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Robert Downey Jr.

Actor's toughest role

Beating addiction a struggle for troubled star

Los Angeles police arrested Robert Downey Jr. in April 2001 after the actor was found wandering in an alley.

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(CNN) -- On-screen, he effortlessly changes his identity; off-screen, he appears locked into a self-destructive role. During the past five years, Robert Downey Jr. has garnered about as much attention for stints in drug rehab centers and jail as he has for his parts in TV and movies.

"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 gunmetal," the actor told a judge in 1999.

The 36-year-old star, who was nominated for a best actor Academy Award for "Chaplin" and won a Golden Globe for his role on the hit television show "Ally McBeal," has often had Hollywood buzzing. But most aren't talking about his acting success.

In his latest battle with drugs, Downey was sent into drug rehabilitation and put on a three-year probation after a July 2001 no-contest plea to drug possession charges from autumn 2000.

Nine months later, he won praise from the judge when he returned to court March 20 to hear a probation report on his progress in a drug rehabilitation program.

"Keep up the good work," said Superior Court Judge Randall White.

"Thank you," said Downey

The question remains whether it is possible for Downey to achieve sobriety. Some argue that addiction is a disease, one that, for him, may be incurable.

"This final time when he got arrested in the alley it just made me say, 'Wow.' This is no pretense. This is no joke. This is not a guy screaming for attention. This is a guy who cannot help himself," says actor Michael Chiklis, who played the self-destructive comedian John Belushi in the 1989 movie "Wired." "He cannot stop, and I don't think anyone in this town wants to read that headline that he has died."

Marijuana at age 6

Downey's introduction to drugs started as a young boy.

Robert John Downey Jr. was born April 4, 1965, to independent filmmaker Robert Downey Sr. and actress Elsie Downey. He and his older sister, Allyson, grew up in New York's Greenwich Village.

Downey joined the family trade early on. He made his film debut at age 5, playing a puppy in his father's movie "Pound" (1970).

"He was on the cutting edge of filmmaking from a very young age," said People magazine correspondent Michael Fleeman.

Downey's father allowed him to try marijuana when he was 6, an act that Downey Sr. has said he deeply regrets.

"This is the early '70s, late '60s," Fleeman said about Downey's childhood. "He is surrounded by drugs. He is surrounded by the counterculture. This is the kind of home that he grew up in."

In his first leading role, Downey played a ladies man who falls for Molly Ringwald in the 1987 movie "The Pick-up Artist."  

In 1978, after his parents divorced, Downey moved with his father to Los Angeles. He attended Santa Monica High School, where he rubbed shoulders with many of Hollywood's young actors, including Sean Penn, Rob Lowe and Emilio Estevez.

"He started at an early age, and he came up as a member of what we called then the 'Brat Pack,'" said Howard Fine, an acting coach. "He really separated himself because of his range of talent, depth and vulnerability."

In 1982, Downey dropped out of school to pursue acting full time. He moved back to New York to live with his mother.

Downey soon met aspiring young actress Sarah Jessica Parker, and the two began a romance that would last several years.

Life imitates art?

Downey joined the cast of NBC's live comedy show "Saturday Night Live" during the 1985-86 season. But it was Downey's role in the 1987 movie "Less Than Zero" that brought his name into the Hollywood spotlight. Ironically, Downey played a drug addict.

"How much of his personal life did he bring to that character? Probably quite a bit," Fleeman said. "The thing about Robert is, like lots of actors, there isn't much of a barrier between his subconscious and his emotions."

Later that year, Downey landed his first leading role. He played a charming womanizer in "The Pick-up Artist," directed by James Toback.

"He walked into my office ... and literally a minute after we started talking, I said, 'By the way, would you like to play the lead in this movie?' and he said, 'Sure,'" Toback said. "It was immediate. It was chemical. It was indisputable."

Downey's acting career flourished despite his drug habit. He received praise for his role as the manic soap opera producer in "Soapdish" (1991).

His public and his private life improved greatly in 1992. He married actress Deborah Falconer in May, and they had a son, Indio, in September the next year.

Also in 1992, Downey found the role that would propel him into Hollywood prominence. Director Richard Attenborough hired the actor to play Charlie Chaplin.

"You had to have somebody who had passion," Attenborough said of the role.

Downey with "Ally McBeal" star Calista Flockhart at the 2001 Golden Globes, where he won the award for best supporting actor in a television show.  

But Downey's off-screen addiction left many fans and critics puzzled.

"His particular case concerns me a great deal," said Penn, a friend of Downey's. "He's somebody I know, personally care a great deal about. I think he is a poster boy for the fact that prison doesn't cure it."

At the time of his April arrest, Downey told an officer that he was taking medication for depression because of the situation with his child, according to the Los Angeles County police report.

Indio is at the center of a bitter divorce between the actor and Falconer. The two separated in 1996.

"The relationship I saw with him and Indio is as good as a father and son relationship as I've ever seen," said Toback, who has remained friends with Downey through the years. "They have a great rapport. And he treats his son with respect."

'He just wants to entertain people'

Downey has had several brushes with the law since his first major drug-related arrest in 1996, where he was taken in for possession of heroin, cocaine and an unloaded .357-caliber Magnum. He was given three years of probation and required to undergo mandatory drug testing.

A year later, he skipped a court-ordered drug test and spent nearly four months in the Los Angeles County jail.

In 1999, Downey skipped another drug test and spent nearly one year in a state prison in Corcoran, California.

"For the past several years, he has been through the revolving door of rehab programs and being arrested. It is so sad that such a bright person, his own life, his family life, life of his kid are all being destroyed because he really wants to feel better," said Dr. Manijeh Nikakhtar, a psychiatrist who received a letter from Downey while he was in prison. "He's not a criminal. He's a victim of drugs."

Downey requested information about Nikakhtar's treatment methods, which go against the traditional 12-step type programs of drug rehabilitation. Nikakhtar visited Downey in prison, but she never formally treated him.

"Nobody uses drugs for the sake of using drugs," she said. "Nobody is using drugs to get arrested or saying I am proud of using drugs. They usually hide using drugs. They feel bad about using drugs."

Four months after Downey's August 2000 prison release, he was arrested on Thanksgiving weekend for alleged cocaine and Valium possession and being under the influence of drugs. The Valium charge was reduced to a misdemeanor in May.

Downey pleaded no contest to the remaining charges on July 16, 2001 avoiding jail time.

He also was arrested April 24 the same year as Los Angeles police found him wandering in an alleyway. Soon after the arrest, "Ally McBeal" executives ordered last-minute re-writes and re-shoots to rid Downey from the series.

(Prosecutors later said the actor wouldn't face new charges for the April arrest. Instead, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office said it would treat the incident as a violation of Downey's parole and send the matter to state corrections officials.)

"I think there is a point of no return for some people; sometimes people go so far, they can't come back," Fleeman said. "With the case of Robert, I think this guy has a lot of self-hate about a lot of things he's done."

"Forgiveness is a huge thing," he said. "You have to look at yourself and say, 'I did this. I did that. I have my regrets about things, but you know what, I can torture myself every day and be miserable about them every day and hate myself every day or I can say you know I did it, now I've got to move on.' "

Toback said Downey has the right to choose his own fate "unless he hurts somebody else in making that choice, which he's not doing. He just wants to entertain people."

Toback questions why people search for meaning in Downey's actions and talk about the tragedy of the situation. "It's nobody's business but his," he said.

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