Robert John Downey Sr. (born Robert Elias Jr. on June 24, 1936) is an American actor and filmmaker. The father of actor Robert Downey Jr., he is best known as an underground filmmaker of arthouse and avant-garde films, serving as director and/or writer of such cult classics as Putney Swope, a satire on the New York Madison Avenue advertising world. According to film scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon, Downey's films during the 1960s were "strictly take-no-prisoners affairs, with minimal budgets and outrageous satire, effectively pushing forward the countercultural agenda of the day."
Downey was born in New York City, the son of Elizabeth (née McLauchlen), a model, and Robert Elias Sr., who worked in management of motels and restaurants. His paternal grandparents were Lithuanian Jews, while his mother was of half Irish and half Hungarian Jewish ancestry. Downey was born Robert Elias; but he changed his last name to Downey for his stepfather, James Downey, when he wanted to enlist in the United States Army but was underage at the time.
Robert Downey Sr. initially made his mark creating basement budget, independent films aligning with the Absurdist movement, coming of age in counterculture anti-establishment 1960s America. His work in the late 1960s and 70s was quintessential anti-establishment, reflecting the nonconformity popularized by larger counterculture movements and given impetus by new freedoms in filmmaking, such as the breakdown of Codes on censorship. In keeping with the underground tradition, his 1960s films were independently made on shoestring budgets and were relatively obscure in the Absurdist movement, finding cult notoriety.
In 1961, working with the film editor Fred von Bernewitz, he began writing and directing low-budget 16mm films that gained an underground following, beginning with Ball's Bluff (1961), a fantasy short about a Civil War soldier who awakens in Central Park in 1961. He moved into big-budget filmmaking with the surrealistic Greaser's Palace (1972). His most recent film was Rittenhouse Square (2005), a documentary capturing life in a Philadelphia park.
Downey's films were often family affairs. His first wife, Elsie, appears in four of his movies (Chafed Elbows, Pound, Greaser's Palace, Moment to Moment), as well as co-writing one (Moment to Moment). Daughter Allyson and son Robert Jr. each made their film debuts in the 1970 absurdist comedy Pound at the ages of 7 and 5, respectively; Allyson would appear in one more film by her father, Up the Academy. Robert Jr.'s lengthy acting résumé includes appearances in eight films directed by his father (Pound, Greaser's Palace, Moment to Moment, Up the Academy, America, Rented Lips, Too Much Sun, Hugo Pool), as well as two acting appearances in movies where his father was also an actor (Johnny Be Good, Hail Caesar).
Downey has been married three times. His first marriage was to actress Elsie Ann Downey (née Ford), with whom he had two children: actress-writer Allyson Downey and actor Robert Downey Jr. The marriage ended in divorce in 1978. His second marriage, to actress-writer Laura Ernst, ended with her 1994 death from Lou Gehrig's disease. In 1998 he married his third wife, Rosemary Rogers, author of Random House bestseller, Saints Preserve Us! and seven other books. They live in New York City.
|1953||The American Road||Cinematographer||Short film|
|1961||Balls Bluff||Civil War Union soldier||Director, writer, and producer||Short film|
|1964||A Touch of Greatness||Director, producer, and cinematographer||Documentary|
|1964||Babo 73||Director, writer, and producer|
|1965||Sweet Smell of Sex||Director, writer, and cinematographer|
|1966||Chafed Elbows||Director, writer, and producer|
|1966||Literature Au-Go-Go||Cinematographer and editor|
|1968||No More Excuses||Pvt. Stewart Thompson||Director, writer, and producer|
|1969||Putney Swope||Director and writer||Voice, uncredited|
|1969||Naughty Nurse||Desk Clerk||Short film|
|1970||Pound||Director and writer|
|1971||You've Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You'll Lose That Beat||Head of Ad Agency|
|1971||Is There Sex After Death?||Himself||Mockumentary and mondo film|
|1971||Cold Turkey||Second unit director|
|1972||Greaser's Palace||Director and writer|
|1973||Sticks and Bones||Director and writer||Television film|
|1975||Moment to Moment||Director and writer||Retitled Two Tons of|
Turquoise to Taos Tonight
|1980||Up the Academy||Director|
|1980||The Gong Show Movie||Co-writer|
|1985||To Live and Die in L.A.||Thomas Bateman|
|1985–86||The Twilight Zone||Mr. Miller||Director||Directed 3 episodes|
acted in segment: "Wordplay"
|1986||America||Director and co-writer|
|1986||Matlock||Judge Warren Anderson||Episode: "Judge Warren Anderson"|
|1988||Moving Target||Weinberg||Television film|
|1988||Johnny Be Good||NCAA Investigator Floyd Gandolfini|
|1988–89||1st & Ten||Mike McDonald / Reporter #4 /|
Reporter / Sports Writer
|1991||Too Much Sun||Director and co-writer|
|1993||Tales of the City||Edgar's Doctor||Miniseries; 1 episode|
|1997||Hugo Pool||Director and co-writer|
|1999||Magnolia||WDKK Show Director|
|2000||The Family Man||Man in House|
|2004||From Other Worlds||Baker|
|2011||Tower Heist||Judge Ramos|