The untold truth of Robert Downey Jr.

Robert Downey Jr. is easily one of Hollywood's most beloved movie stars. With a remarkable career spanning five decades, the actor's undeniable talent and charisma have solidified his place within the pop cultural zeitgeist three times over — no big deal. In the decade following his iconic turn as Charlie Chaplin in 1992's Chaplin, Downey's personal demons infamously played out in the public eye, making him as well known for his notorious lifelong struggle with drug addiction as for his on-screen work. However, his journey toward sobriety led to the comeback of all comebacks. By the late 2000s, Downey relaunched his career with fan-favorite performances as Tony Stark/Iron Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and as Sherlock Holmes in Guy Ritchie's movie trilogy.

The industry vet and so-called "Godfather" of the MCU has long been hailed as one of the greatest actors of his generation, and he became the third highest-paid actor in 2018. To boot, basically everyone loves working with him. Think you know everything there is to know about this Avengers star? Keep scrolling to find out the untold truth of Robert Downey Jr.

His unconventional upbringing

Robert Downey Jr. grew up at the center of the 1970s avant-garde scene with two eclectic parents who struggled with drug and alcohol addiction: writer-actress mother Elsie Ford and filmmaker father Robert Downey Sr. (via ABC News and The Washington Post). The future celeb caught the acting bug at the age of 5 when he made his on-screen debut in his dad's movie, Pound. However, junior's showbiz education also included invites to wild parties, where papa Downey infamously let him try marijuana for the first time at just 6 or 7 years old, according to Vanity Fair.

The arts were such a major part of Downey Jr.'s admittedly unusual — and at times troubled — upbringing that becoming an actor felt like a no-brainer. During his 2016 interview with Off Camera with Sam Jones, the movie star said, "I don't know if I ever really had that thought that this is what I'm going to do. It never occurred to me to do anything else."

High school dropout

While frequently moving around for his parents' various projects, Robert Downey Jr. learned his craft in a number of major cities. Speaking with Vanity Fair, the actor explained that he studied ballet in London, trained in acting at NYC's Stagedoor Manor Performing Arts Training Center, and performed in high school theater productions in Santa Monica, Calif. during this "peripatetic" time of his life. With showbiz running in his blood, Downey eventually dropped out of school altogether to pursue an acting career (via CNN).

However, that doesn't mean success came quickly to the up-and-coming talent, who lived as a struggling artist in the early '80s. "I had a bunch of regular jobs," he said on The Graham Norton Show in 2011. Explaining that he made ends meet by working in sales and restaurants, Downey quipped, "I told all my friends that I was going to be hugely successful and that they should just really keep an eye out for me 'cause I was going places — and that if they needed me, I'd be bussing tables at the restaurant down the street."

He lasted just one season on Saturday Night Live

Comedy nerds most likely know that the 11th season of Saturday Night Live totally bombed in the mid-'80s, but not everyone realizes that Robert Downey Jr. was part of that ill-fated cast (via The Hollywood Reporter). Thirty years later, Rolling Stone placed him last in a ranking of the sketch comedy series' cast members, noting, "Robert Downey Jr. is a comic genius. Making him unfunny stands as SNL's most towering achievement in terms of sucking ... But he met his Kryptonite, and it was SNL, where he spent the 1985-1986 season sucking up a storm." Yikes!

To be fair to a 20-year-old Downey, the entire cast's chemistry seemed non-existent and the show's writing quality suffered that year. However, his fate was clearly written on the wall, and he was ultimately among those fired at the end of the season. If you dare to see a young Robert Downey Jr. in comedy action, some of the his SNL sketches have been immortalized on the internet, including this appearance on "Weekend Update."

The double-edged results of Less than Zero

Following his failed attempt in TV, Robert Downey Jr. found success on the big screen with notable performances in Rodney Dangerfield's Back to School and Brat Pack movies such as Weird Science and The Pick-up Artist. However, his heartbreaking and nuanced portrayal of drug addict Julian Wells in 1987's Less than Zero is what eventually put him on the map — albeit at great personal cost. The film won Downey critical acclaim from the likes of The New York Times, but the role exacerbated his own lifelong struggle with addiction.

"Until that movie, I took my drugs after work and on the weekends ... That changed on Less Than Zero," Downey told The Guardian in 2003. He added, "The character was an exaggeration of myself. Then things changed and, in some ways, I became an exaggeration of the character. That lasted far longer than it needed to last." The movie star's notorious battle with drug abuse battle would spiral into multiple rehab stints and time in prison. According to Harper's Bazaar, Downey finally kicked the habit for good in July 2003.

He dated Sarah Jessica Parker

During the late '80s, Downey was romantically linked with another up-and-coming star: Sex and the City alum Sarah Jessica Parker. The former couple got together after meeting on the set of the 1984 drama Firstborn but called it quits in 1991 over the actor's worsening drug addiction. "We were at a very conservative relationship concerning the fact that she was normal and I was out of my mind," the Marvel star confessed on The Howard Stern Show in 2016 (via Entertainment Tonight). "I did the best I could."

Not long after their breakup, Downey tied the knot with actress-singer Deborah Falconer following a 42-day courtship in 1992, according to The Hollywood Reporter. After welcoming son Indio a year later, the duo separated for the same reason and finalized its divorce in 2004. Around that time, Downey found love again with producer Susan Downey (née Levin), whom he met while filming Gothika in 2003. He credits her for his sobriety, reported Harper's Bazaar. The cute pair got hitched two years later (via People), and have since welcomed son Exton Elias (born in 2012) and daughter Avri Roel (born in 2014). For those wondering, yes, the Downeys are total #RelationshipGoals.

He leans on Eastern philosophy

During his recovery from addiction, Robert Downey Jr. began studying Eastern philosophy, practicing meditation, and learning Wing Chun Kung Fu, according to The Guardian. These physical and spiritual practices have not only come in handy during fight sequences as both Tony Stark/Iron Man and as Sherlock Holmes, but most, the pursuits offered the embattled actor a renewed outlook on life, as well as a sense of stability while keeping his demons at bay.  

"[Wing Chun] gives you a sense of comfort and self-defense," Downey revealed on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2004. "It improves your focus. It just does so many things. It makes you feel you're a part of something you respect." He later told Men's Journal, "This is all about focus. Wing Chun teaches you what to concentrate on, whether you're here or out in the world dealing with problems. It's second nature for me now. I don't even get to the point where there's a problem."

He collects watches

Robert Downey Jr.'s extravagant watch collection is so impressive that GQ devoted a portion of his 2016 profile to it. "I've always felt like you can learn a lot about a man if he opens up his jewelry box," he jokingly says in the magazine's accompanying video clip. As Downey goes through each watch, he reveals the special memory or unique story each one holds, including a $92,000 Jaeger-LeCoultre piece worn in Iron Man 2; a priceless, vintage Baume & Mercier owned by his grandfather; and a $33,200 Patek Philippe Nautilus given to him as a birthday gift from his wife, Susan.

In addition to fine watches, Downey used to collect Iron Man memorabilia. Most of that he has since given away to kids. "I like crystals and stones," he told GQ, explaining that they're like "tangible little batteries of energy." The actor added, "I like vintage cars. But I can't really say I have what would be considered a collection. You know what I collect? I collect the beginnings of collections, and then I lose interest."

He loves Chris Evans as much as we do

The sky is blue. Water is wet. And Robert Downey Jr. loves Marvel co-star Chris Evans as much as we do. "At the root of it, he has true humility," Downey told The Hollywood Reporter in 2019. He added, "People love to say — and I'll eat it up — that I'm kind of the progenitor of this whole [Avengers] universe. But if you want to talk about it in terms of team building, and you want to talk about it as the most successful creative relay race in the history of cinema, he was the critical leg."

Of course, the feeling is 100 percent mutual. When asked who he'd consider to be his mentor at the 2018 ACE Comic Con, Evans said, "It's low-hanging fruit to say Downey" (via ComicBook.com). He went on to call Downey "irreplaceable" in the MCU, adding, "He's such a wonderful guy and is so talented, so experienced, and so supportive. He really just opens his arms. And it sounds so cheesy, but he makes it a family and none of this would happen without him." We're not crying, you are!

He's no Tony Stark when it comes to technology

He may be best known as genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist Tony Stark, but Robert Downey, Jr. isn't as big on technology as this on-screen superhero. "I am like those guys that dressed up like chimpanzees in the opening sequence of A Space Odyssey," he jokingly told GQ in 2016. "People who can type, they're like Merlin." He went on to say, "To me, tech ultimately is a distraction from experience. And, look, information is experience. You experience things when you get information. But I'll tend to sub-intentionally misplace my phone or my iPad or whatever multiple times a week."

However, that didn't stop Downey from teasing castmate Chris Evans following his viral Twitter rant about technology in early 2019. "Dear All Technology, Remember the 90's when you just WORKED???" the Captain America star wrote at the time. "I don't need a 'smart' feature on my TV, thermostat, lights, music, refrigerator, security cameras, and f-ing car. You're a major pain in all of our asses. You're not worth it. Signed, Everyone." 

In response, Downey tweeted, "Hey @MarkRuffalo looks like Cap needs a little tutoring from the science bros." To which Hulk actor Mark Ruffalo replied, "Call or DM us whenever you need assistance, @ChrisEvans. Also language." (Have we mentioned we love this cast?)

He's an accomplished singer

Robert Downey Jr. isn't just a renowned actor, he also has a killer set of pipes. In addition to lending his vocal talents on screen during his turn as Larry Paul on Ally McBeal, this multi-hyphenate has jammed onstage with the likes of Sting and Jamie Foxx, and even released his debut album, The Futurist, in 2004. For his part, Downey had mixed feelings about the latter, which featured eight tracks penned by the man himself and an understated cover of Charlie Chaplin's "Smile." 

"Clearly, I have some hesitation in being an actor who puts out an album. But after years of writing songs, it gradually became more real," Downey told The New York Times. Referencing his past issues, the actor-singer added, "No way would I ever get to express myself musically if I wasn't an actor of ill repute ... So yeah, I'm a little bit uncomfortable about it." Unfortunately, the soulful singer-songwriter's only record was neither a critical nor commercial hit. Peaking at just No. 121 on the Billboard 200 chart, the album received mixed reviews.

He's a quiet activist

Robert Downey Jr. may not be as widely known for outspoken political activism as Avengers co-star Mark Ruffalo, but he actually spends a lot of time and energy outside of Tinseltown performing philanthropic work. In addition to visiting kids while assuming the character of Tony Stark, he and wife Susan Downey launched their Random Act Funding foundation in collaboration with Omaze in 2016. The organization is "dedicated to distributing kindness in the form of financial support at a local, national and global level," he announced at the time. "Each year we're gonna band together, select a few different organizations that are really changing the world, and then ... we're gonna grant them funds to achieve amazing things."

This sense of helping others is something Downey has related to the MCU's socio-political impact. While giving a heartfelt speech at the Avengers: Infinity War premiere in 2018, he said that fame is ultimately "meaningless ... unless you use that to achieve something higher" (via Entertainment Weekly). Noting that the MCU is "all about fighting for equality," he added, "[The movies] are inviting us to surrender and love and be of service. They are metaphors for how our world should be — or could be one day, if we fight for it."

RDJ or Tony Stark?

The first Iron Man film became the surprise hit of 2008. The superhero flick received a 93 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, grossed $585 million (via Box Office Mojo), and kicked off what we all know and love as the juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A star was reborn, and as reported by ComicBook.com, the late Marvel co-creator Stan Lee felt Downey was "born to be" Tony Stark. The actor's charismatic public persona has been increasingly compared to his on-screen alter ego. However, there's reason to believe it's simply an act played up to protect himself — at least according to co-star Scarlett Johansson (via Rolling Stone).

Perhaps the self-proclaimed "Mayor of Comic-Con" explained this common misconception best during his 2014 Reddit AMA. "The first Iron Man was essentially wrapping the character around a cooler version of 'me,'" Downey wrote at the time. "As we've gone along, I'm starting to wonder who's playing who." However, he notably added, "Ultimately, I'm real, and he's not. It's kind of important for me to remember that."

He hasn't won an Oscar … yet

Robert Downey Jr. solidified his standing as one of the greatest actors of his generation in 1992 with his starring turn in Chaplin. The coveted gig turned him into a household name and scored him an Oscar nomination for best actor. He later nabbed a second nod for best supporting actor for his performance in 2008's Tropic Thunder. Despite his critical acclaim and popularity, Downey has never taken home an Academy Award — at least not yet (via Time).

For his part, this multi-talent isn't too worried about the Oscars snub. "I, personally, would be shocked if we went to the end of the tape now and I didn't have at least one," Downey quipped to GQ in 2013, semi-seriously adding, "Look, even if I don't get one directly, eventually they're just going to have to give me one when I get old. So no matter how you slice it, I'm getting one." Hey, he's probably not wrong, but it should be noted that Downey doesn't actually subscribe to the whole "one of the greatest actors of his generation" thing. He later told the magazine"Well, if I'm one of, you know, well, then, who else is one of? ... The implication that we're in competition with each other ... I mean, all this stuff is largely chance."

He's taking a behind-the-scenes turn with Team Downey

With Robert Downey Jr.'s Marvel run seemingly coming to an end in 2019's Avengers: Endgame, fans are no doubt wondering what's next for this leading man. As of this writing, he has a number of on-screen projects lined up, including a highly anticipated return to his 19th-century London alter ego in Sherlock Holmes 3, as well as playing the titular role in The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle. The actor is also taking a major behind-the-scenes turn through Team Downey, a production company he and wife Susan Downey started in 2010. After kicking things off with The Judge in 2014, they've announced more than 20 upcoming projects, including HBO's limited series remake of Perry Mason (via Deadline).

"I think the older I get, though, the less need I feel to eat up all the oxygen in the room," Downey told CBS News in 2014. However, he's since showed no sign of slowing down. "I have a wide variety of interests," he told Inquirer.net in 2019, adding, "There are certain things I've put on hold for a while that I'm looking forward to getting back to."