With actor Robert running afoul of the law again, has he wrecked his future in Hollywood?

By Dan Snierson
Updated December 08, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

”I definitely feel it. How long, what the half-life of that is, I don’t know… but hey, it’s nice. I’ll enjoy it while it lasts.” That was Robert Downey Jr. in his last interview on Oct. 22, telling EW about the public support for his Hollywood return. But with one ill-fated Thanksgiving-weekend getaway in Palm Springs, Calif., the 35-year-old actor may have exhausted that reservoir of goodwill. After police received an anonymous 911 call — ”I’d just like to let you know that in room 311 of the Merv Griffin Resort there’s a man that is doing an ounce of cocaine, a couple of guns, and he’s pretty upset” — Downey was arrested Nov. 25 and charged with possession of cocaine and methamphetamine, being under the influence of a controlled substance, and committing a felony while out on bail. (No weapons were found.) By the next afternoon, his mug shot — with glazed eyes, disorderly hair, and the hint of a smirk — had triggered a nauseating wave of déja vu.

Since his August release from prison (where he served a year on drug-related charges), the actor seemed to be navigating a warm-fuzzy return to stability, if not glory. He helped resurrect Ally McBeal from its creative doldrums, garnering Emmy buzz for his extended guest stint as smug yet soulful lawyer Larry Paul. And the Chaplin Oscar nominee is drawing raves for playing Michael Douglas’ loony book editor in Wonder Boys. He’s also signed up to star in Julia Roberts’ America’s Sweethearts and to tackle Hamlet on stage in L.A., directed by his Air America pal Mel Gibson.

Recovery seemed equally within reach off camera. Downey’s camp said he chose Ally in part because of David E. Kelley’s 12-step-friendly, familylike environment. Moreover, he’d been participating in rigorous counseling and even voluntarily submitting to frequent and random drug testing. But somehow, somewhere, sometime along the road to wellville, things apparently flew off track. Director James Toback, who last saw him two months ago to record DVD commentary on 1998’s Two Girls and a Guy, reports the actor was in ”great shape.” However, notes Toback, ”I’ve been trying to reach him for three weeks to tell him about a movie, and the only thing that disturbed me was it was tough getting in touch with him — which usually means there might be a problem.”

Those who know Downey downplay speculation that the rigors of TV production — and his quick return to work — may have overwhelmed him. ”Actually, I wish he was at work over the Thanksgiving weekend,” says one source close to Downey. ”I don’t think we’d be having this conversation. He seemed to be really good when he was working. He hasn’t had any problems — up until this past weekend.”

Details remain sketchy about this now-notorious weekend, but this much is certain: On Nov. 18, three days after wrapping preholiday work on Ally, he appeared with castmates at the opening of an L.A. pet boutique and a House of Blues concert. He booked reservations at Merv Griffin’s Resort Hotel & Givenchy Spa Nov. 22 just hours before checking into a nearly $600-a-night bungalow alone. According to hotel general manager Heidi Geier, his pre-arrest stay was unremarkable. He received spa treatments, including a massage, though he was a no-show after inquiring if there was room for him at the resort’s Thanksgiving dinner. During his arrest two nights later, ”he was just very quiet, very sad-looking,” says Geier. She packed up the actor’s belongings after his arrest, and denied reports of a Wonder Woman costume in the room. (Police are still investigating tips that a woman left his room shortly before the arrest, the identity of the male 911 caller — and whether Downey was set up, as Liz Smith has suggested.)

Downey posted $15,000 bail the next morning; he is set to be arraigned Dec. 27 in Indio, Calif. — an odd coincidence given that his 7-year-old son is also named Indio. Once again, he set aside the prospect of prison — this time, reportedly more than six years — and returned to the Ally set Nov. 28 to begin shooting his last two contracted episodes. His future schedule is being determined day by day. As for Sweethearts, Revolution Films’ Tom Sherak hopes Downey can be ready by the firm Jan. 10 start date. ”The first thing we’re thinking about is him and what to do from there,” Sherak says. ”All you can do is watch and wait now.”

Downey’s publicist insists his client will meet all commitments. But lining up future ones could be more complicated given the added liability for the insurers who underwrite productions. Says Two Girls producer Michael Mailer: ”Listen, there are going to be very few people willing to take chances on him, even in a lesser capacity, with this recent problem.”

Indeed, PR damage control and insurance woes are the least of it for someone battling a cold, hard reality — that recovery is a minute-by-minute struggle. Just six weeks ago Downey told EW, ”Last night, when I got out of the shower and my hair had dried, I looked in the mirror and I was like, ‘Man, that’s a lot of gray going on up in there.’ Between August and now, one would have thought it would have been… uplifting to the very DNA level. But [the gray hair has] been coming on even more. That’s the thing, man…. Life is — it’s a full-time job.” And the job just got a lot harder.

Additional reporting by Tricia Johnson and Brian M. Raftery