Robert Downey Jr. Takes One Day At A Time

Early in "The Last Party," Robert Downey Jr.'s 1993 documentary about the Clinton-Bush presidential contest, the actor gives a startling description of his own internal psychic face-off. "I call it the Good Boy and the Goat Boy," he says in a voice-over. "You know, those parts of me that are only out for my own instant gratification. Delayed gratification is not something that I was raised with." The Oscar-nominated "Chaplin" actor then stoops over and begins to hop around. He keeps up the Pan routine throughout the movie, at parks and political conventions in New York, L.A. and Houston. The movie is a decisive victory for the goat.

Last week the goat was on display again as Downey picked his way past a crush of spectators and journalists inside Department 1-A of Riverside Superior Court in Indio, Calif. The occasion was a brief procedural appearance in his newest felony drug-possession case, the fallout of an alleged three-day coke-and-Valium jag inside bungalow No. 311 at the tony Merv Griffin Resort Hotel in Palm Springs in November. (The case was postponed until Feb. 21.)

The tally of celebrities who have fought addiction in the glare of public disapproval is as long as the Barrymore family tree. But Downey's disintegration has touched a compassionate nerve in America. That's probably due to both the relative orderliness of his nonviolent crimes and their fortuitous timing: while the notion of imprisoning addicts has slipped in esteem, the actor's career has soared. In the weeks after his November arrest, visits to Downey's online fan site skyrocketed by some 300 percent. Leslie Marciniak, 20, runs The Unofficial Robert Downey Jr. Web Page, where much of the public concern has been vented. "I get tons and tons of e-mail, people asking me, 'Where can I write him to show him my support?'," she says. She adds, "I'm concerned about the atmosphere he's in in Hollywood. I don't really think that's good for him."

But Hollywood, it seems, won't let Downey go. At last month's Golden Globes gala, where he won the best-supporting- actor award for his recurring role on "Ally McBeal," and the subsequent L.A. Film Critics' dinner in Beverly Hills, Calif., his fellow actors hoisted him on the shoulders of their sustained applause (while Julia Roberts signaled her encouragement by pinching his butt). "It's meant the world to me that people have been so supportive and come up to me on the street and [say] that they're rooting for me," he told reporters.

In his excruciatingly public battle, including numerous rehabs and three stints in jail, Downey, 35, has come to symbolize the addictive personality itself: charming, wily and self-destructive. "Because you know he's got all the money in the world and all the resources, you sort of get to see his addiction in a purified form," says Dr. Joshua Gamson, a Yale sociology professor and author of "Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America." And people want him to succeed--they want Good Boy to whump Goat Boy--not just for Downey's good but as a victory for the human spirit.

That has drug-treatment experts fascinated and scared. Some worry that public opinion has given Downey too easy a ride, which may not be the best thing for him. "We cut corners for VIPs," says Dr. Joseph Pursch, a veteran addiction specialist who treated Betty Ford and astronaut Buzz Aldrin. "The minute you give the VIP a weekend pass, you invite a relapse."

Indeed, in "The Last Party" Downey openly celebrated the revolving door of rehabilitation as if it were a Tinseltown rite of passage. At the time Downey was getting his start, John Belushi's overdose death and Courtney Love's heroin use had come to symbolize celebrity cool. These days recovery is worn in Hollywood like a badge of honor. Melanie Griffith talks about her struggles getting off painkillers on the cover of this month's Redbook magazine. NBC's "West Wing" features an AA-going chief of staff (played by John Spencer, himself a recovering alcoholic) and includes explicit plotlines on the treatment-versus-prison debate. Perhaps not surprisingly, the show's creator, Aaron Sorkin, is a recovering cocaine addict. "Drug use is not a criminal problem. It's a medical problem," he says.

Downey first entered rehab in his mid-20s (it's where he met his future wife) and soon became a regular. Yet his career flourished. "He's given some terrific performances high. It certainly hasn't hurt his acting," says James Toback, who directed Downey in "Black and White," "The Pick-Up Artist" and "Two Girls and a Guy."

Then came his arrest in 1996 for possessing cocaine, heroin and an unloaded .357 magnum. The judge in that case gave him every opportunity to avoid prison, not uncommon in nonviolent drug cases. But he fled from rehab, missed court-ordered drug tests and continued using coke despite every warning.

Privately, his life was as chaotic as any addict's. His wife filed for separation (and, more recently, divorce). According to documents filed in L.A. courts that NEWSWEEK reviewed, the IRS lodged tax liens totaling more than $1 million against him throughout the '90s. Several banks won sizable judgments. And producers Terence Michael and Richard Finney are suing Downey and his father, filmmaker Robert Downey Sr., claiming they commissioned the pair to write a script in 1996 for $250,000. What they got instead sounds truly bizarre: a series of unrelated vignettes involving waiters yelling at customers and other "themes of anger and paranoia," according to Michael. They are strung together under the movie title "The Very Special." Downey Jr. is scheduled to be deposed in the breach-of-contract suit this week. (Footnote: it was Downey Sr. who first introduced his son to marijuana, when he was 6. "We thought it was cute to let them smoke it and all," he has said. "It was an idiot move on our parts.")

By 1999, Superior Court Judge Lawrence Mira believed he had little choice but to jail Downey. "We tried rehabilitation. It simply has not worked," he said at the time. Downey became the rarest of Hollywood felons: locked up while still young and at the height of his career. To all outward appearances, he'd reached rock bottom.

He still hadn't. Released in August, his comeback seemed effortless. He posed shirtless for Details magazine and charmed reporters with his belief that prison saved his life. But charm is the strategy of a successful addict. His treatment counselors soon granted him more liberty. He was out for just three months before police, responding to an anonymous 911 call the Sunday after Thanksgiving, discovered four small bags of cocaine and 16 Valium pills in his $625-a-night hotel room. He later tested positive for both drugs.

What went wrong? People close to him blame his relapse on depression brought on by his festering finances and splintering marriage. "I know it's textbook to say he might have wanted to go back to prison, that he might have felt he needed that kind of help again. But I don't buy it," says Michael Hoffman, a friend who directed Downey in "Restoration." "I think it was just one of those horrible holiday nights when you feel bad and you know an easy way to feel better." Hoffman believes it would be "a monumental act of stupidity" to remand him to prison in response.

Experts know that relapses are common on the road to recovery, and not always signs of complete failure. Still, some believe that Downey has not tried hard enough. "He needs a substantial period of treatment--six months, a year, maybe longer," says Joseph Califano Jr., chairman of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. "But will he do that or will he go back to the 'Ally McBeal' show?" Califano and many other specialists lay part of the blame on the system, first for allowing Downey to slip so frequently before cracking down, then for cracking down by removing him from his treatment regimen and slamming him into prison--and finally, for paroling him to lax follow-up. "You wouldn't try to train a puppy that way," says Mark A.R. Kleiman, a drug-policy expert at UCLA.

The actor is out on $15,000 bail and awaiting a plea proposal from prosecutors. As a repeat offender, he faces a maximum sentence of four years. Meanwhile, Downey is seeing a psychiatrist who has diagnosed clinical depression; he is taking medication for it. It is the first time he has been treated with prescription drugs for any underlying psychiatric disorder. In addition, he gives weekly urine samples to his parole officer, attends daily recovery meetings and has recently begun leading other addicts in peer-counseling sessions.

The good news for Downey, at least financially, is that his "Ally McBeal" character has been renewed for another season. This is also good news for the show, which had been slipping before he arrived as Calista Flockhart's love interest. But whether the show's success is good news for Downey's recovery is still not clear. His career remains up in the air because film producers are increasingly doubtful he'd be able to finish any movie he starts without threats of a new arrest or prison sentence. He seems to know this keenly. According to the arrest report, one of the officers said to him, "Just because you are a movie star, that doesn't mean you can break the rules." Downey replied, "I'm not a movie star. I'm a guy with a drug problem." Chalk up at least one loss for Goat Boy?