The Comeback Poster Boy: How Robert Downey Jr. Completely Revamped His Career

Not just anybody could go from rock bottom to the very top.

By Seija Rankin Sep 02, 2016 2:00 PMTags
Robert Downy Jr, ComebackGetty Images; Melissa Hebeler/E! Illustration

It's the spring of 2001, and Robert Downey Jr. has just been fired from Ally McBeal. He's also checked himself into (yet another) emergency rehab session after his second consecutive arrest in Southern California. 

Then, cut to August, 2015 and he's the world's highest-paid actor, with an IMDB page that promises years upon of further franchises and their associated high paychecks. He also happens to be happily married, with two toddlers at home. (Just recently, he was ousted from Hollywood's top salary spot by Dwayne Johnson—blame all the Fast and the Furious money—but that's all just extraneous details at this point.) 

So how exactly does this happen? How does a guy go from radioactive to the top of the industry? It's a story worth revisiting time and time again. 

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It all started in the mid-90's—at least for today's purposes. Downey was one of the most wanted men in the business, whether you were looking to cast a movie or to build a guest list for a party. He was fresh off an Oscar nomination for his role in Chaplin, he had just completed a quickie wedding to singer Deborah Falconer (after having relationships with the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker, among others), and he was, shall we say, celebrating life a bit too much.

In other words, his partying and drug use was up to a constant level and it was beginning to take a toll on his personal life and career. Friend Sean Penn even chartered a plane to fly Downey to detox—which he would flee from after a mere 24 hours. His first major arrest came when he was stopped for speeding near his Malibu home, allowing the cops to discover a plethora of illegal extracurriculars. Let's call this point the beginning of the end, round one.

His arrests and substance abuse caught up to him the first time around in 1997, when he spent hard time in a Los Angeles county jail. For those unacquainted with the nuances of the criminal justice system, let's just say this wasn't exactly the sleepaway camp experienced by the likes of some other celebs. He also spent a year in a rehab facility as so ordered by a judge. For most of this country's population, that alone would spell the end of one's career—you certainly couldn't expect to come out of the treatment program with a job lined up.

For Robert Downey, Jr., he was cast on Ally McBeal seven days after leaving. 

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The gig was billed as the ultimate comeback. He was once Hollywood's golden boy, and now here he was on one of the late '90s most popular shows, ready to show the world that he was a changed man. And for a while, the fairy tale played out just so.

As lawyer Larry Paul, RDJ helped the show's ratings hit astronomical numbers during his two-season stint. He even won a Golden Globe in 2001 for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role. It was the kind of win viewers could root for—in his acceptance speech, he thanked series creator David E. Kelley for creating a character that he described as " a new toy" and vowing, "I will do my best not to get sent back to the factory."

Can you say foreshadowing?

Wait a couple months, throw in two more arrests, a character arc on an award-winning show that suddenly comes to an end, and you've got yourself a rock bottom. But the thing about hitting rock bottom is that the only way to go is up. RDJ is luckier than most, because his upward mobility was actually quite smoother than most. As soon as he began to tackle his personal demons and attempt to get clean for good, the next issue that arose was the problem of finding roles again.


Marvel Studios

After all, even though there were plenty of directors who still had faith in his immeasurable talent, actors with legal or drug issues typically find it nearly impossible for insurance companies to cover them on a production. And no insurance means no jobs. That's where fellow trouble-seeker Mel Gibson came in—he cast Downey in a small movie called The Singing Detective and put himself on the line to get the actor insured. (It was a huge favor, and one that Robert himself attempted to repay when Mel found himself on the business end of a major Hollywood scandal.)

Once the industry saw that gig go successfully, the parts started rolling in. For his part, RDJ managed to pull off all of his post-rehab roles with great talent and without incident. But, his personal turnaround must also be credited to his now-wife Susan Levin.

The two met during the height of Downey's issues, and not only did she help level out his wild ways and deal with his demons, she carefully curated his career. As a producer, she was able to guide him to make great choices—and get big paychecks. Like Iron Man, the movie that changed everything. 

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The flick was the Marvel Cinematic Universe's first solo project (in fact, there was barely even a cinematic universe to speak of), and booking the gig came not only with lots of notoriety and positive press, but the promise of many sequels and franchise work to come. Signing on meant that RDJ could bet on reliable work, and have the freedom to choose more creative projects in between his superhero stints—like Tropic Thunder (which earned him another Oscar nom), Sherlock Holmes and Chef.

Add to that a personal life that finds you building yourself an adorable little family, hobnobbing with Hollywood's biggest A-listers, and dazzling the world with your charm on all your big fancy Marvel-sponsored press tours, and you've got a recipe for the perfect scandal recovery. Consider RDJ written into the comeback hall of fame. 

Watch: Have Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. Ever Butted Heads?
Flick Pics: Iron Man 3