Robert Downey Sr., the accomplished underground filmmaker, actor, and father of Iron Man star Robert Downey Jr., has died at the age of 85.
His son confirmed the news on Instagram, noting that his father passed away “peacefully in his sleep after years of enduring the ravages of Parkinson’s” on Wednesday. Downey Jr. also called his late dad “a maverick filmmaker” who “remained remarkably optimistic throughout.”
“Maverick” well describes Downey Sr.’s early career. The auteur filmmaker began directing, producing, and writing cult underground movies in the 60s marked with his uncompromising vision and left-field humor. Projects like 1969’s Putney Swope, a corporate satire that saw a Black board takeover an white-run advertising company, and 1970’s Pound, which saw human actors playing animals awaiting euthanasia in a pound, were some of his earliest classics. Downey Jr. made his acting debut in the latter, portraying a puppy.
A counterculture stalwart, most of Downey Sr.’s early productions were made on micro budgets, such as Balls Bluff (1953), Babo 73 (1964), Chafed Elbows (1966), and No More Excuses (1968). He moved into more prominent films with the 1972 “acid Western” Christ parable Greaser’s Palace, and 1980’s Up the Academy from Mad Magazine. He also co-wrote The Gong Show Movie in ’80.
In 1973, he directed an adaptation of David Rabe’s play Sticks and Bones for CBS. When sponsors rebelled against the production’s strong anti-war message, they pulled out, and the network broadcast the play without commercial breaks. Speaking to The Village Voice (via Variety) about another infamously controversial production, 1975’s Moment to Moment, Downey Sr. recalled,
“It was hard to raise money for a film that didn’t really have a plot. I remember telling a guy once, ‘There’s a scene where we’re going to have 18 guys playing baseball on horseback,’ which is in there. He looked at me like: ‘Are you out of your f–king mind?’ Nicholson put money in, and Hal Ashby and Norman Lear, these pals of mine from back then. It’s my kids’ favorite film out of all of them.”
His children, and indeed many of his family members, often featured in his movies. His first wife, Elsie Ann Ford, appeared in Chafed Elbows, Pound, Greaser’s Palace, and Moment to Moment, co-writing the last one. His daughter, Allyson, featured in both Up the Academy and Pound, along with Downey Jr. Overall, Downey Jr. had parts in eight of his father’s films, including 1997’s Hugo Pool, written after Downey Sr.’s second wife, Laura Ernst, died of ALS in 1994.
In front of the camera, Downey Sr. acted alongside his son in 1988’s Johnny Be Good and 1994’s Hail Caesar (Anthony Michale Hall’s directorial debut also starring Samuel L. Jackson and Judd Nelson). He also had parts in ’85’s To Live and Die in L.A. (Thomas Bateman), ’97’s Boogie Nights (Burt), ’99’s Magnolia (WDKK Show Director), and ’00’s The Family Man (Man in House). His final role was as Judge Ramos in 2011’s Tower Heist with Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy.
Downey Sr.’s directing career concluded with the 2005 documentary Rittenhouse Square, about life in a Philadelphia park. He also appeared in a 2015 episode of Saturday Night Live.
Downey Sr. is survived by his third wife, author Rosemary Rogers, and his children, Robert Downey Jr. and Allyson Downey, both from his first wife, Ford.