As an actor, Robert Downey Jr. has always had good instincts. Sometimes he has them in real life as well. Minutes before he was sentenced to 180 days in the gruff-and-tumble Los Angeles County jail for a parole violation last week, Downey pulled his wife, Deborah Falconer, close to him, cradled her, kissed her on the cheek and then the lips. Perhaps he sensed he wouldn’t be returning home from the Malibu County courtroom that day.
He was right. On Dec. 8, Judge Lawrence Mira sent the drug-plagued actor, 32, directly to jail for violating the conditions of his parole during a late-September binge. But the judge didn’t stop there. While severely chastising the actor for being ”willing to endure so much pain and turmoil in your life,” Mira zinged the industry that employs Downey. ”It may be the very business you are in that is conducive to you continuing this lifestyle,” said the judge in his verdict.
Hollywood’s response had just as much zing. ”The judge did the wrong thing,” says James Toback, the first to hire Downey (for the upcoming Two Girls and a Guy) when he was released from rehab last January. ”I’m not saying he didn’t have good intentions…. But Robert needs another kind of help. He does not need to be humiliated and tortured.” Terry Press, head of marketing and publicity for DreamWorks, for which Downey just finished a yet-to-be-titled Neil Jordan film, believes the imprisonment will have no repercussions on Downey’s career: ”Remember, Robert Mitchum was in jail for drugs, and he had a career,” notes Press. ”And that was a much different time. I don’t think his castability will be ruined, because he is a true piece of talent.”
Incredibly, despite the notoriety surrounding his August 1996 no-contest plea on charges including cocaine and heroin possession, carrying a concealed weapon, and driving under the influence, the Oscar-nominated actor has had no shortage of roles. Since leaving court-ordered rehab in January, he has made four films almost back-to-back: In addition to the Jordan and Toback films, there’s Robert Altman‘s The Gingerbread Man and the Fugitive spin-off U.S. Marshals.
Until Downey fell off the wagon in what’s being obliquely described as a personal crisis during a September break from U.S. Marshals, his lawyers maintain he was and has since been substance free. Accompanied on all his sets by a court-appointed drug counselor, Downey passed weekly and sometimes daily drug tests and engendered support among his coworkers. But in light of Mira’s damning statements, should Hollywood make a more concerted effort to look after one of its own? Singer Rick James, who’s been in Downey’s shoes, says it’s a matter of personal responsibility. ”He’s got to grow up. There are plenty of people in L.A. who don’t do drugs,” says James, who declares he was scared straight while serving more than two years on assault and drug-related charges at California’s Folsom Prison. ”Jail’s probably the best thing for Robert. The only next step he has is institutionalization or death.”