Monday, November 20, 2006

Robert Downey Jr.

This gifted but troubled actor made his first screen appearance at age five, playing a puppy in "Pound" (1970), directed by father Robert Downey. After dropping out of high school, Robert Downey Jr began working odd jobs, including being a piece of living art in a SoHo nightclub in NYC. He received his initial break from his father with a small part in "America" (filmed in 1982, but released in 1986), but did not appear in a credited screen role until 1983's "Baby, It's You", directed by John Sayles. After a series of small roles in slight teen films, ("Weird Science" 1985, "Back to School" 1986), Downey landed his breakthrough role as the tragic, cocaine-addicted Julian in "Less Than Zero" (1987).

The actor went on to give mature performances as the idealistic lawyer opposite James Woods in "True Believer" and as the confused romantic hero of "Chances Are" (both 1989). Downey delivered a tour-de-force as the title character in Richard Attenborough's biopic "Chaplin" (1992). Though the film wasn't well received at the box-office, the leading player was universally praised for his ability to capture the essence of the world's favorite little tramp and earned a deserved Best Actor Oscar nomination. He followed up with "Heart and Souls", a light comedy, co-starring Charles Grodin and Kyra Sedgwick and Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" (both 1993), in which he was a quirky make-up artist. The following year, Downey received critical praise as an Australian talk-show host broadcasting during a prison riot in Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers" and offered a deft comic turn as Marisa Tomei's would-be lover in "Only You". In 1995, he had three high profile roles: as Holly Hunter's manic gay brother in Jodie Foster's "Home for the Holidays"; as a 17th-century court physician who falls out of favor with the King and seeks redemption in a Quaker hospital in the lavish "Restoration"; and as Annette Bening's brother in Richard Loncraine's "Richard III", starring Ian McKellen.

Downey's erratic off-screen behavior had often proved fodder for the tabloids but it was a June 1996 arrest that was the beginning of the actor's troubles with the law. When the police stopped Downey for speeding, they discovered drugs and an unloaded firearm in his car. The actor went in and out of rehab (and miraculously continued to work in films) as part of a sentence of three years' probation. In December 1997, however, after missing mandatory drug tests, he was re-arrested and jailed. Two years later, after repeated offenses, Downey was sentenced to a prison term, despite outcries and pleas that the actor be placed in rehab.

While his legal troubles were brewing and despite struggling with his addictions, Downey remained focused on his career and delivered a handful of memorable performances. In 1997's "One Night Stand", he was moving as a gay man stricken with AIDS and he proved effective as an associate of Kenneth Branagh's Southern lawyer in "The Gingerbread Man" (1998), directed by Robert Altman. Long-time friend James Toback offered the actor a pair of challenging roles: a womanizer confronted by a pair of his lovers in "Two Girls and a Guy" (1998) and a documentary filmmaker's homosexual husband who makes a pass at Mike Tyson in "Black & White" (1999). Downey also offered a slyly comic supporting turn as Michael Douglas' gay editor in the grossly overlooked "Wonder Boys" (2000).

After being incarcerated for a year, Downey was released from prison in August 2000 when an appeals court ruled that he had had served more than enough time to fulfill his sentence. While continuing to struggle with his addictions (upon his release from prison, he immediately entered a drug treatment facility), the actor also fielded offers for work. The first job he accepted was playing a recurring role as a love interest to Calista Flockhart's titular "Ally McBeal" on that Fox TV series. Downey debuted in the role in the fall of 2000 and quickly won over viewers and critics. But his personal troubles persisted. During the Thanksgiving holidays in 2000, the actor was arrested on weapons and drug possession charges but cooperated with police. Two months later, he picked up a Golden Globe Award for his work on the Fox show and his future appeared to be bright, but in April 2001, just prior to the end of the filming season, Downey was once again arrested for being under the influence of a controlled substance. Producer David E. Kelley summarily fired him and re-wrote the series' last episode (in which his character was supposed to marry Ally). Despite earning an Emmy nomination for his work on the show, there was little chance of his ever returning to reprise the part. In July 2001, Downey was sentenced to three years probation, including one-year in a drug rehab center.

Despite his many problems with sobriety and the criminal justice system, Downey found many potential collaborators but it proved difficult to find bond companies to insure him while working on the set. His old friend and co-star Mel Gibson helped re-launch Downey's career by casting the actor in the Gibson-produced screen adaptation of authot Dennis Potter's "The Singing Detective" (2003), a disjointed hodge-podge of a film in which Downey was no less than superb as the titular hero Dan Dark, lost in a musical noir fantasy. He was also nicely cast opposite Halle Berry in the otherwise preposterous horror thriller "Gothika" (2003), playing Berry's colleague, a sympathetic psychologist who tries to determine if she's crazy or possessed by an evil spirt. He next appeared in the Steven Soderbergh-directed segment of the anthology film "Eros" (2005) titled "Equilibrium," playing a 1950s advertising executive under enormous pressure at work, who, during visits to his psychiatrist (Alan Arkin), explores reasons why his stress manifest itself in a recurring erotic dream. He then teamed with Soderbergh's producing partner George Clooney to appear in a supporting role in Clooney's second directiral effort, "Good Night and Good Luck" (2005). In the film Downey evidinced his considerable charm as Joe Wershba, part of broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow's news team, who tries to hide his secret marriage with a co-worker (Patricia Clarkson) as they take on Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

That same year, Downey sparkled when headlined screenwriter-director Shane Black's pastiche/tribute to the hard-boiled action genre "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" (205), playing a less-than-bright petty thief who is brought to Los Angeles for an unlikely audition and finds himself in the middle of a murder investigation, along with his high school dream girl (Michelle Monaghan) and a gay but tough-as-nails detective (Val Kilmer) who has been training him for his upcoming role. Coming into 2006, Downey--who due to his drug troubles had resoterd to paying for his completion bond insurance himself or through friends in order to work--had no less than four films due and several on his slate, including Disney's remake of "The Shaggy Dog," the sci-fi thriller "Scanner Darkly" and a reteaming with Curtis Hanson, "Lucky You."

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