In the 1987 film Less Than Zero (loosely based on the Bret Ellis novel of the same name), Robert Downey Jr. played a character that was alternately pathetic and contemptible: a young drug addict whose life had spiraled out of control, who was forced into extreme acts of degradation, and who was headed nowhere but the city morgue. It was a lurid 1980s melodrama, but one that contained the seeds of prophecy.

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The young acting prodigy, mid-1980s.

As the 1980s rolled into the next decade, Downey’s own life began to resemble a real life version of Less Than Zero. He had long flirted with drugs (perhaps the product of his bohemian upbringing by his Greenwich Village parents), but his addiction began to consume him. His family had moved from New York to California in the late 1970s, but Downey dropped out of high school and moved back to New York to study acting.

He landed a few roles here and there, sustained by his natural ability, and became a familiar young screen presence by the mid-1980s. By general consent, he was one of the most promising acting talents of the 1980s. He always brought a freshness and likeability to his roles, and even mediocre films (e.g., 1987’s True Believer) benefited from his charismatic mix of innocence and mischief.

Without doubt, Downey had immense talent. One has only to see his 1992 film Chaplin to be awed by his incredible gift for improvised mimicry; even a ponderous bore like Two Girls And A Guy (1997) somehow seems to be worth watching just to see Downey chatter away.

But talent is not enough, and by the early 1990s, things started to go seriously downhill. A mix of professional setbacks and addiction problems overwhelmed his fortunes. The commercial failure of his 1990 film Air America was a hard blow, and a fast marriage (after knowing his bride for only 42 days) to Deborah Falconer did little to abate his seething demons.

Rock bottom

By the mid-1990s, Downey was a full-blown drug addict. His stints in and out of LA County Jail became legendary, with a predictable cycle of probation violations, remands to custody, and contrite apologies to judges.

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Downey’s drug addiction nearly destroyed him

He seemed like a cautionary tale for misspent youth and squandered talent. Nearly everyone, it seemed, expected to see his name the obituary section of the LA Times sooner rather than later.

In 1999, he was sentenced to three years in a state-run addiction facility; released soon after, he became a cast member to the TV show Ally McBeal, where he was nominated for a Golden Globe award. Despite his personal problems, no one doubted his talents.

Yet he relapsed into drug abuse and was fired from the show. By this time, he was considered such a risk that few producers would touch him; his personal finances edged ever closer to bankruptcy.

Redemption?

But despite all of the drama and the antics, there was just something endearing about Downey. He was likeable. Perhaps this is one of the secrets of his redemption. Even in his darkest days in the early 2000s, no one (as far as this writer is aware) ever uttered a word of malice against him, or wished evil on him.

What other actor, for example, could have pulled off a role using blackface, as he did in Tropic Thunder (2008), without a word of criticism from the press?

Slowly, things began to get better for him after 2003. Mel Gibson gave him a chance when few others would, when he cast Downey in his 2003 film The Singing Detective. Gibson had to underwrite Downey’s insurance personally for this role, as no agency was willing to touch him at the time.

A marriage to Susan Levin followed in 2005, and in that year he began a serious addiction treatment program. It worked. Perhaps there just comes a time, in the words of Motley Crue bassist Nikki Sixx, when “you just get tired of being sick and tired.” He credits his wife’s influence with being a major factor in his recovery.

It would also be difficult to overemphasize the role of Downey’s martial arts training in speeding his recovery. Around 2004-2005, he discovered Wing Chun kung fu, and found that it offered a form of “high” that he could get naturally; he took to it with a passion that dwarfed nearly all his other interests.

His kung fu workouts are intense and demanding, and are an integral part of his life now. At fifty years old, he looks at least ten years younger than his age.

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But further glory was shortly to come. In 2008 he landed the role to the film Iron Man, and the rest, as they say, was history. The film was a smash hit, and the perfect vehicle for Downey’s mix of genial humor, physicality, and flawed humanity.

Several Iron Man sequels have cemented his place at the top of Hollywood’s A list. He also took on a memorable series of roles in the “Sherlock Holmes” films of British director Guy Ritchie.  It was an incredible transformation, nearly miraculous in scope and execution.

He has signed the first $100 million dollar movie contract in history, and his know to be a hard bargainer for his roles. Clearly, Downey knows his worth and is not afraid to stand up for himself.

Lessons for all of us

It is an incredibly inspiring story. How did Downey do it? It was a mixture of natural talent, good fortune (Mel Gibson taking a chance on him, his discovery of kung fu, his decision finally to quit drugs, and his landing the right roles), and his own innate likability.

He has a charismatic intensity that few other actors have. The same inner intensity that enabled his addictions was, paradoxically, the source of his redemption. The Downey story teaches us that it is never too late to change, and that if the will is there, good things will eventually happen.

He has come a long way since his rock-bottom days in LA County Jail, fighting for his survival. “I would never tell you,” he told one interviewer, “the worst things that have happened to me [in jail].”

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