You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Queen & Slim

    AFI Fest Film Review: 'Queen & Slim'

    Going to the movies can feel a lot like agreeing to a blind date: It’s normal to feel a little wary — but also a bit excited — at the potential before agreeing to spend two hours with characters you don’t know. If the film is any good, it wins you over early on, enough [...]

  • Steven Spielberg Branko Lustig

    'He Left Me Speechless': Steven Spielberg Remembers Branko Lustig

    Steven Spielberg has offered a touching remembrance of Branko Lustig, the Holocaust survivor who produced “Schindler’s List” with Spielberg and Gerald Molen and died Thursday in Croatia. “I was heartbroken to hear of Branko’s passing and my thoughts are with his family and friends,” Spielberg said. “When we first met to discuss ‘Schindler’s List,’ he [...]

  • Dylan Brosnan and Paris BrosnanGolden Globe

    Pierce Brosnan’s Sons Paris and Dylan Brosnan Named 2020 Golden Globe Ambassadors

    Pierce Brosnan’s two youngest sons, Paris and Dylan Brosnan, have been named as the 2020 Golden Globe Ambassadors, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association announced on Thursday evening. Paris and Dylan are also the sons of journalist and author Keely Shaye Smith. The ambassador(s), a title that typically goes to the son or daughter of a [...]

  • Joaquin Phoenix'Joker' film premiere, Arrivals, 57th

    Film News Roundup: Joaquin Phoenix Honored by Palm Springs Film Festival

    In today’s film news roundup, Joaquin Phoenix is honored for “Joker”; Legion M backs Joe Manganiello’s “Archenemy”; sales have launched on “Lev Yashin: The Dream Goalkeeper”; Warner Bros. shuffles execs and Universal launches a first-of-its-kind animation writing program. HONOR Joaquin Phoenix has been selected as the recipient of the Palm Springs International Film Festival’s chairman’s [...]

  • Danny Huston

    Danny Huston Discusses the Significance of 'Last Photograph'

    In the decades since Danny Huston made his feature directing debut with “Mr. North,” his 1988 film adaptation of the Thornton Wilder novel “Theophilus North,” he has kept busy in front of the cameras as one of film and television’s most versatile and sophisticated character players. In just the past year, small-screen viewers have been [...]

  • Rocketman

    'Rocketman': Chris Dickens Discusses the Inside Story of Editing 'I'm Still Standing'

    Endings are so important and how the viewer leaves the cinema is crucial. For editor Chris Dickens, finding the perfect ending for “Rocketman” was paramount, but it was also a challenge. Elton John’s hit “I’m Still Standing” was going to end the film with the original idea of going to Cannes to recreate the video [...]

  • A general view of the skyline

    United Media Asia Strikes Deal With Indonesian Giant Kompas Gramedia

    Newly-formed content finance, production and distribution company United Media Asia has struck a first look deal, brokered by Hollywood talent agency CAA, with Indonesian media giant Kompas Gramedia. United has also unveiled its first two feature films. The partnership provides UMA with access to Kompas Gramedia’s media network and its 100,000 pieces of intellectual property, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content