In 2000, Robert Downey, Jr made eight cents an hour, working from prison. In 2015, he banked eighty million dollars. Assuming a forty-hour workweek, that’s an increase of 480,769%. It’s safe to say it’s unlikely that anyone reading these words will experience a similar range of salaries over the course of their career.
The eighty million actually isn’t all that difficult to understand; anyone who’s seen a Downey film can attest to his on-screen magnetism. He’s gifted with sardonic wit, perfect timing, and an earnestness that’s worked for characters from Charlie Chaplin to Iron Man. It’s the eight cents in prison part. That’s what we can’t wrap our heads around. In what possible universe could Downey, who once rubbed shoulders with Sean Penn and Johnny Depp, find himself living with four other inmates in Cell 17?
The way Downey talks, it seems almost inevitable. The son of a movie director, he was exposed to drugs early and often. By 1987, he was approaching stardom when he appeared in an adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s book Less than Zero; in the film, Downey portrays an addict in a role that he now admits “for me…was like the ghost of Christmas future.”
He attempted rehab; it didn’t work. But his acting chops kept turning heads, and the job offers kept getting better. Chaplin (1992) earned him an Oscar nomination; then things started falling apart, and fast:
A routine speeding ticket revealed drugs and a firearm in the vehicle. He wandered into a neighbor’s unlocked home and passed out. Court-ordered rehab commenced; Downey escaped from rehab and was quickly captured. He skipped a mandatory drug test and was sentenced to 180 days in county jail, where he was injured in an inmate altercation. After release, he skipped another drug test and was sentenced to three years.
Two things broke the cycle: in 2003, Mel Gibson put his own bank account on the line to cast Downey in The Singing Detective. And Downey met Susan, who would become his wife. The couple met on the set of Gothika, and were married within two years. However, the engagement came with one condition: prior to the wedding, Downey had to be clean.
He threw himself into sobriety the same way he throws himself into his roles: wholeheartedly and with abandon. Twelve years later, the dividends are pouring in. This month, Downey appeared in Spider-Man: Homecoming, effectively kicking off a new franchise and setting the Marvel Universe up for another decade of box office dominance.
Somehow, in the middle of re-inventing billion-dollar comic book franchises, Downey still finds time to share the lessons of his sobriety. According to a close friend, Downey is “active in the Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous community in Malibu,…from attending meetings, being an active sponsor to several people, and buying cakes for members’ sobriety milestones, Bob is living the program everyday. It’s something intensely personal and private for Bob, and he doesn’t do it for the press.”
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