The stunning transformation of Robert Downey Jr.

He's best known around the world today as Iron Man, but Robert Downey Jr. has quite the backstory. From his troubled childhood to his battles with addiction, this father of three has seen it all and managed to come back to become one of Hollywood's most bankable stars. Even if you think you know his history, you'll probably be surprised by parts of the stunning transformation of Robert Downey Jr.

Childhood drug use

A New Yorker by birth, Robert Downey Jr., and his older sister, Alison, were raised by their parents, actress, Elsie Ann, and actor/filmmaker, Robert Downey Sr. The actor's childhood was anything but ordinary. Unfortunately, his mother was caught up in drugs and alcohol.

His father also struggled with drug addiction and allowed Downey Jr. to try marijuana at just 6 or 7 years old. Over time, the pair would bond during these moments. As the star explained, "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."

The Comedian

As a teen, he started attending the Stagedoor Manor Performing Arts Training Center just as his parents' marriage broke down. After they split, his father moved to California and for several years, Downey Jr. bounced between the east and west coast until finally settling in with roommate, Kiefer Sutherland, in Hollywood for three years.

After taking on theater roles in off-Broadway shows, he was hired as part of a fresh, younger crew on Saturday Night Live. While the entire season was panned, Downey Jr., who was barely 20 at the time, was singled out by Rolling Stone as the worst SNL cast member in the history of the show.  

Fortunately, while he narrowly missed being cast as Duckie in Pretty in Pink, he had other projects on the horizon and found his way into lighthearted '80s classics such as Weird Science, Back to School, and The Pick-Up Artist.

"Chaplin" changed the game

With his credibility growing in the industry, Downey Jr. was trusted with meatier roles in films such as Less Than Zero, Air America, and Soapdish. His solid performances helped earn him the role that would fully establish him as an incredible actor.  

Downey Jr. was given the opportunity to portray Hollywood icon, Charlie Chaplin, and he took the preparation very seriously. He learned to play the violin and tennis with his left hand, enlisted the help of a coach to perfect Chaplin's signature walk and demeanor, and was even rewarded by being nominated for an Academy Award for his performance.

Failed relationships and fatherhood

During an appearance on the Howard Stern Show, Sarah Jessica Parker discussed seeing Downey Jr.  so long after their eight-year relationship ended and explained, "It was really nice. It was surprisingly not weird [to get together]. I guess you spend so many years with someone ― we were 18 when we met ― and fundamentally we're sort of the same. I think the difference is he has a family and a wife and obviously his career is a massive thing, but I think his true nature — it was completely familiar."  

When Downey Jr.  was asked about the downfall of their romance, he openly admitted, "I was so selfish. I liked to drink, and I had a drug problem, and that didn't jibe with Sarah Jessica, because it is the furthest thing from what she is. She provided me a home and understanding. She tried to help me. She was so miffed when I didn't get my act together."

Eventually, Downey Jr. moved on. After just 42 days of dating, he married singer/actress, Deborah Falconer, in 1992. Two years later, the couple welcomed their son, Indio Falconer Downey. Unfortunately, Downey Jr. 's stints in rehab and jail led to their divorce in 2004, with Falconer claiming custody of their son.

Serious trouble

Between 1996 and 2001, Downey Jr.  spent a lot of time in the company of law enforcement. With charges stemming from possession of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and even a handgun the actor eventually explained to a judge in 1999, "It's like I have a shotgun in my mouth, and I've got my finger on the trigger, and I like the taste of the gun metal."  

At one point, while under the influence, Downey Jr. entered a neighbor's home and fell asleep in one of their beds. The court determined he needed to undergo regular drug testing while fulfilling three years of probation. When he missed one of the mandatory tests, he served six months in the Los Angeles County jail.

Sadly, Downey Jr. 's downward spiral only continued. After missing another drug test, he was sentenced to three years in prison at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison in Corcoran, California. While he was allowed to finish filming In Dreams before reporting for incarceration, he was fired as the voice actor for the animated show, God, The Devil, and Bob.

Ally McBeal

Unexpectedly in 2000, after just a year in prison, he was released early after a judge determined that he had spent enough time behind bars. He posted $5,000 in bail and, a week later, was cast as a love interest on the hit show Ally McBeal.  

Not surprisingly, his performance was acclaimed and he was not only nominated for an Emmy Award in the Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series category but actually won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor in a mini-series or television film. Unfortunately, Downey Jr. felt the praise was undeserved and said, "It was my lowest point in terms of addictions. At that stage, I didn't give a [expletive] whether I ever acted again."

Despite the fact that he was arrested over the 2000 Thanksgiving holiday weekend in his hotel room for drug possession, Ally McBeal producers planned to extend his appearances on the show since he had boosted the sagging ratings so much.

More lessons to learn

While on parole in April 2001, Downey Jr. was found wandering shoeless around Culver City and was arrested on suspicion of being under the influence of drugs. Despite being taken into custody, he was released just a few hours later but the damage was done — Downey Jr. was written out of Ally McBeal.  

Around the same time, California passed Proposition 36 which directed non-violent drug offenders to rehabilitation efforts instead of more jail time. This helped to keep Downey Jr. from being sent back to jail. There were also reports that he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression but he shot down these claims. Instead, he maintained, "The guy I was seeing didn't know I was smokin' crack in his bathroom. You can't make a diagnosis until somebody's sober."

Crawling his way back

Finally, after so many years of cycling through the system, Downey Jr. became stable enough to work again. He sat down with Oprah Winfrey in 2004 and explained, "When someone says, 'I really wonder if maybe I should go to rehab?' Well, uh, you're a wreck, you just lost your job, and your wife left you. Uh, you might want to give it a shot." Facing the possibility of more jail time, he decided he couldn't do it anymore and concluded, "It's not that difficult to overcome these seemingly ghastly problems…what's hard is to decide to do it."  

Understandably, casting agents were wary, so his first real job after completing rehab was to lip-sync to Elton John's single, "I Want Love" in his music video. As a follow-up, Mel Gibson, with whom he had been close since they co-starred in Air America cast him in The Singing Detective after having to pay his insurance bond.

After that, the roles started coming in and, over the next few years, he appeared in Gothika (with producer, Joel Silver, withholding almost half of Downey Jr. 's salary until the film wrapped), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Goodnight and Good Luck.

Second chance at love

As his career began to recover, Downey Jr. also found love. The actor met producer, Susan Levin, in 2003 on the set of Gothika. During production, their relationship grew despite the fact that she had turned him down several times.  

When the film wrapped, Levin expected their fling to come to an end but, really, it was only the beginning. Then, on the eve of her 30th birthday, Downey Jr.  proposed and in August 2005, the pair were married in a Jewish ceremony.

The couple are now raising their son, Exton, born in 2012, and daughter, Avri, born in 2014, as they run their company Team Downey Jr. together. On Instagram, Downey Jr. wished his wife a happy birthday and wrote, "It takes a confident woman to partner up with a big headed fella…Susan Downey, I'm grateful you were born."

He stood by Mel Gibson

Having co-starred in Air America, Downey Jr. had become close friends with fellow actor, Mel Gibson. When Downey Jr. 's drug history made him, basically, uninsurable, Gibson was in his corner. 

When Gibson made headlines for making anti-Semetic statements during a 2006 DUI arrest, Downey Jr.  reminded people that nobody's perfect and explained, "He was one of the first people to call and offer the hand of friendship. He just said, 'Hey, welcome to the club. Let's go see what we can do to work on ourselves.'"

When Downey Jr. was recognized for his life's work at the 25th American Cinematheque Awards, he asked Gibson to be the presenter. During his acceptance speech, Downey Jr. said, "I humbly ask that you join me — unless you are completely without sin, and in which case you picked the wrong [expletive] industry — in forgiving my friend his trespasses, offering him the same clean slate you have me and allowing him to continue his great and ongoing contribution to our collective art without shame."

Iron Man

When Marvel Studios hatched the plan to release Iron Man, they were not looking for an actor with a troubled past. Director, Jon Favreau, fought for Downey Jr. and explained, "Even when there was resistance, Robert said, I will do whatever it takes, will hang in there, fight for this thing. It came down to Robert offering to do a screen test. And once we rolled the camera it was inarguable. There was nobody who could say he was not Iron Man."  

Downey Jr. took preparation for the role very seriously. Once cast, he focused on making sure he was in great shape while acknowledging his personal shortcomings. To transform into a superhero, Downey Jr. cut back on cardio, consumed 5,000 calories a day and focused on weight lifting and Bruce Lee's Wing Chun technique. "I'm not particularly tall, strong, fast, or aggressive," Downey Jr. explained to Men's Health. "But I'm not faking it. I'm not a kid and I'm not a professional athlete."

His beef with Terrence Howard

As Iron Man and Colonel James "Rhodey" Rhodes, Downey Jr. and Terrence Howard were amazing. The chemistry between them was phenomenal and the movie absolutely exploded at the box-office. When it was revealed Howard was being replaced by Don Cheadle for Iron Man 2, many were shocked.  

Howard, who went on to become the star of FOX's hit show, Empire, alleged, "It turns out that the person that I helped become Iron Man, when it was time to… re-up for the second one took the money that was supposed to go to me and pushed me out. We did a three-picture deal… They came to me (for) the second and said, 'We will pay you one-eighth of what we contractually had for you, because we think the second one will be successful with or without you.' And I called my friend that I helped get the first job, and he didn't call me back for three months."

In response, Downey Jr. said, "I had nothing to do with that decision. I love Terrence very very much. That's all I'll say because I haven't talked to him yet… It's one of those situations where I still don't quite know what happened or why."

Fortunately, it seems the men have mended their relationship and are "all good."

Sherlock Holmes

With his career firmly rebooted, Downey Jr. was able to take on lighter, more comedic roles in films such as Tropic Thunder (for which he earned an Academy Award nomination) and Due Date. Still, audiences had come to love him as an action star so it seemed like a natural fit when he was able to combine a bit from both genres.  

Downey Jr. dazzled viewers with his performance in Sherlock Holmes and the on-set comments were incredibly different than from just a few short years earlier. As Jared Harris (who played Holmes' nemesis, Moriarty) explained, "He wants people around him to do their best work. Sometimes you run into these things where people aren't like that, maybe they're insecure. He's not insecure about talent at all. He wants other people to raise their game. I loved it. I really enjoyed working with him. I can't say enough highly about him. I think he's very special."

Of his co-star, Jude Law, and director, Guy Ritchie, Downey Jr. himself revealed, "Well, Jude and I are pretty close, and Guy and I are practically brothers, which makes things really interesting. There have been times when I've wanted to lop off his head with a machete, but it's just because I love him so much."

Pardon me

After years of sobriety and hard work, Downey Jr., along with 91 other people, received a pardon for his past crimes by California Governor Jerry Brown on Christmas Eve 2015. The decision was made due to the fact that many of his offenses are no longer considered felonies under California law and he has "lived an honest and upright life, exhibited good moral character, and conducted himself as a law-abiding citizen" in the years since his last arrest.  

Of his time in lockup, Downey Jr. explained, "Job one is get out of that cave. A lot of people do get out but don't change. So the thing is to get out and recognize the significance of that aggressive denial of your fate, come through the crucible forged into a stronger metal. Or whatever. But I don't even know if that was my experience. It's funny: five years ago, I would've made it sound like I'm conscious of my own participation in seizing the similarities. But so many things have become less certain. I swear to God. I am not my story."

Supporting his son

Downey Jr.'s then 20-year-old son, Indio, was charged with felony cocaine possession. He posted $10,000 bail and his famous father commented on the situation saying, "Unfortunately there's a genetic component to addiction and Indio has likely inherited it. Also, there is a lot of family support and understanding, and we're all determined to rally behind him and help him become the man he's capable of being."  

After completing a 20-month rehab program, Indio's charges were dismissed, and Downey Jr. took to social media to praise him and shared, "Congrats are in order for my firstborn, and I'm proud to oblige. Having braved the crucible of addiction (and pleased the court), his ongoing commitment to recovery continues to inspire and amaze."

He loved his father

Despite the fact that it was his own father who introduced him to drugs, Downey Jr. clearly loved him. During an interview with Vanity Fair, he was asked about his dad and his face lit up before saying, "If you recall, the first round of really cool head-shop T-shirts — forget the Scott Baio tuxedo shirt — I'm talking about the Superman logo. I remember walking around the Village with my dad wearing a Superman shirt. We also had a prop king's chair, a throne, that he would sit in… he was a big guy, tall, dark, handsome—all that stuff."  

Downey Jr. has also described his father as being "revered," and added, "I mean, I grew up with people saying, 'Hey, that's Bob Downey's kid' — and understandably so… He was a great innovator and a heck of a filmmaker."

King of Marvel

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is rich and growing but we can't forget that it really all began with Downey Jr.'s performance in the first Iron Man movie. It's a pretty amazing legacy, especially if you consider how far he's had to come to get to this level of success.  

After almost 10 years in the role, he has appeared in Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and is expected to continue portraying Tony Stark for, at least, a couple more movies.

He has, however, made it clear that he will leave the role when he feels he no longer has the energy or stamina it deserves. "Everyone says to me it's like a glove that fits so well," he explained after seeing Tom Holland's youthful performance in Spider-Man: Homecoming. "I have to start over every time but I am starting over with a pretty solid base… I just want to hang up my jersey before it's embarrassing."

Fortunately, considering his dedication and talent, we probably have a while before that happens.