Hailed by many critics as one of the most brilliant and versatile actors of his generation, Robert Downey Jr. chalked up a formidable onscreen track record that quickly launched the young thesp into the stratosphere. Although, for a time, Downey's stormy offscreen life and personal problems threatened to challenge his public image, he quickly bounced back and overcame these setbacks, with a continued array of impressive roles on the big and small screens that never sacrificed his audience appeal or affability.
The son of underground filmmaker Robert Downey, Downey Jr. was born in New York City on April 4, 1965. He made his first onscreen appearance at the age of five, as a puppy in his father's film Pound (1970). Between 1972 and 1990, he made cameo appearances in five more of his father's films. The actor's first significant role, in 1983's Baby, It's You, largely ended up on the cutting-room floor; it wasn't until two years later that he began landing more substantial parts, first as a one-season cast member on Saturday Night Live and then in the comedy Weird Science. In 1987, he landed plum roles in two films that capitalized on the Brat Pack phenomenon, James Toback's The Pick-Up Artist, (opposite Molly Ringwald), and Less Than Zero, for which he won acclaim playing cocaine addict Julian Wells.
Through it all, Downey cultivated an enviable instinct for role (and script) selection. His turns in Emile Ardolino's classy reincarnation fantasy Chances Are (1989), Michael Hoffman's Soapdish (1992), Robert Altman's Short Cuts (as the Iago-like Hollywood makeup artist Bill Bush), and Richard Loncraine's Richard III (1995) wowed viewers around the world, and often, on those rare occasions when Downey did choose substandard material, such as the lead in Richard Attenborough's deeply flawed Chaplin (1992), or an Australian media parasite in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (1994), his performance redeemed it. In fact, critics deemed Downey's portrayal as one of the only worthwhile elements in the Chaplin biopic, and it earned the thesp a Best Actor Oscar nomination, as well as Golden Globe and British Academy Award noms.
Around this time, Downey's personal life took a turn for the worse. In June 1996, the LAPD arrested the actor (who had already spent time in three rehabilitation facilities between 1987 and 1996) on counts including drug use, driving under the influence, possession of a concealed weapon, and possession of illegal substances, a development which struck many as ironic, given his star-making performance years prior in Less than Zero. A month after this arrest, police found Downey Jr. unconscious on a neighbor's lawn, under the influence of a controlled substance, and authorities again incarcerated him, taking him -- this time -- to a rehab center. A third arrest soon followed, as did another stint in rehab. His stay in rehab didn't last long, as he walked out, thereby violating the conditions of his bail. More arrests and complications followed -- in fact, the actor had to be released from rehab to make James Toback's Two Girls and a Guy -- but he still landed a few screen appearances and won praise for his work in Mike Figgis' One Night Stand (1997) and Altman's otherwise-disappointing Gingerbread Man (1998). In addition, he starred in one of his father's films, the offbeat Hugo Pool (1997). In 1999, he had three films out in theaters: Friends and Lovers, Bowfinger, and In Dreams. He delivered a particularly chilling performance in the latter, as longhaired psychopathic child murderer Vivian Thompson, that arguably ranked with his finest work. But Downey's problems caught up with him again that same year, when he was re-arrested and sentenced to 12 months in a state penitentiary.
These complications led to the actor's removal from the cast of the summer 2001 Julia Roberts/Billy Crystal comedy America's Sweethearts and his removal from a stage production of longtime friend Mel Gibson's Hamlet, although a memorably manic performance in Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys made it to the screen in 2000. Downey's decision -- after release -- to pursue television work, with a recurring role on Ally McBeal, marked a brief comeback (he won a 2001 Best TV Series Supporting Actor Golden Globe for the performance). Nevertheless, series creator David E. Kelley and the show's other producers sacked Downey permanently when two additional arrests followed. During this period, Downey also allegedly dated series star Calista Flockhart.
In 2002, a Riverside, CA, judge dismissed all counts against Downey. In time, the former addict counseled other celebrity addicts and became something of a spokesperson for rehabilitation. He starred as a hallucination-prone novelist in The Singing Detective in 2003, and while the film didn't achieve mainstream success, critics praised Downey for his interpretation of the role, alongside Oscar winners Adrien Brody and Mel Gibson. The same could be said for Gothika (2003), the psychological thriller that placed him opposite Hollywood heavyweight Halle Berry. In 2004, Downey appeared in Steven Soderbergh's portion of the film Eros.
Downey achieved success throughout 2005 with appearances in George Clooney's critically lauded Good Night, and Good Luck -- as one of Ed Murrow's underlings -- and he paired up with Val Kilmer in Shane Black's directorial debut Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. He continued balancing more mainstream fare, such as Disney's Shaggy Dog remake, with challenging films such as Richard Linklater's rotoscoped adaptation A Scanner Darkly. That same year, Downey wrapped production on Hanson's Lucky You, the story of a card shark (Eric Bana) who faces off against his father (Robert Duvall) at the legendary World Series of Poker, while simultaneously attempting to woo a beautiful singer (Drew Barrymore).
Downey continued to show his versatility by joining the casts of Zodiac, David Fincher's highly-touted film about the Zodiac Killer, and the Diane Arbus biopic Fur, with Nicole Kidman. A supporting role in Jon Poll's 2007 directorial debut Charlie Bartlett followed. The biggest was yet to come, however, as 2007 found Downey taking on the roles that would make him an even bigger star than he'd been in his youth, as he took on the leading role of sarcastic billionaire and part-time super hero Tony Stark in the big screen adaptation of the comic book Iron Man, as well as self-important actor Kirk Lazarus in the comedy Tropic Thunder. Both films turned out to be not just blockbuster successes at the box office, but breakaway hits with critics as well, and in addition to major praise, the actor also walked away from 2008 with an Oscar nomination for his performance in Tropic Thunder.
After Iron Man premiered, Marvel studios decided to move forward with a film empire, and Downey's Tony Stark became the anchor of the series, starring in his own Iron Man trilogy and appearing in many other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe like the Avengers (2012) and its sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron (2014). Downey still found time to appear in side projects, like The Judge (2014), which he also produced.