Before Robert Downey Jr. rose to fame, there was Robert Downey Sr. – the filmmaker and father who set the stage for his son. However, they didn’t really have a usual father-son relationship. As we explore Downey Sr.’s life, we will also uncover his impact on the career and personal journey of his son, Downey Jr.
Downey Sr.’s Life Story
Robert Downey Sr. was born Robert John Elias Jr. in June 1936. His mother, Elizabeth, was a model, and his father, Robert John Elias, worked in restaurant management.
Before entering the cinema business, Downey Sr. enlisted in the Army at the age of 15. Following that, he tried his hand at minor league baseball and even earned a title as a boxing Golden Gloves champion — all before his 22nd birthday.
Delving into the entertainment scene, Downey Sr. directed the 1969 film, ‘Putney Swope,‘ which satirized the advertising world and Hollywood’s portrayal of race. The film was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress in 2016.
Throughout the 1960s, he directed low-budget independent films, such as ‘Ball’s Bluff‘ and ‘Babo 73.‘ By the 1970s, Downey Sr. ventured into larger-budget productions, directing movies like ‘Greaser’s Palace.‘
Downey Sr. had three marriages. His first wife was actress Elsie Ann Ford, whom he married in 1962. They had two children: Allyson, born in 1963, and Robert Downey Jr., born in 1965. After their divorce in 1975, Downey Sr. married actress-writer Laura Ernst. She passed away on Jan. 27, 1994. His third wife was author Rosemary Rogers, and they got married in 1998.
Family members often visited Downey Sr.’s sets. His first wife was featured in several of his projects. Their son, Robert Downey Jr., made his acting debut at the age of five in the 1970 film ‘Pound,’ and starred in seven other movies directed by his father.
His Complex Relationship With Robert Downey Jr.
Both Downey Sr. and Jr. battled drug addictions at different stages of their lives.
Downey Sr., having easy access to drugs due to his industry connections, introduced them to his son at a very young age. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Downey Sr. admitted to giving his son a joint when he was only six:
“We were all sitting around, smoking grass and playing poker down in the old West Village loft, and Robert was staring at me kind of funny — Robert was always an observer of it all, even at a very young age. And I go, ‘You know, you ought to try a little of this instead of drinking.’ I passed him a joint, and suddenly, I knew I had made a terrible, stupid mistake.”
He continued, revealing he and Downey Jr. confronted one another about their issues with addiction:
“Giving a little kid a toke of grass just to be funny. The story keeps getting repeated. By now, you’d think Robert was Jimmy Cliff’s dealer at age 8. I’ll never forgive myself, but Robert and I have dealt with it, and he’s said to me, ‘I’m not a victim, Dad. I don’t blame anybody.'”
Downey Jr., reflecting on their shared experiences, stated:
“When my dad and I would do drugs together, it was like him trying to express his love for me in the only way he knew how.”
As a result of this drug-fueled bond, Downey Jr.’s struggles began in the 1990s, when he faced severe addiction problems and multiple run-ins with the law.
The ‘Iron Man’ actor attributes part of his recovery and sobriety to the support of his wife, Susan Downey. And, despite the difficult past with his father, Downey Jr. refrained from holding any resentment towards him, choosing instead to understand the complexities of their relationship and take responsibility for his own actions.
Downey Sr.’s Legacy and Passing
Downey Sr.’s later years saw him struggling with Parkinson’s disease. He passed away on July 7, 2021, in Manhattan, just 13 days after celebrating his 85th birthday. Robert Downey Jr. commemorated his father’s life on Instagram with a post that read:
“Last night, Dad passed peacefully in his sleep after years of enduring the ravages of Parkinson’s. He was a true maverick filmmaker and remained remarkably optimistic throughout. According to my stepmom’s calculations, they were happily married for just over 2000 years. Rosemary Rogers-Downey, you are a saint, and our thoughts and prayers are with you.”
‘Sr.’ also provides insight into Downey Sr.’s decline due to Parkinson’s Disease and includes one of Downey Jr.’s final visits with his father. Sadly, Downey Sr. passed away during the making of the documentary. You can watch the trailer below.