The actor digs into his father’s past with documentary director Chris Smith (American Movie, Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened), which also features appearances from Paul Thomas Anderson and Alan Arkin.
A synopsis for Sr. reads: “Sr. is a lovingly irreverent portrait of the life and career of maverick filmmaker Robert Downey Sr. that quickly devolves into a meditation on art, mortality, and healing generational dysfunction.”
After it debuted in select cinemas on November 18, the documentary was released on Netflix today (December 2).
Who is Robert Downey Sr.?
Born in June 1936 in New York as Robert John Elias Jr., he later changed his surname to Downey after his stepfather, James Downey, when he wanted to enlist in the United States Army when he was under the required age.
According to IMDb, Downey Sr. also played in minor league baseball and became a boxing Golden Gloves champion before he was aged 22.
In the 1960s, Downey Sr. created a number of low-budget independent films which aligned with the absurdist counterculture movement of the time, including 1961’s Ball’s Bluff, Babo 73, Sweet Smell Of Sex and 1969’s Putney Swope, which satirises the advertising world and portrayal of race in Hollywood.
He moved into bigger budget films during the 1970s, starting with western Greaser’s Palace in 1972. The film stars Allan Arbus as Jesse, a man who can heal the sick, resurrect the dead and tap-dance on water in the Wild West. His last film as director was 2005’s Rittenhouse Square.
Downey Sr. also starred as an actor in various films, including an appearance in 1997’s Boogie Nights by Paul Thomas Anderson.
His films were also noted for starring various members of his family. His first wife, actor Elsie Ann Ford, starred in four of his films, including Chafed Elbows, Pound, Greaser’s Palace and Moment To Moment.
His son Robert Downey Jr. had his acting debut in 1970’s Pound at the age of five. He went on to star in seven other films directed by his father, including Greaser’s Palace, Moment To Moment, Up The Academy, America, Rented Lips, Too Much Sun and Hugo Pool.
Downey Jr. has claimed his father introduced him to drugs before he was a teenager. As reported by People, Downey Jr. said: “There was always a lot of pot and coke around. 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.”
Downey Jr.’s spiral into cocaine and heroin addiction in the 1990s becomes a prickly part of the Netflix documentary, as the question is raised over whether his father’s wild lifestyle was partly to blame. As noted by The Guardian, during an interview clip from the ’90s, Downey Sr. says. “A lot of us thought it would be hypocritical to not have our kids participate in marijuana and stuff like that. It was an idiot move on our parts to share that with our children. I’m just happy [Downey Jr.’s] here.”
After a battle with Parkinson’s disease, Downey Sr. died during the making of the documentary in his sleep at home in Manhattan on July 7, 2021, 13 days after his 85th birthday.