Downey And Out Again

Starring in a hit television show is full-time work. So is staying sober when you are a recovering addict. Over Thanksgiving weekend in a swank desert hotel, Robert Downey Jr. apparently could no longer handle both jobs at the same time. Acting on a telephone tip, Palm Springs, Calif., police raided room 311 at Merv Griffin's Resort Hotel & Givenchy Spa, finding more than five grams of cocaine and methamphetamine in Downey's $600-a-night suite. He was arrested on four counts, including possession and being under the influence of a controlled substance. If convicted, the Oscar-nominated actor could spend more than six years in prison.

After battling drug problems for the last four years, Downey, 35, was in the midst of a Hollywood comeback. Yet that very return to work could have triggered his relapse. Released less than four months ago after serving a year in prison for another drug charge, Downey was playing Calista Flockhart's flame in 10 episodes of "Ally McBeal," was set to appear in the Julia Roberts film "American Sweethearts" and was going to be "Hamlet" onstage for director Mel Gibson. But some acquaintances and drug counselors say such a hectic, 16-hour-a-day schedule left no room for Downey's most demanding role: staying clean and sober. "If you're working that hard, you're not putting in enough time in your recovery," says Larry Johnson, a drug counselor at Union Station, a group home in Pasadena. Dr. Manijeh Nikakhtar, a psychiatrist who had met with Downey during his yearlong imprisonment, believes Downey is "bipolar." "His life has been messed up by the people around him," she says, adding that what he really needs is medical intervention to treat his "psychiatric disorder."

Indeed, even with Downey's facing possibly his worst personal crisis yet, people around him continued to speculate about his professional fortune, including whether he would finish his "Ally McBeal" commitment. (Downey returned to work on the show last week after his arrest.) "We certainly hope he'll be part of it," Gail Berman, Fox's programming chief, said in a conference call. "If he is, that will be wonderful, and if not, we have Anne Heche." Alan Nierob, Downey's spokesman, said the actor had been putting in long acting hours but "every day, he has been working on his sobriety. He had not neglected his duty" to go to meetings. (The actor, as well as his talent agency, declined to comment.) Downey's upcoming film role with Roberts, scheduled to start filming Jan. 10, is now doubtful.

Downey's career has been distinguished by volatility both on camera and off. From 1987's "Less Than Zero" (in which his character overdoses) to this year's "The Wonder Boys" (where he plays a book editor fond of partying), Downey has been one of Hollywood's more electrifying performers, and was nominated for a best-actor Academy Award for 1992's "Chaplin." But his addictions grew to overshadow his acting. He was arrested in 1996 for driving with drugs and a gun in his car, and weeks later he was found, uninvited and unconscious, in a neighbor's house. After several unsuccessful stays in rehabilitation programs, county-jail time and a probation violation, Downey was eventually sentenced to state prison in 1999. But even before he was released in August, the phone was ringing with fresh show-business offers, and his prison discharge was greeted with spectacular "He's back!" media fanfare, including a cover story in Details and a feature interview in Vanity Fair.

Of course, Downey is not alone. News stories about celebrities who may have drug problems have become nearly as common as box-office tallies. Actor Christian Slater served jail time for battery and drug convictions, and actress Melanie Griffith recently sought treatment for a prescription-medication addiction. But unlike actors such as Charlie Sheen--who appears to have stayed clean since a nearly fatal 1998 drug overdose--Downey seems to have not yet hit that life-altering bottom. What's more, Downey's combination of acting promise and inability to conquer his demons makes his story particularly sad. "He's a kid who has all the gifts the gods could hand him, but one terrible illness," says producer Norman Lear, a longtime Downey family friend.

Downey, who faces a Dec. 27 court hearing on the latest arrest, acknowledged his self-destructiveness before a judge last year, saying, "It's like I've got a shotgun in my mouth, and I've got my finger on the trigger, and I like the taste of gun metal." In a business where money may be the ultimate higher power, perhaps Hollywood forgot that it's one day--not one deal--at a time.