Iron Man started the summer block busting season with a $100.7 million opening at the box office, and marked a tremendous comeback for 43-year-old actor Robert Downey Jr., who in recent years has waged a public battle against drug addiction, which included a stint in jail. Jr., who plays a billionaire industrialist who invents a hi-tech suit of armor that transforms him into a superhero, used the opportunity of the Time 100 gala at Lincoln Center to pay a moving tribute to his dad, Robert Downey Sr., who helped him through the worst of times.
“I remember seeing Greenwich Village from seven feet up in the air [Downey Sr. is 6’ 5”] growing up as a kid, because he’d have me on his shoulders and we’d be tripping around. And at a time before underground and independent film became a hot idea, then a dirty word, then a hot idea again as it is nowadays, my dad was making films that influenced a generation of filmmakers – films like Putney Swope. Here’s just one of the lines from it. [Sings] ‘I have a malignancy in my prostate / but when you’re in my arms, it’s benign.’
“Growing up in Downey Sr.’s house, the commodity was wit, the commodity was political commentary, the commodity was innovation, and that’s what I grew up feeling very inspired by,” Downey Jr. continued. “And I wound up getting recruited … I had the dubious honor – hey Lorne [waves to producer Michaels] – of being on probably the worst season of Saturday Night Live. And I still had a great time and it was a great experience. Thanks for not kicking me off the show – I was up to some pretty nefarious acts in the dressing room. Unless I need mention the obvious, it was a period of time when being a Gen X guy . . . If I’m influencing anything, it’s about survival, surviving a time of that post-sixties, we-don’t-know-who-we-are-or-what-to-do. It was a time when being self-destructive seemed in. And we weren’t quite sure what we were rebelling against, but we took a pretty heavy fall and we lost a lot of people. So I remember when I was at my very lowest, my dad, who had put down all that dumb stuff twenty years before, said, ‘Hey, kid, stick around. It’s not so bad. Just stay on the planet.’”
Jr. turned to his dad, but his voice broke and he couldn’t quite get out his sentence. “And so tonight [long pause] I just want to honor my dad for being every inch the man I remember him to be and thank him.”
As the audience applauded, Downey Jr. turned the mike over to Sr., who deadpanned, “I’m not your father.”
Jr. stood there, mouth open for a moment, before doubling over in laughter and hugging his dad and exclaiming, “You son of a bitch! You just let me get all f–ing emotional,” he said.
Downey Sr. is, of course, rightly proud of his boy. “I’m happy and proud of him,” he told Irish America (father and son were named to our Top 100 list this year). “He is an iron man in real life to go through what he went through and be where he is today.”
Downey Sr. said he enjoyed Iron Man. “This is a good one. It raised the genre of action movie because of the great acting – it will be around forever.” He also reported that Jr. has “a great film coming in August called Tropic Thunder – a great one – he and the director [Ben Stiller] really worked well together.”
Downey Sr. also took the opportunity to clear up a point in his bio as it appeared in our Top 100 issue: the claim that he struck out Yogi Berra. “I was in the Army in Okinawa – in fact, I was in the stockade [for some infraction] and they took me out to pitch against the Yankees who were touring the Far East. I did alright for a couple of innings and walked a few guys and then Yogi Berra hit a triple and I was right back in the stockade,” he said.
Downey Sr. was writer and director of Greaser’s Palace, ranked by Time as one of the top 10 films of 1972, and of the aforementioned Putney Swope (1969), which is being reissued with a commentary by Downey Sr. He is currently working on a documentary on the music of German-American composer Kurt Weill.
Meantime, it’s just been announced that Downey Jr., whose Tropic Thunder, with Jack Black and Ben Stiller, will premiere on August 15, and whose sequel to Iron Man will hit theaters in 2010, will be among the next batch of celebrities to receive stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – truly confirming his return to the Hollywood A list.