How Robert Downey Jr Went From Addict To Highest Paid Hollywood Star

When you hear the words “addict” and “Hollywood” in the same sentence, chances are Robert Downey Jr comes to mind.

From spending time in prison, and being unemployed, broke, and alone, to one of the highest paid actors of all time

Robert Downey Jr is living testament to what is possible once you sober up.

And it all started, believe it or not, after a lousy hamburger.

I’m gonna tell you all about it, including who was the one person who inspired Downey to kick his addiction – coming right up. 

Who Is Robert Downey Jr?

So nowadays, Robert Downey Jr is easily one of the biggest Hollywood stars. Certainly among the highest paid ones.

Just for his role in 2018’s Avengers: Infinity Wars, he ended up earning around 75 million dollars. 

In one interview he mentioned that production studios view his salary not as an actor’s compensation, but as a strategic cost.

His net worth today stands at 300 million dollars. This puts him ahead of the likes of Bruce Willis, Leonardo Di Caprio and Harrison Ford.

Pretty impressive considering he had to come back from the brink of unemployment and bankruptcy, which I’ll come to shortly.

Now, Downey Jr. comes from an acting family, and started acting himself when he was only 5. 

If you’re into your 80s movies, you probably remember him from films like Weird Science, or The Pick-Up Artist.

In 1992, his performance in Chaplin earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor

…and the sky appeared to be the limit for the young actor. 

Robert Downey JR’s Downfall

This all started to fall apart in 1996, when he had the first of several run-ins with the law.

In June of that year he was arrested for felony possession of cocaine and heroin after the cops searched his car on a speeding violation. They also found a loaded gun in the car.

The next month, the police arrested him again after he bizarrely slipped into a neighbor’s house and passed out in the bedroom.

He was arrested yet again the next month and sentenced to three years’ probation after pleading no-contest.

He eventually spent 4 months in county jail in 1998

The following year, after missing multiple drug tests as part of his probation, his luck finally ran out, and he was sentenced to three-years in prison.

In sentencing him the judge said: I don’t think we have any alternatives. We have used them all.

 After time already served and allowances for good behavior, he ended up serving only a year in Corcoran State Prison.

While in prison, he worked five days a week in the canteen. His eight cents an hour job included doling out food, washing dishes and scraping pans.

When he got out, he went straight back to acting, this time in the television series Ally McBeal. But by that point, he admits he hated acting and was just going through the motions.

Along with acting, Downey also went straight back to drinking and doing drugs. Finding the drugs wasn’t that difficult, as he had stashed away a handsome supply before getting locked up.

Over the next few months, he was arrested again for possession and other violations on multiple occasions.

And he was very lucky to escape a new prison sentence. 

The only reason was the passing in California of Proposition 36, in the year 2000. With proposition 36, non-violent drug offenders would spend their time in drug treatment programs rather than prison.

By that time, however, Hollywood has had enough

After yet another drug-related arrest in July 2001, the producers of Ally McBeal quickly fired Downey and rewrote the script to the remaining episodes. 

At this point his wife had also had enough. She left him, taking their only son with him.

Just to make matters worse, Downey had unpaid taxes and was on the brink of bankruptcy.

His prospects of sorting out his finances were also bleak. Not only did Hollywood not trust him anymore, but his insurance premiums to work on a movie were now prohibitively high. 

His acting days appeared to be over, and he was the poster boy for wasted potential.

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What started Downey’s addiction problem

We’ll get to the story about Downey’s recovery shortly. But first, I want us to take a closer look at how he developed his addiction in the first place.

Unsurprisingly, his parents also had addiction issues, and Downey grew up in an environment where alcohol and illicit substances were rife. 

Believe it or not, his father allowed him to try cannabis when he was only 8 years.

This was obviously in the form of a joke, but was something his dad would come to regret bitterly over the years.

In Downey Jr’s words:

“There was always a lot of pot and coke around… When my dad and I would do drugs together, it was like him trying to express his love for me in the only way he knew how.”

He talks about being regularly drunk as a child and teenager, also making “thousands of phone calls” to score some drugs.

In 1987, he played the role of a junkie in the film Less Than Zero. His character’s addiction spirals out of control, leading to debts, being disowned from his wealthy family, and eventually death. 

Ironically, that film accelerated his own addiction problems

Several years later, Downey would describe his time on the set of that film. Quote:

Until that movie, I took my drugs after work and on the weekends. Maybe I’d turn up hungover on the set, but no more so than the stuntman. That changed on Less Than Zero. I was playing this junkie and, for me, the role was like the ghost of Christmas future. The character was an exaggeration of myself. Then things changed and, in some ways, I became an exaggeration of the character.”

In 1993, after getting married for the first time, Downey promised his wife he would clean up, but that only lasted a year. 

By 1995 he had switched from cocaine to heroin and was drinking more than ever. Excluding his time behind bars, his drinking and drug habits would go on for the next 8 years.

The turning point

So we come finally to 2003, when Downey would turn his life around forever.

That same year, on the set of the movie Gothika, he would meet his future wife, Susan Levin

Susan gave him an ultimatum: sober up or say goodbye.

According to the famous actor:

“The old saying is true – behind every good man there’s an incredible woman. I owe a huge amount – if not all – of my success to Susan. We make a great team”.

In another interview he said: 

“Whatever I was hungry for when I met Susan, I couldn’t have known how much more satisfying what I got would be.”

Now, Susan’s influence and ultimatum were certainly the central element to his recovery. 

But believe it or not, the straw that broke the camel’s back was some nasty tasting fast-food.

In an interview with Britain’s Empire magazine, Downey recounted the very last day he used drugs in 2003.

As he told the story, he was driving a car piled up with quote “tons of f#cking dope”, when he pulled over for a burger. He went on:

“I have to thank Burger King. It was such a disgusting burger I ordered. I had that, and this big soda, and I thought something really bad was going to happen.”

He tossed all his drugs in the ocean, and that was it. He never used again.

Alongside his wife’s support, Downey also credits his sobriety to a combination of 12-step programs, meditation and martial arts.

But above all, he says the most important thing is making the decision to stop. Once you decide that and reach out for help, the rest will follow.

His drinking days over, Downey still had a dead acting career to revive.

Fortunately for him, his colleague and friend Mel Gibson personally underwrote Downey’s liability insurance.

This meant that if Downey relapsed again and made a mess of production, Gibson himself would be on the hook for the insurance payout. 

Talk about having a good friend when you need one.

Gibson’s intervention allowed him to start taking Hollywood roles again, though at pennies compared to what he was previously making.

Over the next 5 years he collected modest pay checks to appear in films like A Scanner Darkly and Zodiac.

In 2008 he agreed to take the lead role in Marvel’s Iron Man for a mere 500 thousand dollars. The movie shattered all box office expectations, grossing close to 600 million dollars worldwide

That same year he was nominated for a second Academy Award for his role in Tropic Thunder.

And the rest was history.

He and Susan have 2 kids, and spend most of their time in their Hamptons mansion, which is, believe it or not, a restored 19th century windmill house.

His upcoming comedy, All Star Weekend, will see him star alongside Jamie Foxx. There is no release date as of yet. 

Guys I hope you enjoyed today’s article.

Till next time, this was Leon for Soberclear.  



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