Robert Downey Sr: Provocative underground filmmaker

As a leader of New York’s experimental film scene, Downey brought a biting and irreverent sensibility to his movies

Harrison Smith
Monday 19 July 2021 00:01
<p>Downey (pictured in 2016) introduced his six-year-old son to marijuana, which he called ‘a terrible, stupid mistake’</p>

Downey (pictured in 2016) introduced his six-year-old son to marijuana, which he called ‘a terrible, stupid mistake’

Robert Downey Sr, an underground filmmaker whose absurdist, low-budget movies channelled the 1960s counterculture and acquired a devoted following, influencing directors including Paul Thomas Anderson and Jim Jarmusch, has died aged 85.

A leader of New York’s experimental film scene, Downey brought a biting and irreverent sensibility to his movies, which were filled with four-letter words, disjointed storylines and surreal touches like a Ms Redneck New Jersey pageant and a saloon owner named Seaweedhead Greaser. Director Martin Scorsese once called his 1960s films “an essential part of that moment when a truly independent American cinema was born”.

The father of Hollywood actor Robert Downey Jr, he wrote plays and directed a half-dozen small movies before making Putney Swope (1969), a raucous send-up of advertising and race relations. Shot on a roughly $200,000 budget, it starred Arnold Johnson as a token black board member at a Madison Avenue firm. After his colleagues inadvertently elect him chairman, he renames the business Truth and Soul Inc and fills the ranks with black employees.

Under his leadership, the company no longer promotes cigarettes, alcohol or toy guns. Instead it helps sell products like Face-Off pimple cream, developing a television commercial in which an interracial couple frolics in the park and sing a sexually explicit ballad: “It started last weekend, at the Yale-Howard game…”

“To be as precise as is possible about such a movie, it is funny, sophomoric, brilliant, obscene, disjointed, marvellous, unintelligible and relevant,” wrote New York Times film critic Vincent Canby. He added that while the movie had “some dull patches”, Downey’s “manic attacks on all things absurd must be cherished for just what they are, movies whose vulgar, chaotic style defines their content”.

The film received a publicity boost from Jane Fonda, who recommended it during an appearance on The Tonight Show, and from the controversy over its release poster, which featured the slogan “Up Madison Ave”, above a picture that seemed to show a raised middle finger. In 2016, Putney Swope was added to the National Film Registry.

Dispelling any fears that the movie’s success might lead him to go mainstream, Downey directed Pound (1970), in which actors – including his five-year-old son – played dogs that are waiting to be euthanised. He also made Greaser’s Palace (1972), a psychedelic western starring Allan Arbus as a zoot suit-wearing Jesus who resurrects the dead, tap dances on water and seeks to become an actor-singer in Jerusalem. “It’s written that the agent Morris awaits me,” he declares.

By the time the film premiered, Downey had started using drugs. His writing suffered, by his own account, and he and his wife – the former Elsie Ford, who appeared in his movies – soon divorced. “Ten years of cocaine around-the-clock,” he told the Associated Press in 1997. He introduced his six-year-old son to marijuana, which he called “a terrible, stupid mistake”; the younger Downey later battled drug and alcohol abuse.

“When my dad and I would do drugs together, it was like him trying to express his love for me in the only way he knew how,” Robert Downey Jr said in an interview for The New Breed, a 1988 book on young actors. He later told The New York Times, “If my father were less of a pioneer, he probably would have been more of a father, but I wouldn’t be who I was. I think it’s valiant to make mistakes so your children don’t have to” – mistakes, he added, that included “being so stubborn that the only way I can have my self-respect is to blow off the system and not try to work within it”.

Downey and his son in 2008

The elder Downey went on to work occasionally as an actor, playing a Secret Service agent in To Live and Die in LA (1985) and an NCAA investigator in Johnny Be Good (1988). Anderson, who cited Putney Swope as one of his favourite films, later cast him in bit parts in Boogie Nights (1997) – Don Cheadle played a character named Buck Swope, in homage to Downey – and Magnolia (1999).

While Downey directed a few more films, his early works largely faded from view until 2008, when Anthology Archives in New York restored several of his films, including Chafed Elbows (1966), about a young man undergoing his annual nervous breakdown. The movie became a breakout hit for Downey, running for five months at the Bleecker Street Cinema alongside another independent movie landmark, Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising.

“Robert Downey is one of the troubadours of our time,” Anthology founder Jonas Mekas, a godfather of 1960s avant-garde cinema, told The New York Times in 2008. “People like him are here to laugh and insult, and their heads may roll off. That’s their privilege. And we believe it’s our duty to share with those who came after.”

Robert John Elias Jr was born in Manhattan on 24 June 1936. His mother was a model, and his father worked in motel and restaurant management. At 16, he dropped out of high school in Long Island, faked his birth certificate and enlisted in the army, taking the last name of his stepfather, James Downey.

Downey spent three years in the military, much of it in the stockade, and said he began writing there to pass the time. After playing semi-pro baseball for a year, he started typing up off-off-Broadway plays, supporting himself by waiting tables at the Village Gate nightclub in New York. A fellow server there had a camera and suggested they start filming his plays as movies.

Using spools of air force surplus stock salvaged from a dump near an airbase, Downey made Ball’s Bluff (1961), a half-hour short about an American Civil War soldier who wakes up in modern-day New York. Downey played the soldier himself, including in a pivotal scene that was shot at Yankee Stadium without permission from the authorities.

“A weirdo dressed in Union Army uniform wandered out of the right field stands and meandered toward first base as the Yanks were due to bat in the third,” the New York Daily News reported the next day. “‘Where are those damyankees?’ he inquired quietly of ump Cal Drummond.”

Downey’s early films never found a wide audience, although some critics found much to admire in movies such as Babo 73 (1964), a political satire that New Yorker reviewer Brendan Gill called “the funniest movie I’ve seen in months”, and No More Excuses (1968), which chronicled – among many other things – prankster Alan Abel’s crusade to put clothes on animals “for the sake of decency”.

“We were just out having fun doing this because we could,” Downey told NPR in 2008. “Here we were, writers, and cameramen and stuff saying, ‘Hey, you’ve got a script, I’ve got a camera, let’s go do something.’ That’s all it was.”

Downey later directed Up the Academy (1980), a boarding school comedy in the mould of Animal House, and credited his second wife, Laura Ernst, with helping him relaunch his directorial career. They collaborated on the screenplays of his comedies Too Much Sun (1990) and Hugo Pool (1997) before her death in 1994.

Four years later, he married Rosemary Rogers, an author and music producer. In addition to his wife and son, survivors include a daughter, a brother, a sister, and six grandchildren.

His last film, Rittenhouse Square (2005), was a stark departure from his earlier work – a documentary about a beloved Philadelphia park. It was one of the few movies he directed that really satisfied him, he said, although he had grown to appreciate some of his early movies.

“They’re uneven,” he told The New York Times in 2008, when Anthology was screening some of his films. “But I was uneven. So what? Now I’m so happy with ’em, I might even show up.”

Robert Downey Sr, actor, director and producer, born 24 June 1936, died 7 July 2021

The Washington Post