Back From the Brink

Robert Downey Jr.'s birth certificate reads that he was given life on April 4, 1965. That should come with an asterisk.

They say a cat has nine lives. But no feline has anything on RDJ, as he is known in this Internet world of abbreviations and acronyms.

Downey may be working on damn near that ninth life by now, but the good news is that he doesn't seem to be in need of any more leases.

Downey is on top of the world now, riding the crest of a wave portraying multi-billionaire Tony Stark, aka Iron Man. The third Iron Man movie was released this spring, to rave reviews. In between all the Iron Man movies was 2012's The Avengers, which was a meeting of the minds, brawn and good looks of Marvel Superheros Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, Captain America, the Black Widow and Hawkeye.

Downey wowed them in The Avengers, too.

But what's fascinating about Downey isn't how he combines dashing good looks, borderline cockiness and a little boy's vulnerability in his Tony Stark character. It's that he's around to have a chance to do it, period.

You couldn't have gotten a plugged nickel for Downey's life, once upon a time. And we're not even talking that long ago.

It was a cautionary tale of drugs, rehab stints, more drugs, and more rehab stints---all failed.

Of course, Hollywood is filled with so many cautionary tales, you could compile them into a read that would have the thickness of a New York City telephone book.

But Downey's tale also gets categorized as one that had a happy ending---and that book is much, much thinner.

It started out promising enough. Downey made a ton of movies in the 1980s and was one of the so-called "Brat Pack" of 20-something movie stars who were young, attractive and making coming-of-age films that connected with audiences. Some of those Brat Packers could even act a little.

Then it all went south in the 1990s.

Throughout the history of celebrity, stars simply don't come from where Downey came and make anything of themselves. Those types usually have more mug shots than head shots.

I've written it before---that if I was Charlie Sheen, I'd ring up Bob Downey and ask him how the hell he pulled himself from the edge of oblivion.

Sheen's crazy, mixed up life, though, doesn't come anywhere near the self-mutilation that Downey perpetrated on himself in his thirties.

It got so bad---all the arrests, all the drugs, all the failed attempts at rehab, all the blown second chances---that Downey himself laid it bare in front of a judge in 1999.

"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," Downey said in court, in shackles and wearing an orange jumper. He was 34 at the time and you'd have gotten even money as to whether he'd see 35.

The addiction, Downey said, had roots at the age of eight, when his father, a film director and also a drug addict, began plying the younger Downey with dope.

What's the opposite of Father Knows Best?

Throughout his thirties, Downey careened out of control, unable to kick the drugs and fast cars. A .357 Magnum was even in the mix one time, as he sped down Sunset Boulevard like something from a movie that he wasn't being asked to star in.

Downey was toxic, literally and figuratively. No producer or director would touch him with a 10-foot pole. It wasn't about making movies anymore---it was about living to see another day. He kept doing drugs and he kept getting arrested for it. It was amazing that no one was killed, most notably Downey himself.

Then one day in 2000, they let Downey out of jail and he marched onto the cast of TV's Ally McBeal, playing star Calista Flockhart's new love interest.

It looked like things were clicking. Downey rediscovered his acting chops. He won some awards. Working on perhaps life no. 6 at that point, the Downey story looked to be heading for a happily ever after ending.

But Downey wasn't through getting arrested.

In 2000 and 2001, Downey got handcuffed a few more times, and hauled in front of judges again. The behavior was erratic, to say the least. On parole in April 2001, Downey was noticed wandering barefoot in Culver City, a suburb of Los Angeles. He was suspected of being under the influence of drugs yet again.

Downey was now burning through extra lives that no typical man has.

Enter Downey's longtime friend, the actor/director Mel Gibson.

Yes, Mel Gibson---who's had his share of strange incidents that always seemed to be recorded by someone, somewhere.

Gibson paid Downey's insurance bond---a binder that scared off many producers and casting directors because of the risk that Downey would actually need it---so Downey could return to movies in The Singing Detective in 2003.

Things started to get better, and stay that way.

The first Iron Man movie came out in 2008, and then things really skyrocketed for the former addict who liked the taste of gun metal.

Downey is 48 now, happily married since 2005. He's been drug-free, he says, since 2003. It hasn't been easy. He's used family, therapy, meditation, 12-step recovery programs and even yoga to kick his addiction.

Downey has gone from cautionary tale to fairy tale, which doesn't happen in Hollywood everyday.

"It's hard to get out of the barrel," he once said. "It's slippery around the edges and people are happy to see you fall back in."

Downey fell back in a lot. But he got out of the barrel.

Consider it an inspiration.


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