Robert Downey Sr. served in the army, played minor-league baseball, was a Golden Gloves champion and off-off Broadway playwright, all before he was 22 years old.
Downey was born in New York City, New York, the son of Elizabeth (McLoughlin), a model, and Robert Elias, who worked in hotel/restaurant management. He took the surname of his stepfather, James Downey, when enlisting in the army. His father was of Lithuanian Jewish descent, while his mother was of half Irish and half Hungarian Jewish ancestry. In 1960, he began writing and directing basement-budgeted, absurdist films that gained an underground following: Balls Bluff (1961), Babo 73 (1964), Chafed Elbows (1966) and No More Excuses (1968). Putney Swope (1969) was the first Downey-directed film to earn a mainstream release. A devastating satire of Madison Avenue, it explored what happens when an African-American activist is given carte blanche at an advertising agency. The film was among the year’s Top 10 Films in New York Magazine. Downey thrived in the laissez-faire film world of the 1970s with such irreverent films as Pound (1970), where humans play dogs waiting to be adopted. Around this time he worked on projects for Joseph Papp and the New York Public Theatre, directing David Rabe’s play “Sticks and Bones” for CBS (Sticks and Bones (1973)). The strong anti-war sentiments expressed in this live broadcast resulted in a major controversy when its sponsors pulled out at the last minute, and the network had to air the film uninterrupted because it couldn’t find a sponsor. His Greaser’s Palace (1972) is an outrageous restaging of the life of Christ in “spaghetti western” terms. Time Magazine put this film on its list of the year’s Top 10 movies. Downey’s take-no-prisoners sense of humor is also apparent in Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight (1975) and Hugo Pool (1997) (world premiere at the Sundance festival in 1997), a film that examines a day in the life of a female pool cleaner in Hollywood. Rittenhouse Square (2005) was the feature presentation of the Galway Film Festival and his second teaming with Max L. Raab, having been a consultant on Raab’s award-winning Strut! (2001).
From time to time Downey acts (badly, according to him) and he can be seen in films such as Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999) and The Family Man (2000). He has appeared twice on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1962), The Dick Cavett Show (1968), IFC’s At the IFC Center (1997), Sundance Channel and countless other TV and radio shows. In addition, Downey has been a guest speaker at film festivals and universities throughout the country. He is developing an update of “Putney Swope”. He lives in New York City with his wife, Rosemary Rogers.
Robert is the father of actors Robert Downey Jr. and Allyson Downey.
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