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Robert Downey Jr.: How Iron Man Started His Career By Playing a Dog

Captain America: Civil War” opens on May 6, marking Robert Downey Jr.’s sixth appearance as Tony Stark/Iron Man. The character has been good to Downey (who celebrates his 51st birthday on Monday). Last August, Forbes announced that he had earned an estimated $80 million that year, his third consecutive year as the world’s highest-paid actor.

Audiences love success stories, but Downey’s saga seems too far-fetched, even by Hollywood standards. He went from being a promising young actor to an unemployable outcast. But then he rebounded to become a mega-star, respected by the same peers who once shunned him. It’s a tale of redemption and financial rewards, but it’s also a tale of artistry. Because even at the lowest ebb, nobody doubted his talent.

At age 5, he made his film debut, billed as Bob Downey in the 1970 “Pound,” directed by his father, Robert Downey Sr., who was coming off the success of counterculture fave “Putney Swope.” In “Pound,” all the actors played dogs in an animal shelter; it was sort of like “Cats,” a decade before Andrew Lloyd Webber. In a review on Aug. 19, 1970, Variety‘s Richard Gold called it an “unfunny allegory.” He added, “The film’s one funny sequence has nothing to do with anything: everybody just tweedles around in ballet costumes to a cheerfully obscene rock tune.” The critic didn’t like it, but his damnation makes the film sound pretty interesting.

As with most actors, Downey found work wherever he could: He appeared in his father’s “Greaser’s Palace,” John Sayles’ 1983 film “Baby It’s You,” the New York stage musical “American Passion,” and the 1985 gangs-in-school melodrama “Tuff Turf,” starring James Spader. In that last work, Variety reviewer Ray Loynd said, “Robert Downey is a fresh surprise in a nice sidekick role.”

That same year, he appeared in John Hughes’ “Weird Science” and became a cast regular on “Saturday Night Live.” He continued to work, but a big breakthrough came in 1992, when he starred in the title role of “Chaplin.”

Richard Attenborough, on Aug. 17, 1992, said the actor’s performance was “miraculous, one of the most staggering performances I’ve seen in decades.” It’s standard procedure for a director to hype the star, but when audiences saw it, many of them agreed. Variety praised Downey’s work as “truly remarkable,” saying Chaplin’s unique abilities as an actor, dancer, mime and athlete would seem impossible to duplicate, “but Downey proves otherwise.”

Jodie Foster asked Variety, “Could anybody else in the world have given that performance? Robert is someone who is extremely brilliant but who is suffering because he’s almost too smart.”

Despite the admiration, Downey, Stephen Rea, Denzel Washington and Clint Eastwood all lost out on the best actor Oscar to Al Pacino for “Scent of a Woman.”

From 1996-2001, the actor experienced drug arrests, a high-profile firing (from TV series “Ally McBeal”), tabloid rumors and industry rejection because his track record meant a film couldn’t get a completion bond. In 2003, Mel Gibson paid the insurance for “The Singing Detective,” which started his career rebound; Downey underwent a personal rehab, crediting such factors as his wife Susan, meditation and 12-step programs. (He stayed clean and was pardoned by Governor Jerry Brown in 2015.)

His comeback was cemented in 2008, when he starred in the hugely successful “Iron Man,” and earned another Oscar nom that year for “Tropic Thunder.” His “Sherlock Holmes” bowed in 2009 and, while continuing to work in the Marvel universe, he starred in more personal projects, like “The Judge” (2014).

When receiving the 2011 American Cinematheque award, Downey said: “Sooner or later, if you pull the one-armed bandit enough, you’re going to come up with gold bars. And now it just feels, at least for a little while here, that the machine is fixed … I definitely had plenty of years of self-imposed purgatory, but I’m hot for the next 18 months or so. I’m coming up on 50 and I want to do more. And the franchise I could stay in love with indefinitely is ‘Sherlock Holmes.’ “

For more showbiz history, visit VarietyUltimate.com, which has every issue of Variety from 1906 to the present.

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