How Robert Downey Jr's reinvented himself after drug-fuelled downfall and reached new heights in rocket-powered Iron Man boots

In our weekly feature on celebrities who returned from a scandal, we take a look at Robert Downey Jr.'s career - his downfall and triumphant return

                            How Robert Downey Jr's reinvented himself after drug-fuelled downfall and reached new heights in rocket-powered Iron Man boots
(Getty Images)

Robert Downey Jr. is now one of the most recognizable names in Hollywood - due in large part to his role as Tony Stark in 2008's 'Iron Man.' He's right at the heart of the historic cinematic franchise that is the MCU, though that's not the only work he's been starring in. He is estimated to be one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood - but that very nearly wasn't the case. Here's a look at Robert Downey Jr.'s early career, his downfall, and his triumphant return to the spotlight.


Downey Jr. was brought in front of the camera at an early age. The son of actor and filmaker Robert Downey Sr., the former's first onscreen appearance was in one of his father's movies - 'Pound' - at the age of five. When he was older, he took up several theater roles before landing a spot on a fresh, younger cast for 'Saturday Night Live.' That particular season of 'SNL' was not a hit with audiences, and his career there was short lived - 'Rolling Stone' magazine went as far as to call him the worst 'SNL' cast member of the entire run. 

His career took an upward turn in 1985 with 'Tuff Tuff,' playing the sidekick to James Spader's sidekick, Jimmy Parker. He then went on to land roles in several 80s coming-of-age films, such as 'Weird Science' and 'The Pick-Up Artist' earning him a place on the 'Brat Pack.' The Brat Pack was a group of actors who frequently appeared on the 80s' best coming-of-age films, and included actors like Rob Lowe, Molly Ringwald, and Emilio Estevez. His success in the late 80s earned him a role as Charlie Chaplin himself in 1992's 'Chaplin' - a role that gave Downey Jr. his very first Acadamy Award nomination. 

Drug, arrests, and a career downfall

Downey Jr always had a relationship with drugs and alcohol - his father was a drug addict himself, and had admitted to giving his son a taste of marijuana when the latter was just 6 years old. He was subject to a string of arrests on drug charges between 1995 and 2001 that no amount of rehabilitiation seemed to be able to fix. His first arrest was in April, 1996, for posession of heroin, cocaine, and an unlicensed handgun. He was finally sentenced to prison at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison in 1999 - but was released a year later on bail, with the judge ruling that Downey Jr's multiple arrests since 1996 all added up to sufficient time served.

Downey Jr promptly landed a lead role on law drama 'Ally McBeal,' as the lead's love interest. He significantly boosted the series' ratings, but his addiction remained a problem. He was arrested during the 2000 Thanksgiving holidays and then again on suspicion of drug usage in April, 2001. He was immediately fired from 'Ally McBeal,' despite the siginificance of his role on the show, as well as losing a role in Mel Gibson's production of 'Hamlet,' and the film 'America's Sweethearts.' 

Downey never gave up on his acting career, however, and returned to mainstream films with 'Gothika' - although he was under strict supervision. The film's director, Joel Silver, held back 40% of Downey's salary, on the condition that he would refrain from substance abuse until the film was done shooting - a clause that became standard on many of Downey's film contracts thereafter. 

It wasn't until 2008, though, that his career would truly hit its greatest heights. 

The role of a lifetime

In 2008, Robert Downey Jr. was cast as Tony Stark, 'Iron Man,' by Jon Favreau. It was a huge risk for Marvel Studios to take, but then again, so was the 'Iron Man' film as a whole. At the time, Iron Man was low on the list of popular Marvel characters - the movie licenses for Marvel's most famous heroes had been sold to Fox, Sony, and Universal Studios. Favreau, however, had faith in both the film and in Downey's ability to not only connect to the character, but make Tony Stark's performance something truly unforgettable. That faith paid off, as 'Iron Man' grossed over $585 million worldwide and launched a cinematic universe that remains Hollywood's most successful franchise over a decade later. 

Critics praised Downey's performance, and it wasn't long before he was starring as the lead in other major franchises. Action-comedy 'Tropic Thunder' released around the same time, earning him another Academy Award nomination. He then went on to star in Guy Ritchie's 'Sherlock Holmes' alongside Jude Law, then opposite Zach Galifianakis in 'Due Date.' Between starring in highly successful comedies and blockbuster franchises, Downey's career was set. 

He continued his career as 'Iron Man' until 2019's 'Avengers: Endgame' brought his most famous role to an emotional end, leaving a hole in the center of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that has yet to be filled. He has starred in several other films besides, and is not stopping any time soon.

Though 'Doctor Doolittle' may have been a critical flop, he will be reprising his role as Sherlock Holmes for a third movie, as well as starring in a sports comedy drama with Jamie Foxx entitled 'All-Star Weekend.' He has been sober for years, now - he has even received a full pardon from the Governer of California, Jerry Brown, in 2015, for all of his past drug crimes. His stint as the Iron Avenger may be behind him, but his career as an actor is far from over.

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