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Robert Downey Jr.'s arrest won't affect ''Ally McBeal'' -- for now

But the pending drug charges may hurt his other upcoming gigs

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Robert Downey Jr.
Downey Jr: Armando Gallo/Retna

Despite Robert Downey Jr.’s drug related arrest on Saturday, ”Ally McBeal” fans will still be able to enjoy his Tracy and Hepburn chemistry with costar Calista Flockhart — at least until Jan. 15, when the eighth episode Downey Jr. has already shot (at nearly $100,000 each) airs. Beyond that, sources says it’s too soon to tell. The two additional shows Downey, 35, is contracted to do this season are now in limbo. ”He was scheduled to be available to shoot this week,” says a Fox spokesman of the series’ production calendar, which ends for hiatus on Dec. 19, exactly one week before Downey’s arraignment on charges of possessing cocaine and methamphetamines in his Palm Springs, Calif., hotel suite. ”But obviously now we’re not sure.”

Two more shows or not, Downey’s dynamic performance has already rejuvenated — if not ”rehabilitated,” as one critic said — ”Ally” by earning glowing reviews (not to mention an EW cover story) and providing a ratings boost. ”He’s definitely helped. The show is doing much better than I thought it would do,” says Marc Berman, a TV analyst at Mediaweek.com. ”It had gotten pretty bad last year, but I’d say it’s healthy again.” Berman adds that Downey’s recent brush with the law could attract even more curious viewers. ”Now that the press is talking about him so much, his bad publicity could help Fox.”

But Downey’s legal troubles could derail other projects he had planned for next year. The Billy Crystal penned comedy ”American Sweethearts,” costarring Julia Roberts, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and John Cusack, is slated to start production in mid January, a time when Downey may be tied up with court proceedings. Those events could likewise impede the actor’s turn as the ultimate tragic hero, Hamlet, in Mel Gibson’s L.A. stage production of the Bard’s play, also set for January. And it now looks less likely that Downey will earn a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance as an eccentric young book editor in Curtis Hanson’s ”Wonder Boys,” which Paramount rereleased Nov. 8. ”Right now, he certainly doesn’t have the kind of publicity campaign behind him that will get him nominated,” says one top Oscar publicist. ”His people are busy enough as it is.”

If convicted, Downey faces a sentence of 16 months to 3 years, plus an extra year for being a repeat offender, according to criminal defense attorney Bruce Margolin of the L.A. law firm Margolin and Shevin. But Margolin says there’s possible good news for Downey if his lawyers can stall the case. ”California’s legislature just passed Proposition 36, which states that a drug user cannot and will not serve prison time, but instead go into rehab. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take effect until June 2001,” Margolin explains. ”If I were his lawyer, I’d drag the case out until then so he wouldn’t have to go to prison at all.”

While many studios might balk at paying the higher insurance premiums placed on a publicly known drug user like Downey, at least one director says the added cost would be a worthwhile investment. ”There are so many performers who are just okay, but Robert’s exceptional,” says Stuart Baird, who directed Downey in 1998’s action pic ”U.S. Marshals” (Downey violated probation during the 1997 shoot of the film). ”He always brings an inner spark, an intelligence and wit to his characters. Creatively he’s exactly the kind of brilliant actor all directors adore. I’d direct him again in a second.”