Male Star of the Year: Robert Downey Jr.

It’s not like Hollywood was knocking on Robert Downey Jr.’s door saying, “We want to ride millions on you. Here’s the Golden Ticket. Please be our Iron Man.”

No. Not exactly. Marvel Studios, with stellar franchise potentials and a huge fanbase, screen-tested the Oscar nominated star, and Downey was just one of many guys hustling for the role. “I’m never one to mind a bit of friendly competition,” the actor says. “But I did fight for this part. As I was walking back from my meeting with (“Iron Man” director) Jon Favreau, I’m thinking ‘Spider-Man III,’ $6 quadrillion. I’m seeing all the ‘X-Men’ posters and I’m going, ‘Darn it! I want to be on one of those posters!'”

Downey hopes the action superhero film “Iron Man,” set for release in May, will be the first of a series. “It’s funny,” he says. “If things had been a little bit different, if an opportunity like this had arisen when I was younger, I might have felt daunted by the possibility of doing three of them and having to stay in shape for 10 years. There are so many ways that a guy can hinder his career, and none of them are subtle. My hindrances were pretty clear.”

Until he was 8 years old, Downey knew he might, in fact, be a superhero. But, “It was beaten out of me. And then I turned 42, and I’m finally doing this movie.”

The actor’s maverick filmmaker father, Robert Downey Sr., once cast his son, then 5, as a puppy. Upon hearing of his son’s “Iron Man” coup, Downey Sr. remarked, “God, the last time I heard you this excited was when you were screen-tested for ‘Chaplin.'” Which was in 1991.

The younger Downey is deeply proud of his father’s films (“Putney Swope,” “Greaser’s Palace”) and feels greatly influenced by the elder’s boldness as a social critic. “My dad was always outside the fray,” he says. “He’s always been a bit of a weirdo. But after all is said and done, I am just really grateful that I was born into a family that put their art first. The downside is that when you put your art first, it doesn’t always pan out so well.”

Even now that he’s middle-aged, Downey Jr. can identify with the characters in “Little Miss Sunshine.”

“When I see that dysfunctional family, demonstrating to us how we can all be OK, I kind of feel like it’s a triumph for weirdos,” he says.

Not that he’s ready to embrace any outre status. Downey is proud of his current mainstream appeal in Hollywood, and that includes not only “Iron Man” but also “Tropic Thunder.”

“Now I’m looking at these three posters,” he points out. “And one says Ben Stiller, the other says Jack Black, the other says Robert Downey Jr. And I’m just going, ‘Wow, it’s just so nice to be in the game. It’s just so nice to be in the game.'”

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