grew up with people saying, 'Hey, that's Bob Downey's kid' -  and understandably so... He was a great innovator and a heck of a filmmaker."

Robert learned the trade on his father’s film sets and moved to Santa Monica, California to live with Bob Sr. after the divorce. Sean Penn, Rob Lowe, and Emilio Estevez were his high school contemporaries, but Robert dropped out at 16 to pursue acting full time. 


Robert Downey Jr True Superhero
Robert Downey Jr on Saturday Night Live


By the time he was living with then-girlfriend Sarah Jessica Parker, he was making a name for himself off-Broadway and jetting between New York and Los Angeles. Downey was referred to as one of the ‘Brat Pack’, the young, Hollywood elite who included Ally Sheedy, Demi Moore, Judd Nelson, and Rob Lowe as members.

Hollywood, 1987

Downey's addiction was starting to affect his performance Things ratcheted up during the filming of Less Than Zero (1987) where he played a drug addict.

“For me, the 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,” he told The Guardian.

There were times when he had to be revived from a ‘near-coma’ to film his scenes. “Back then, when I was a kid, doing that, you could say that it was ‘fun’, but it was pretty stressful too,” he recalled.

He was still turning in stellar performances, however, earning an Academy Award nomination for his lead in Chaplin and winning Britain’s BAFTA award.. 


Robert Downey Jr, True Superhero
Robert Downey Jr. stars in Chaplin (1992)

Falling off the barstool, 1995 

Robert added heroin and cocaine to his repertoire and his relationship with Sarah Jessica Parker fizzled. By the time he filmed the Jodie Foster-directed Home For The Holidays (1995), Robert was so out of control Foster shut down production temporarily and sat down for a heart-to-heart.

“And I said, ‘So far, you are on a barstool, and you have managed to not fall off the barstool. It’s possible that you’re going to find a way to prop yourself up, whatever toothpicks it takes to prop yourself up. But I’m afraid for you. And now may not be the time, but I am afraid for you,'” Foster later told the Huffington Post.

Robert wasn’t ready to say goodbye to drugs just yet, however.


Downey was speeding down Hollywood’s Sunset Blvd in 1996 when he was arrested for possession of heroin, cocaine, and an unloaded .357 Magnum pistol. A month later, still on parole, he trespassed into a neighbor's home while intoxicated and fell asleep in a child’s bedroom.

California’s judges were losing patience. He’d breached probation three times by failing to submit drug tests. When he appeared in court again in 1999, Downey was sentenced to three years in prison. Still, it wasn’t Downey’s last appearance before a judge. In 2001, he was given probation and went into rehab. 

Downey’s turnaround, 2003

Susan Levin wasn’t really interested when she met Robert on the set of the 2003 film Gothika, she told Harper's Bazaar.


The Hollywood producer soon warmed to him, but her love apparently came with an ultimatum: give up the drugs or lose her. The edict seemed to have worked. They married in 2005 and are still together.

Robert said he stayed sober with 12-step programs, yoga, meditation, and therapy but when he announced to Hollywood that he was drug-free and ready to work again it was a hard sell. It was almost impossible to get insurance for a convicted drug addict to work on a movie.

Famously, Mel Gibson paid a liability insurance bond so Downey could star in 2003’s The Singing Detective. From there, he  inched back into the mainstream with movies like Zodiac.


Robert Downey Jr., True Superhero

Downey has had his share of drama since his comeback. Jon Favreau, Iron Man’s director, had to fight for RDJ - as he’s now known - to play Tony Stark. Downey has also endured the deaths of both of his parents and issued tributes to his mother in 2014 and father, Robert Downey Sr., in 2021.

There have also been moments of calm and community service, however. Robert serves on the board of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, which helps provide support and reentry services for prisoners, hoping to inspire others to turn their lives around as he's done. He’s also contributed to charities too numerous to mention, including the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Lately, he’s channeling his energy toward helping the environment. Downey has opened The Footprint Coalition, an organization that aims to reduce carbon footprints around the world. He's reportedly invested $10m of his own money into the Coalition, which promotes technologies and companies that protect the environment such as French insect-farming startup Ynsect.

He is also focused on innovation tied to sustainable farming and agriculture technology: "It is one of the biggest issues...there is no excuse for us not being able to feed the hungry."

Downey has put his  long cycle of drug and alcohol abuse behind him. As Iron Man would say: “My armor was never a distraction or a hobby, it was a cocoon, and now I'm a changed man."

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