Robert Downey Jr., hard at work

HARD AT WORK: Robert Downey Jr.’s versatility is tested by three diverse roles. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

TO become a mega-movie star these days, a man must don the tights. With a few notable exceptions like Leonardo DiCaprio, who had the good fortune to be in the highest-grossing movie of all time (that would be "Titanic"), almost every $20-million man has done his time as a caped crusader, masked marvel or some popcorn equivalent, such as a pirate or extraterrestrial G-man. Call it the Nicolas Cage career plan, in which Cage traded in artistic cred for more muscles, Bruckheimer-bravado and enormous paychecks. In his canny wake have followed Johnny Depp, Tobey Maguire, Keanu Reeves, Will Smith -- the list of stars who've streamlined their individuality for mega-stardom goes on and on.

Now it's Robert Downey Jr.'s turn.


Yup, the 43-year-old ex-junkie, ex-con, Oscar-nominated professional entertainer is renouncing his title as the talent most likely to disappoint, everyone's lovable screw-up, the walking cautionary-tale. He's assuming the mantle of "Iron Man," another in a long line of comic book renditions, which hits theaters Friday, kicking off the summer movie season.

Given Downey's years as a reigning wit, an unflappable, unpredictable screen presence, the thought of him soaring the skies in a red metal suit and bopping bad guys is a little depressing to someone over 25, except for the fact that Downey seems so darn happy about it. Really, really happy. Relieved. Maybe even grateful.

He's about to barnstorm the world on a month-long "Iron Man" tour, and he's genuinely thrilled. Finally, he's the headliner -- the one with his mug on dolls and Slurpee cups. "It's feeling the support of the machine of the industry and all that behind you. You know, supporting what you busted your ass doing," he explains.

Despite having worked in Hollywood since he was a teenager, Downey has never been part of the blockbuster machine, the kind of star who makes studio execs see dollar signs. "I'm just on people's radar in a different way," he says. "If you're not on someone's radar, you don't notice because there's no, like, business pheromone coming off of them."


LIFE is finally good.

He's not dead. He's not on drugs. As recently as five years ago, Downey had to pay for his own insurance to even appear in a movie, and now a studio is banking a huge franchise on him, and the buzz-o-meter is off the charts. As Tony Stark, debonair super-nerd weapons tycoon turned superhero, he's playing a character who is essentially a PG-riff on his persona -- he's decadent-lite, a self-indulgent high-flier who wakes up at age 40 and decides to do good. In the film, Stark is captured by guerrillas in Afghanistan, realizes how the arms he's been pushing for the last decades are creating more harm than good and develops a techno-suit that allows him to fly, shoot fire and escape his jail cave. It's an origin story, refashioned as a coming-of-middle-age saga -- Stark sets out to atone for his life of sin -- but will he be redeemed?

Hmmm. Art imitating life anyone?

Almost every movie star with a brain is professionally charming in an interview, but Downey's charm goes far beyond that. It appears wired into his DNA, an endearing need to be liked that coexists with a fierce desire not to care what anybody thinks. Antic deadpan is one of his modes. Teflon vulnerability is another. You have to spend only five minutes with the guy to understand why Hollywood stuck by him through his travails -- it's a testament to his talent and innate likability.

When the cast of professional image-managers finally leave the hotel suite, Downey sprawls out in a chair with balletic grace and downshifts into a thoughtful-philosophical-jazz monologuist mode. He's ready to professionally opine on himself as required by his role as atoning movie star. He smokes a cigar, perhaps his only remaining vice, and his innate restlessness is confined to fidgety opening and shutting a small silver suitcase that contains a cornucopia of vitamin supplements for his upcoming multi-continent publicity tour. "That's a pituitary formula. That's for jet lag," he says, pointing to various bottles. "Anyone who doesn't need their yin tonified is beyond me," he deadpans.


Downey has been working up a storm -- by many accounts he steals the show in the late summer comedy "Tropic Thunder" with his performance as an Oscar-winning Australian actor named Kirk Lazarus who goes for the ultimate transformation by having his skin darkened in a Singapore clinic so he can convincingly play an African American screen commando in a Vietnam epic. "He stays in character all the time even when he's not filming," explains director/costar Ben Stiller. Still, as Stiller notes, "the voice and his look is so far from who he is, when [Robert] would drop character, it would be disconcerting. He's been underutilized in the comedy world."

Downey also has his would be-Oscar contender later this year. Just last week, he finished his part as Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez in "The Soloist," a film about Lopez's relationship with a musically gifted homeless schizophrenic, played by Jamie Foxx. Downey says his wife, producer Susan Levin Downey, told him, "You look like a billy goat with your gray beard and the hair. She goes, 'Put a nice rinse in your hair for the press tour and shave, and don't come home until you've cleaned up things,' " recounts Downey.

Downey's sober re-ascension of Hollywood is a far cry from the guy who was once arrested while driving his Porsche down Sunset Boulevard naked, chucking phantom rats out the window. Or the man-boy who played Goldilocks by wandering into a neighbor's house and falling asleep in a child's bed only to be awakened by paramedics. The years 1996 to 2000 flashed by in a blur of drug arrests and failed drug tests, and was capped by a year's stint in the California state prison in Corcoran after he violated probation. He reemerged in television's "Ally McBeal," won a Golden Globe and was fired after he tumbled off the wagon and was arrested for cocaine and methamphetamine possession.

After a year in rehab, he began rebuilding his career again, eventually nabbing more interesting movies such as "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," "Good Night, and Good Luck," "Zodiac" and "Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus." Still, no one was thinking of him to top-line a would-be commercial juggernaut, and "Iron Man" didn't exactly drop in his lap.

"Much to my surprise, I really didn't fit any of the criteria for the kind of actor they thought they should cast," says Downey.