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."

Early life

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. [15] His paternal grandparents were Lithuanian Jews, while his mother was of half Irish and half Hungarian Jewish ancestry. [16] [6] [7] 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. [9]


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). [11] His most recent film was Rittenhouse Square (2005), a documentary capturing life in a Philadelphia park. [12]

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 ).

Personal life

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.


Year Film Role Credit Notes
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 Rented Lips Director
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
4 episodes
1991 Too Much Sun Director and co-writer
1993 Tales of the City Edgar's Doctor Miniseries ; 1 episode
1994 Hail Caesar Butler
1996 Sunchaser Telephone voices
1997 Hugo Pool Director and co-writer
1997 Boogie Nights Burt
1999 Magnolia WDKK Show Director
2000 The Family Man Man in House
2004 From Other Worlds Baker
2005 Rittenhouse Square Director Documentary
2011 Tower Heist Judge Ramos