Robert Downey Jr., sober and trying to reclaim his acting career after a six-month rehab stint, finds himself in a brawl with A. J. Benza of the Hot Copy column of the New York Daily News. At issue is whether or not Benza saw the actor drinking a beer at the Sky Bar in L.A.’s Mondrian Hotel the weekend of March 22, as Benza reported in his column.

Downey swears that not only was he not in a state of inebriation at the Sky Bar — he wasn’t even in the state of California. Downey’s threatening to sue the News and Benza, even though the rogue gossip just resigned his post and is hanging up the Hot Copy column, effective immediately.

Downey maintains he was filming the Robert Altman film “The Gingerbread Man” in Savannah, Ga. If he was downing a brewski, Downey would have violated probation and would face jail, to say nothing of being rendered uninsurable as a film actor due to past benders. Downey’s attorney, Tom Hansen, said his client worked Friday and Saturday nights, then flew to New York Sunday on the Island jet, which is corroborated by “Gingerbread Man” producer Mark Burg: “I flew him in Chris Blackwell’s plane and was with him the whole time,” Burg says. “He worked for me Friday night and Saturday night and has been as clean as a whistle.”

Hansen said Downey is furious at Benza, saying he never called to check his info. Columnist Marilyn Beck re-peated the beer mention in the News two days later, even as News editors were getting heated legal letters over the first item.

News attorney Eve Burton said that as of March 27, the paper was waiting for proof Downey wasn’t in L.A., but would likely retract the story anyway. Benza said he was sure Downey was five feet away from him in the bar, but mused that he himself might have had one too many, as he was tossing them down after having resigned the News gig.

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