Robert Downey Jr. returns to Hollywood

By Tricia Johnson
Updated August 18, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

How has Hollywood greeted Robert Downey Jr. after his Aug. 2 release from prison? With open arms — and we mean that literally. Director Robert Altman, who worked with Downey on Short Cuts and The Gingerbread Man, tells of running into the gifted but troubled actor at a chichi Malibu restaurant just three days after he was let out. ”I hugged him,” says Altman, adding that he was astounded by Downey’s buff build. ”He’s like a rock…. I actually grabbed him and touched almost every muscle on his body, and said, ‘You’re going to be Mr. Atlas.’ He said, ‘Well, I didn’t have anything else to do but work out.”’

Downey, of course, had been pumping iron as inmate number P50522 at the state prison of Corcoran, Calif., where he was sent last August on drug charges. But earlier this month, in a surprise ruling, the appeals court set the actor free. So Downey slipped out the prison’s back door (to avoid photographers), had his first meal on the outside (a hamburger), and checked himself into Walden House, a residential drug treatment facility in L.A.

But what of rehabbing Downey’s career? Luckily for the 35-year-old actor, Hollywood is a liberal town that forgives every sin with the possible exception of Battlefield Earth. Witness the flourishing post-scandal careers of Hugh Grant and Eddie Murphy. Even ex-con Christian Slater still finds work. As for Downey — who many Tinseltown types think got a too-harsh sentence (”He’s a victim,” says Altman) — the offers are already pouring in. Just hours after the news of Downey’s release broke, his agent says the phone lines lit up. ”We had about 35 calls [in the first day] inquiring about his availability,” says ICM power broker Ed Limato. ”I’ve had world-class directors calling me about feature films. The response has been extraordinary.” Contrary to previous reports, Limato says Downey wants to start acting ”immediately…. Work is good for him and he knows that.”

Downey — who declined to comment for this article — hasn’t settled on a role, but among the Hollywood players wooing him is the above-mentioned Altman, who wants to cast Downey in his next project, an untitled period piece set in London. Then there’s producer Michael Mailer, who worked with Downey on Black and White and is eyeing the actor for Empire, a Latino crime drama. Scott Rudin, who knows Downey from Wonder Boys, is considering the actor for several upcoming films. ”Anyone with a brain would hire him,” says the producer.

Well, maybe not anyone. Despite his obvious talent (including an Oscar nomination for Chaplin), the publicity bonanza he’d give his first post-prison flick, and the high regard of A-list directors and producers, some studio heads may still be skittish. Downey is, after all, a man who’s battled cocaine and heroin for years, and who once wandered into a stranger’s house and passed out on a child’s bed. ”The hard thing is going to be convincing people who are putting up huge sums of money that there’s not going to be any problems,” says producer Mark Burg (The Gingerbread Man). Downey’s next project will ”probably be with somebody who’s worked with him before and probably more of an independent [project] than a studio one, because studios are more averse to taking risks.” Don Griffin, a director at the National Association of Independent Insurers, estimates that the rate to cover Downey will be more than double that of an actor with a clean record.