One of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood, Robert Downey Jr., is as well-known for being a talented, successful actor as he is for his struggle with addiction. He spent decades in and out of rehab, sobering up, slipping up, and getting arrested. It was a downward spiral that ended with him serving time in state prison. It took him losing everything—his money, career, and family—to finally face his addiction head-on and to find his way to recovery. The Iron Man star didn’t just play a superhero on the big screen—his triumph over addiction is a heroic tale of overcoming the odds and unlearning years of bad habits.
Growing Up Surrounded by Substance Abuse
Robert Downey Jr. was born in New York City in 1965 to underground filmmaker Robert Downey Sr. and actress Elsie Downey. At an early age, his father, who also struggled with substance abuse, introduced him to drugs, allowing him to try marijuana at a party when he was only eight years old. In an interview with People Magazine, Downey Jr. explained how doing drugs with his father became their way of bonding, and that this early exposure to drugs led Downey Jr. to spend most nights throughout his 20’s and 30’s getting drunk and scouting dealers.
In the early 1980s, Robert Downey Jr. left New York City for Hollywood to pursue an acting career, where his role in the film Weird Science earned him a spot in The Brat Pack, a group of young actors who starred in many of the decade’s most iconic coming-of-age films. In 1985, he joined the cast on Saturday Night Live for a year before landing his first leading role in The Pick-Up Artist, at which point his acting career took off.
The Beginning of His Career and His Struggle with Addiction
In 1987, Downey Jr. gave a stellar performance as a wealthy, troubled youth in the film Less Than Zero, followed by an unexpected triumph as Charlie Chaplin in Richard Attenborough’s biopic Chaplin in 1992 that earned him an Oscar nomination. He continued starring in films even as his struggle with alcohol and drug use began to take hold of his life off the set. He was able to stay sober while working on a film for a period of time but would soon fall off the wagon and begin using again, going on days-long benders. By 1995, he was smoking heroin and freebasing cocaine, leading to several arrests and stints in rehab facilities. In the summer of 1996, within the span of just a few weeks, Downey Jr. was arrested multiple times for bizarre and reckless, drug-fueled behavior. This included one incident when police stopped him for speeding and found him not only intoxicated, but with heroin and cocaine on him, and an unloaded .356 magnum in his passenger seat. Soon after, he was picked up by police again when he wandered into a neighbor’s home and passed out in their son’s bedroom. This was the beginning of Downey Jr.’s downward spiral.
Hitting Rock Bottom and Losing It All
For the next few years, Downey Jr. cycled in and out of rehab for addiction in state institutions throughout California. In 1999, he was sentenced to 36 months in state prison, where he spent 12 months serving time before being paroled. He was arrested two more times within eight months before being sent to rehab for six months at Wavelengths International, one of many court-mandated addiction treatment centers he visited over the years. For Robert Downey, Jr., this period of his life was what he calls his “rock bottom,” when he reached his lowest point of addiction and lost everything. His wife left him and took their son. He was fired from his acting job on the show Ally McBeal. He was in massive debt and on the verge of bankruptcy. It was then that he decided it was time to take a year and fully address his substance abuse. It was time for recovery.
A Cinematic Recovery and a Hollywood Ending
In 2002, Robert Downey Jr. was making a comeback after his time in rehab and jumped back into his acting career with roles in Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang and the box office hit Zodiac. However, it was when he began his romance with film producer Susan Levin while working on the film Gothika in 2003 that he fully committed to his recovery. They got married in 2005 and now have two children together. His commitment to recovering from addiction and regenerating his acting career led him to his greatest success yet: starring as Tony Stark in Marvel Studio’s Iron Man and The Avengers film franchise.
Today, Robert Downey Jr. enjoys a relatively quiet life, trading wild nights out and weekend-long drug binges for nights in and weekends spent with his family in their Malibu home. The 54-year-old credits his relationship with his wife Susan, his children, Eastern martial arts, yoga, and the 12-Step program for helping him overcome his addiction and stay sober. Of course, his career also keeps him busy and focused. His latest film, Dolittle, came out earlier this year. He and his wife also work at the film production company they founded together, Team Downey.
In a famous Vanity Fair interview, Downey Jr., then age 49 with about a decade of sobriety under his belt, said, “For some folks it’s just a function of age. It’s perfectly normal for people to be obsessive about something for a period of time, then leave it alone.”
While not everyone has such a cinematic and widely publicized journey to recovery as Robert Downey Jr., anyone has the ability to overcome addiction and live a sober, fulfilling life in recovery. If you are ready to start your journey in recovery, call DreamLife Recovery at (844) 402-3592.