Robert Downey Sr., countercultural filmmaker and father of Robert Downey Jr., dies at 85
Robert Downey Sr., the actor and filmmaker who directed nearly a dozen low-budget films in the underground film heyday of the '60s and '70s before kick-starting the career of his son Robert Downey Jr., has died following a battle with Parkinson's disease. Downey Sr.'s wife Rosemary Rogers broke the news of his death to the New York Daily News. He was 85.
"Last night, Dad passed peacefully in his sleep after years of enduring the ravages of Parkinson's," Downey Jr. wrote on Instagram. "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."
Born June 24, 1936, in New York City as Robert Elias Jr., Downey Sr. later changed his name in honor of his stepfather James Downey in order to hide his age when he enlisted in the U.S. Army. After getting out of the Army, Downey Sr. lived with his sister in Greenwich Village. It was there he fell in love with the underground cinema of the time, and soon picked up a camera himself.
In one of his films, No More Excuses, Downey Sr. got footage of himself running onto the field of a New York Yankees game dressed as a Confederate soldier. His most successful production as a director, Putney Swope, was a satire of the advertising world that starred Arnold Johnson as a Black advertising executive who upends his firm after winning a board election no one expected him to achieve. As an actor, Downey Sr. later appeared in films like To Live and Die in L.A. and Magnolia.
Downey Sr. also gave his son his first acting role at age 5, playing a puppy in the surreal 1970 film Pound that featured a cast of human actors playing dogs who are due to get put to sleep (in retrospect it plays like a preview of Downey Jr.'s later role in 2006's The Shaggy Dog). Downey Jr. has often credited his father with first exposing him to drugs at a young age, which made it difficult for Downey Sr. to lecture his son during his much-publicized struggle with addiction.
"I started to read the Enquirer years ago, because that's how I'd know where my son was," Downey Sr. told the Village Voice in 2016. "He's a miracle in that world, for [going clean]. Every time the phone rang after ten o'clock, I thought it was over. I was a druggie myself, so I never told him to stop or whatever. But I said, 'Just don't leave the planet.' He said, 'You have my word.' And he kept it."
Downey Sr. is survived by his son, his daughter Allyson Downey, and Rogers, his third wife.