Counterculture Warrior

The Renegade: Robert Downey Sr. on His Classic Films, Son’s Battle with Drugs, and Bill Cosby

The gonzo director responsible for cult classics like Putney Swope sat down to discuss his filmmaking legacy, his son’s wild journey to the top, and the Bill Cosby allegations.

Poll a bunch of random youths today, and nine out of ten will say they know the name Robert Downey Jr. He is Iron Man, after all, and one of the biggest movie stars in the world. But precious few kids these days understand that Tony Stark’s father, Robert Downey Sr., is worthy of similar praise.

Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Robert Downey Sr. was a celebrated underground filmmaker responsible for cult classics like Putney Swope, a scathing (and hilarious) satire on Madison Avenue’s advertising world in which a black man takes charge of an ad firm, transforms it into “Truth and Soul, Inc.,” and completely upends the white power structure; and Greaser’s Palace, a bizarre acid-western about the life of Christ—albeit set on the frontier and featuring a fella in a zoot-suit trying to break his way into the entertainment biz. They were countercultural gems made on mostly shoestring budgets that skewered the institutions of the day.

“I don’t look at it as a career,” says Downey, with a smile and a shrug. “I’ve just made a few films, and I want to make a few more.”

From Friday, December 5th to Monday, December 8th, Cinefamily is hosting Truth and Soul Inc.: A Celebration of the Films of Robert Downey Sr. The Los Angeles event will feature screenings of Downey’s films, as well as appearances by filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, a Downey fan and friend who cast him in bit parts in Boogie Nights and Magnolia, and comedian Louis C.K., who is a huge admirer of Putney Swope. It will also include an intimate conversation with Downey and his superstar son, Robert Downey Jr., and will raise funds for Cinefamily.

Downey Sr. will be taking the train across the country to the event from his home in Manhattan, since he doesn’t fly. When I enter his Gramercy apartment, I’m greeted by a tall, 79-year-old man with a kind face. The walls of his high-rise are lined with photos of his wife, Rosemary, her family, and his—including many of his grandsons, Indio and Exton (sons of Jr.). There are also several of the two Robert Downeys. After Rosemary offers me some tea, I sit down on the couch with Downey Sr. to discuss his astonishing life, and career.

I first wanted to ask you about Bill Cosby, because it’s in the news and you two ran in some similar circles. There are now up to 19 women accusing him of sexual assault. Did you know him?

Yeah. He was a great softball player in the Broadway Show League. There was nobody as good as him. You know, he’s an athlete. He went to Temple.

What do you make of the allegations? Had you heard any stories about this sort of behavior back in the day?

He really is in big trouble, because these girls have had enough. There’s 19—and growing. You heard things back then about somebody being date raped, but you didn’t know what you were listening to. People would say, “Date rape? What? What’s wrong with that?” That kind of shit.

It’s truly awful. OK, let’s start at the beginning. I read that you were born with the surname “Elias” but changed it to your stepfather’s last name, “Downey,” to get into the Army underage?

That’s right. To get me in to the Army underage, my mother signed me in saying that my birth certificate was lost in a fire in Nashville, so I got in underage. I was 16. She did because I begged her to do it. It was Korea, and I served three years—half of it in the stockade. It was horrible, and great in equal measure. I just drank too much.

How long did you last in the Army?

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About three years, so until ’56 or ’57. When you get the kind of discharge I had, they give you a suit and fifty dollars. As I was walking out of the gate in San Francisco, the MP on duty said, “You lucky son of a bitch!” I was a drunk and a fuck-up. When I got in underage, I was desperate to get out, and the guy in charge said, “Fuck you, you’re old enough now!” It was just a long list of things, a drunk and a fuck-up, so we came to a mutual agreement that I should leave—like Chuck Hagel. So, I’d saved up a bit of money too, and headed out to San Francisco to some jazz joints, which I really enjoyed. After that, I headed back to New York.

How did filmmaking enter your life?

The sergeant in the stockade who was in charge of the barracks one day said, “Downey, here’s a notebook—amuse yourself.” So, I had a pen and a pencil and started scribbling and drawing, and I felt good about it. Also, when I was in the 9th grade, a teacher enjoyed something I wrote, which I found interesting. When I got out of the Army, I started writing the usual Catcher in the Rye imitations, and then I wrote something that was done Off-Off Broadway in a theater. It was called What Else Is There? and it was four or five people playing missiles in a silo waiting to take off. One doesn’t want to go, and the other had fucked up parts. It got a nice review in The Village Voice and had a little run, and I thought, “Jesus… maybe I’m a writer!”

So that was an anti-war satire. Was it informed by your experience in the Army?

A little bit. I’m still terrified of war. Have you seen the recent 60 Minutes? Whoa. But it was fun to not write people as people, but missiles and machines as people—with feelings, and arguments, and romance. It was just a one-act play. Then, while working as a waiter at The Village Gate, one of the guys I worked with said, “Hey, you’re a writer and I’ve got a camera… let’s make a film!” I said, “How do you do that?” And he said, “I don’t know.” And I said, “I don’t either.” So, I served as the director. Our first film was all visual with no sound, and it turned into No More Excuses—which is five shorts in one intercut. After that, I was hooked.

Let’s talk about Putney Swope, which is a classic. What was the inspiration for that film?

I made experimental commercials in the experimental division of a production house, Film X, that made commercials for ad agencies. One day, a guy I was working with—a black guy—came up to me and said, “We’re doing the same job, but I know you make more money than I do.” So I said, “Let’s go up to the boss and talk about this.” So we went and I said, “Listen, we do the same thing and he’s making less than me.” Then, he said, “Well, if I give him a raise then I have to give you a raise, and we’re right back where we started.” So then I thought, “What if a black guy ran an ad agency?” And that’s how it started. I saw some of that in the Army, too—black guys not getting promoted as much.

How did you come up with the idea to dub your own voice over Arnold Johnson’s, who played Putney Swope?

The guy who was playing the lead couldn’t remember one word. He’d say, “I got it, Bob… I’ll get it later,” and I thought, “Oh my God, we’re in fuckin’ trouble,” because we were on a low budget and couldn’t do a lot of takes. Then, the cameraman says one night, “Don’t worry about it, come here.” And I looked into the camera and he zoomed in and you couldn’t really see what his lips were saying, because of his beard. So he said, “You can put anything in his mouth, including what you wrote.” And that’s what I did. I dubbed him. You know, nobody wanted that film when it was done. The theater owners said, “Ah, it’s in bad taste.” And the last guy who owned about ten theaters in New York but was also a distributor, we screened it for him alone and he said, “I don’t get it, but I like it.” Then, Jane Fonda, who I don’t know, was on Carson talking about Easy Rider and then she said, “Another film I like is Putney Swope.” After that, the box office was up and it got played in more theaters.

And your follow-up film was 1970’s Pound, which was actually your son’s first acting role—playing a dog.

That was actually a play first, too. My second play. It played Off-Off Broadway in a little 40-person theatre on 3rd Avenue run by Kent Bateman, who’s Jason Bateman’s father. But we couldn’t afford a babysitter so we dragged him to the set, and threw him in the film. He was fabulous as a puppy. I knew he was great, and we were amazed. Then, I did another film later on, Greaser’s Palace, where he was in a wagon and then the next thing you know, he’s dead—his throat’s been slit overnight, along with his mother. He did one take and I had the lighting wrong and said, “We’ve gotta do it again.” He said, “I’m not doing it again.” So I said, “Come here,” and took him behind the tree and gave him a light whack on the ass, and he went back to the set and turned to me and said, “One more… you’re only getting one more.” And he nailed it.

And Greaser’s Palace was your highest budgeted film at the time.

It was about $800,000-plus. This woman, Cyma Ruben, had produced a hit Broadway play with her husband’s money, so she backed it. It was great going to New Mexico and shooting this strange western. Half the critics hated it and half didn’t, and it even made some critics’ Top 10 lists. The woman who financed it hated the movie, and one day she told me of her husband, “Sam’s not going to play it in theaters anymore,” and I joked, “Why don’t you give him a blowjob?” And she said, “How do you think I raised the money?” That, to me, was worth doing the whole fuckin’ movie.

You raised the family in Greenwich Village. It was pretty different back then, I imagine.

I used to see Bob Dylan around all the time. But anything was possible then.

You did use your fair share of drugs in the day. How do you think it influenced your filmmaking?

I started fooling around with cocaine at the end of shooting Greaser’s, around ’71, and I just thought it was great—until I realized it wasn’t. I ended up looking in the mirror one night with my kids in one room, and me in the bathroom looking in the mirror, and there was no one in the mirror for about five seconds. I went in and told my family, “That’s it… I’m not doing that shit anymore.” That was in 1983. Cocaine was everywhere. It caused people to drive around all night in a circle, and not eat. But it was everywhere. I did acid once. Someone slipped me something while I was making Pound, and I had two choices—go to the hospital, or keep working. So, there’s one scene in Pound I shot high of a bunch of people dancing around in a dream sequence.

I also read that you introduced your son, Robert Downey Jr., to drugs at a very young age—when he was 6.

Yeah. I handed him a joint and said, “Take a puff.” It was stupid. But look, the way it’s turned out, I’m very happy and lucky that he’s still here.

At his trial, he also said he was hooked on coke from the age of 8.

He might have had a little coke, yeah. But we didn’t think anything about that. Everyone could have everything. It was the ‘70s. But then, we found it how dangerous it was later. How about Richard Pryor. Wow.

When it got bad for your son in the ‘90s, did you try to intervene?

Oh, there were many interventions. Mainly, what I said to him was, “Don’t leave the planet,” and he always said, “I promise I won’t.” It seems ridiculous, but he kept his word. I just thought that every night when the phone rang after 9, it was the end. So it’s that much greater now. This is a guy who was knocked down with a count of 100, and got up.

Did you know your son had the talent on Greaser’s when he knocked out that scene? I must’ve known something. We were out in California with his girlfriend, and she says, “You’ve got to go see your son, he’s performing in Oklahoma! tonight.” And I said, “He’s singing and dancing?” So I was a total mess, but I went. He was in the 9th grade and was so great, and when I left, I was so happy because he’d found his thing. I got a call once from his principal in junior high who said, “You’ve got to talk to him. He’s just hanging out in the theatre all day and doesn’t go to one class.” And I said, “That’s good! He’s going to be OK.” But he’s really great in Less Than Zero, and Chaplin. The [Chaplin] script isn’t that good, but he’s great in it.

He’s like Daniel Day-Lewis, in a way. I feel the scripts of the films they’re in rarely match their ability, but then they elevate the entire film with their talent.

That’s right. I asked Paul Anderson what it was like to direct Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, and before every scene he’d go up to Paul and say, “Hat on, or hat off?” And that’s it. He was so well-prepared. I met Paul because there was a girl we both knew at the time who said, “I’ve got a script you should read,” and I said, “I don’t want to read any more fuckin’ Hollywood scripts,” and she said, “I promise you, you’ll love it.” It was Sydney, which became Hard Eight. So we met, I told him how much I loved the script, and we became good friends. He’s our only hope, Paul. From Hollywood, he’s the only guy I see. [Paul] still can’t get over the [Philip Seymour] Hoffman thing. He says he sees him coming around the corner every day.

That’s so sad. I loved Hoffman’s performances in Anderson’s movies. Your son, by the way, needs to work with Anderson.

Well, that’s my fantasy. I finally got them together for a dinner and I just sat back and watched those two get to know each other. He had offered Robert something in this new film [Inherent Vice], but it didn’t work out. But they need to do something together. It would be great.

Hugo Pool was one of your last big films.

Cameron Diaz was actually supposed to star in that one. She agreed to it, but then one day she came to me and said, “I got a call and they’re offering me a lot of money to be in this wedding movie [My Best Friend’s Wedding], but I’ll still do your movie if you wait for me,” but I couldn’t wait because we were all ready. So we got Alyssa [Milano], and she’s great in it.

It was dedicated to your second wife, Laura Ernst, who died from ALS.

We wrote the film together, but it was about a guy pool cleaner. I used to take her to Chuck Barris’ pool, who’s a friend of mine, and she couldn’t move around, because she had ALS. So this pool cleaner would always come around and talk to her, and I figured it would be a good idea for a movie. I decided after she died to not have a woman play her, but have a woman play the pool cleaner, and Patrick [Dempsey] play the guy with ALS.

So, what are you working on now? A film? I am, but I can’t talk about it. I’m almost done. I know that when I get off this train ride I’m taking, I should be done with it—finally. I’ve been working on it too long and couldn’t figure it out, and finally it just happened. I hope I can make a few more!