From Addict to Iron Man: The Transformation of Robert Downey Jr.

When he was just eight years old, Robert Downey Jr.’s father introduced him to drugs. It did not take long for Robert Downey Jr. to become addicted.

Robert Downey Jr. was born in April of 1965. His father, Robert Downey Sr., was an avant-garde film director with a passion for social issues. Downey Senior was also enthusiastic about drugs. In the 1988 book The New Breed, Downey said he grew up in a house where there were a lot of drugs just lying around. Unlike most households of the time where fathers and sons bonded over baseball or cars, the Downey family shared a love of acting and a passion for drugs.

Junior made his film debut at the age of five, in his father’s 1970s film Pound. Robert Downey Jr. worked at a frantic pace during the 1980s and 1990s, appearing in a dizzying number of comedies, crime thrillers and dramas. Robert Downey Jr. quickly became one of the most sought-after young actors of his time.

Father and son shared their drug abuse for several years, even as both acting professionals were soaring to new career heights.  “When my dad and I would do drugs together,” Robert Downey Jr. said, “it was like him trying to express his love for me in the only way he knew how.”

The Dark Years

Despite his phenomenal success as an actor, Downey was struggling with drug addiction. As his career advanced, so did his drug addiction and the bizarre and antisocial behavior that often accompanies substance abuse. Neighbors once even found Downey passed out in their 11-year-old son’s bed, and called the police before realizing it was RDJ.

In June of 1996, police pulled Downey over for speeding and found three different types of drugs and an unloaded .357 Magnum under the passenger seat of his car. The judge sentenced him to a rehabilitation facility, where he broke out wearing a Hawaiian shirt and hospital pants. The next judge sentenced him to a more secure rehab facility, where he promptly busted out.

The actor found himself in front of a judge in 1999, begging against a prison sentence. Downey told the judge, "It’s like I have a shotgun in my mouth and I’ve got my finger on the trigger, and I like the taste of the gunmetal.”

The judge sentenced Robert Downey Jr. to 36 months at the high minimum-security facility California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison on drug charges but served less than a year. After his release in 2000, he joined the cast of the hit televisions series Ally McBeal where he played the love interest of the lead actress Calista Flockhart. Critics raved about his performance and even handed Downey a Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Series, Miniseries, or Television Film.

Police arrested Downey twice more before the talented actor got clean. Late in 2000, police responded to an anonymous call to Downey’s Palm Springs hotel room, where they found drugs. In the spring of 2001 police found Downey wandering barefoot through the streets of Culver City in Los Angeles. After his arrest, the actor checked himself into rehab.

By then, producers had written Robert Downey Jr. out of Ally McBeal. Downey became box office poison. George Clooney and Mel Gibson, among others, tossed work his way but most critics considered Robert Downey Jr. washed up. Gibson said of Downey, “What’s happening there? And you know he’s his own worst enemy. He’s flawed. We’re all flawed. My God, I’m more flawed than he is! It’s something you recognize and have empathy with, but the guy made this amazing bid for life that’s nothing short of astounding. I admire him. He’s done it himself. Nobody else can do it for you.”

The Rise of Iron Man

It was then that Robert Downey Jr. transformed himself into an ironclad superhero of epic proportions – literally. He got the treatment he needed from qualified rehabilitation professionals.

Robert Downey Jr. crashed back onto the Hollywood scene in the 2008 smash live action film hit Iron Man. Like the fictional hero, Downey was a wealthy, glamorous ladies’ man who hid a dark secret.

In much the same way as the hero he plays in Iron Man, Tony Stark, Downey created a powered suit of armor to escape the captivity of addiction and save his life. Instead of creating a suit of strength from iron, however, Downey utilized the tremendous power of professional treatment for his drug problem. Later in the movie, Tony Stark augments his iron suit with weapons created by his company. Downey followed suit by optimizing the protective shell of sobriety with tools created by his craft – acting.

That stay in a court-ordered drug treatment program helped Robert Downey Jr. finally achieve the sobriety he enjoys today. In 2013, Downey topped Forbes list of Hollywood’s Highest-Paid Actors, nabbing $75 million in earnings just between June 2012 and June 2013. Robert Downey Jr. became the world’s highest paid star in 2014.

Robert Downey Jr. not only played a superhero in the movies, he became one in real life. People with addictions of all sorts, especially those with drug addictions, can learn from the actor’s quest to break free from the captivity of addiction and achieve true success in life. Robert Downey Jr. fulfilled his own destiny to become a human being no longer hiding under a film of addiction, and projected this fulfillment on the international stage.

Today, Robert Downey, Jr. is content with being Robert Downey, Jr., and that has fueled the transformation from addiction to ironclad superhero.

“Job one is get out of that cave,” Downey said in an October 2014 interview with Vanity Fair. “A lot of people do get out but don’t change. So the thing is to get out and recognize the significance of that aggressive denial of your fate, come through the crucible forged into a stronger metal.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, and they are ready to be forged into a stronger metal, visit Pathways Real Life Recovery today.


Michelle Amerman
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