Channeling Chaplin : It is the role of Robert Downey Jr.’s career--and he believes the Little Tramp is with him

<i> Hilary de Vries is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

His aura of languor isn’t exactly studied, it’s just kind of there, in the way he rises from the sofa with a disheveled elegance at 3 in the afternoon, his black tie loosened over a rumpled silk shirt. It’s there in the way he drops ice cubes into a glass while bemusedly asking, “Have we met?” And the way he heads back to the sofa, stifling a yawn while lighting a cigarette, it’s like Cary Grant going back to bed.

Maybe Robert Downey Jr. has just heard it all too many times before. Best thing in a lot of bad movies-- 17 if you’re counting. Or perhaps Sir Richard Attenborough’s pithy aphorism, “This little Brat Pack gadfly with virtually no discipline,” is all too true.

Yet surely, “Chaplin,” Attenborough’s glossy biography of Charlie Chaplin, is arguably the role of a lifetime even if no studio was eager to finance a film about the Fuller-brush mustachioed icon who is possibly best-known in more modern times as a marketing device for IBM computers?


Oh that , Downey seems to say as he sinks onto the sofa, looking distractedly around for an ashtray. “Well, I heard Attenborough was making this movie . . .,” he says, beginning one of the more oft-told tales of late that involves Britain’s Grand Old Man of Cinema engaged in a Hollywood plot worthy of the Little Tramp himself.

”. . . And he asked me to screen test.”

And ? After all, the 27-year-old actor with no professional training did ace 30 other contenders for the role with that one performance.

“You know the Nijinsky scene in the movie where I ballet dance around?” Downey says suddenly snapping to a full upright position on the sofa. “Well, I did a version of that in and out of character as the Tramp. Then I had to walk into a room with a ladder and be funny and I didn’t know what I was going to do but I was charged and so I went in the door and got my foot caught and then I was going to walk under the ladder and then decided not to so I just started dancing and then they put some gray in my hair and a ‘30s suit on me and asked me questions like ‘What did you do today, Charlie?’ and because I had done some research, I talked about what film I was shooting and what party I was going to and then it was a couple of weeks after that that Attenborough called me up and said, ‘I would very much like you to be Charlie,’ and I was like wahhhhhhhhh!

Downey smiles, breathing a bit heavily after this monologue. “That was one year and 51 weeks ago yesterday.”

And possibly an entire career-length away. Despite a pedigree that begins with being the only son of Robert Downey Sr., the underground filmmaker of such movies as “Putney Swope” and “Greaser’s Palace,” and includes a season on TV’s “Saturday Night Live” (during one of the show’s weakest years, 1985-86), Downey has largely been regarded as a de facto member of Hollywood’s Brat Pack.

With his heavy-lidded eyes and pretty boy if slightly petulant features, Downey seemed a natural as one of that camera-ready clutch of post-Baby Boomers who appeared in the mid-1980s as Hollywood’s Next Wave. Since his first professional screen role in John Sayles’ 1982 comedy “Baby, It’s You,” Downey made nearly a dozen, mostly forgettable, films (“Weird Science,” “Less Than Zero” and “The Pick-Up Artist” among them) before deciding to refashion himself as a leading-man-in-the-making.

In 1989, he appeared in two major features--”Chances Are,” in which he played opposite Cybill Shepherd, and “True Believer,” in which he was paired with James Woods. Both films performed well and Downey in particular earned good critical notice. Rolling Stone anointed him “Hot Actor” of the year. When he was teamed just a year later with Mel Gibson in “Air America,” Downey’s future looked assured. But when that action film failed to take off and his next two roles were swallowed in the mediocre comedies--”Too Much Sun,” directed by his father, and “Soapdish,” starring Sally Field and Whoopi Goldberg--Downey seemed stuck again in the good-performance-horrible-movie category.


“Actors are forever trying to figure out their lives,” says Downey with obvious distaste. “Like, ‘OK, OK, OK, if I do this thriller it will get me--what?’ What?! You know what I prefer to think about? Going to Sedona or Santa Fe or somewhere and having a nice meal, lying around and not getting on the phone and trying to make some big nonsense happen.”

Nevertheless, Downey is acutely aware that “Chaplin,” a $37-million film by the Oscar-winning director of “Gandhi” and “Cry Freedom,” which also stars Anthony Hopkins, Dan Aykroyd, Kevin Kline and Geraldine Chaplin, could well be the big nonsense that pushes him into a different league as a performer. He is also cognizant of the fact that virtually no one except Attenborough was convinced he could play the silent-screen legend whose more ignoble offscreen life--Chaplin was vilified for his pro-Soviet politics and his numerous liaisons with underage women--was tabloid fodder.

Not only does “Chaplin,” which opens Friday, represent the first film of its size that Downey has carried, but the withdrawal of Universal Pictures from the film just days before shooting was to begin, and after the studio had invested nearly $9 million in pre-production costs, was largely attributed to doubts about Downey as an acting talent and a box-office draw. When Attenborough refused to reconsider his casting choice, alternative financing was arranged through Carolco and a handful of foreign film companies.

“I know I was not the studio’s dream to play Chaplin,” Downey says leaning forward, his elbows propped on his knees, tabling his languor for boyish earnestness. “There are five or six people I can think of, without actually naming them, who would have been considered more viable for this role.

“But I know that I was supposed to play this,” he continues. “I’ve never had anyone back me the way Attenborough did and I’m so proud that I made the film without having a real nervous breakdown. But I know that he (Chaplin) also had a hand in this, that somehow he and I are connected. You don’t do something like this where his spirit doesn’t check in.”

And in an interview, Downey does seem less impressed by any career-making possibilities attending the release of “Chaplin” than an almost mystical connection to the actor. Months after shedding the signature derby and mustache and rattan cane, Downey still seems awe-struck--some have said “obsessed”--by Chaplin. “I’m just so nuts about Charlie,” he says. “I love him so much.”

Indeed, in a conversation, Downey plays the proverbial actor, an artist in search of an identity, and if it is borrowed, well, so much the better. His fascination with Chaplin seems to extend from simply an acting challenge to something more cosmic--a largely solipsistic attitude that is both touching and humorous. Puffing on a series of Marlboro Lights and alternating from toe-tapping restlessness to a fully prone position that perhaps only Freud could love, Downey exhibits a dizzying sequence of emotional postures that range from insouciant languidness to limpid adoration to maniacal enthusiasm.


“He is still the most recognizable image on this planet,” he says. “Still! That’s what I hear. That’s what I believe. Aboriginal tribes see his movies. You know, Madonna’s influence is confined to Italy in some people’s opinions, but Chaplin united the world in a way. He and Adolf Hitler are the two archetypes of the 20th Century and just in case we don’t get it, God made them look alike. But I’ve said that before, so that’s boring.”

Downey slumps back in his chair, runs a hand through his hair.

“OK, how about this dynamic?” he asks. “An amazing actor turned director (Attenborough) directs an actor who is a director’s son in a film about an amazing actor turned director, know what I mean? There’s like a lot of circles within circles going on.”

He pauses and then starts again.

“That’s what I’m saying. Before Charlie, I would be the one to go have a snack instead of nailing the scene. Because then you don’t have to admit how much acting really means to you.”

“Ooooh, just look at him,” coos Attenborough, tossing this bit of foolery dolled up in the Queen’s English over a hotel terrace railing. “Doesn’t he look just like Tyrone Power?”

“Excuse me,” retorts Downey, Juliet-like on the neighboring balcony, smiling frozenly into a photographer’s popping flash. “Excuse me, but I’m working.”

Downey’s flippancy aside, both actor and director are aware that Downey’s participation in “Chaplin”--and indeed the making of the film itself--are the product of Attenborough’s legendary doggedness. “Gandhi,” which won eight Academy Awards in 1982 including best director and best picture, was the result of the director’s 20-year crusade to film the biography of the Indian pacifist.


When Attenborough was looking for a project to follow “Cry Freedom,” his 1987 film biography about Steve Biko, the South African civil rights activist, he spent more than two years developing a script about Thomas Paine, the American Revolutionary hero. When Universal, where Attenborough has a three-picture deal, declined to put the $65-million historical drama into production, the director was uncharacteristically at a loss.

“I was devastated,” says the snowy-thatched bewhiskered director, dropping into an overstuffed chair in his hotel suite. “After two years of work and then a ‘No.’ I was distraught.”

It was Diana Hawkins, Attenborough’s longtime assistant, who came up with idea of “Chaplin” in less than a week. “I said, ‘You can’t come up with an idea for a film in three days,’ ” says Attenborough, who is interrupted by Hawkins ticking off the film’s criteria.

“You had to have fact, biography, somebody who changed the world in a way that was interesting to you,” says the associate producer, seated in a nearby chair. “And you wanted someone with whose life you could examine fame and what it does to you.”

And indeed, Attenborough had been a longtime admirer of Chaplin and had even met the director late in his life. After procuring the rights to Chaplin’s 1974 autobiography from his widow, Oona Chaplin, as well as David Robinson’s biography “Chaplin: His Life and Art” as the basis of his film, Attenborough commissioned a script from William Boyd with later input from William Goldman and Bryan Forbes and received the go-head from Universal.

Attenborough cast several well-known actors in the film’s key roles. Aykroyd plays Mack Sennett, the producer of the Keystone Kops, Kevin Kline portrays Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Chaplin’s close friend, and Anthony Hopkins plays the fictional editor of Chaplin’s autobiography. Chaplin’s many leading ladies and numerous wives are portrayed by Moira Kelly, Diane Lane, Penelope Ann Miller and Marisa Tomei.


The hunt for Charlie, however, was more difficult. He looked at 30 actors, including Dustin Hoffman, Billy Crystal and Robin Williams, who had contacted the director about the role, and eventually screen-tested seven--including Downey, who had caught Attenborough’s attention with his performance in “Air America.”

“I thought he showed a wickedness and a cheek and an irreverence and an ability to throw away a line that had nothing to do with Charlie but were elements that were needed,” recalls the director. Although an initial meeting arranged by Creative Artists Agency between actor and director was something of a disaster--”I was wearing an earring and a Matsuda jacket and he was like ‘Oh dear,’ ” says Downey, dropping into a letter-perfect imitation of Attenborough--the subsequent screen test sealed the deal.

“A lot of what he did I thought was crap,” says Attenborough with a chuckle.

“But I remember you rubbing your hands together,” interjects Hawkins. “You said, ‘I could do business with him.’ ”

Once he had won the coveted role--largely on the basis of that screen test, his talents as a mimic and his physical similarities to Chaplin--Downey faced numerous challenges in portraying the legendary star. Since “Chaplin” tracks the star’s life from his impoverished London boyhood to his final years as a virtual exile at his Swiss estate, Downey needed to age to nearly 90 (6-year-old actor Hugh Downer plays Chaplin as a child), master a cockney accent as well as imitate Chaplin’s singular swayback posture. He also had to be funny without opening his mouth.

“It was challenge on top of challenge and frustration on top of frustration,” says Downey, who describes his usual acting approach as “pretty lazy, which has been a cover for me not really committing (to a role).”

“Robert works a lot the way he learned on . . . what’s the television show he did?” says Attenborough.


“Saturday Night Live,” says Hawkins.

“Right--improvisation, of the moment, intuitive, uncalculated, spontaneous et cetera,” continues Attenborough. “And because of the kinds of films I make, fact, documentary biography, I work on the basis of strict discipline and preparation, which was totally new to Robert. We had to start right from fundamentals with this little Brat Pack gadfly who had no discipline at all in terms of acting but was willing to work his backside off.”

Downey spent almost a year preparing for the role, reading historical narratives, reviewing Chaplin’s films while studying with various voice and movement coaches--including Johnny Hutch, a member of Britain’s Benny Hill comedy troupe who choreographed Downey’s music-hall sequences from actual eyewitness accounts of Chaplin’s own routines--as he learned to speak with a British accent, play tennis and the violin with his left hand, as well as master the comic postures and pratfalls of Chaplin’s screen persona, a puckishly asexual foil to his offscreen life.

“The whole thing is like with the pelvis (tipped) back,” says Downey standing up and arching his back in imitation of Chaplin’s famous Little Tramp stance. “He was such a lover in real life,” adds Downey, “but on film--’penis? Not threatening.’ ”

Such pre-production efforts, however, did little to assuage Universal executives, who became increasingly uncertain about the $30-million film, which was set to begin filming in Los Angeles, London and Switzerland in March, 1991. As one project observer put it, “Once it became clear that it wasn’t going to be a film with Crystal or Williams playing Chaplin, Universal was looking for a way out.”

“Nobody ever said to me, ‘We don’t think Robert can do it,’ ” says Attenborough. “But because Robert was neither fish nor fowl--he wasn’t Dusty (Hoffman) nor was he a complete unknown--and because the budget was $30 million, not $20 million, they simply refused to sign his agreement.”

When Attenborough insisted, after months of delay during which the elaborate Los Angeles sets had already been built, that Universal “sign Robert or put the bloody picture in turnaround,” back the answer came. “OK, the picture is in turnaround.”


Once Universal had withdrawn from the project, it took “48 hours and 10 months,” as Hawkins put it, for Attenborough to line up alternative financing at Carolco, Mario Kassar’s independent production company, which was--and is--undergoing its own financial difficulties. “Mario was magnificent,” say Attenborough. “He had these terrible money problems, he had lost his partner and everyone in town was telling him he was out of his mind to do the picture.”

Although Kassar agreed to finance the film together with a consortium of foreign distributors, shooting on “Chaplin” was delayed until November, 1991, while the script was trimmed, the principals took a pay cut and Downey declined offers of other roles. Even with that extra eight months of preparation, Downey still found the shoot a challenge when filming finally began last July. Not only did he feel slightly outclassed by Hopkins and Kline, two actors Downey considers exceptionally well-trained--”Tony has like 10 years of absolute clarity and focus (as an actor); he’s like in Zen . . . and Kevin, if he wants to take a scene from you there is no denying him”--but off the set, he and Attenborough occasionally quarreled about character interpretations.

“Robert was determined to get it right, which is what Chaplin himself was all about,” says Attenborough, who credits his star “with never fluffing a line once. Not once. But there were times I had to say to him, and I loathe this, ‘Robert, please, I have asked you to play Chaplin my way in my movie.’ ”

Downey found himself having to do dozens of takes for even basic scenes. “I have a hard time when I’m acting doing simple stuff, like opening a door,” says Downey, who concedes, “I was fearful shooting this. There were times I had to say to Richard, ‘Just do this scene and let me watch you so I know what you want.’ ”

Although Downey says “Attenborough taught me all this technical stuff so now there’s much that intimidates me on camera,” he adds that it wasn’t until he filmed a key scene--Chaplin’s first public performance in a London music hall--some 12 weeks into the shoot, “that I finally felt like I arrived as Chaplin.”

Downey himself concedes that his performance continues to affect him. “Sometimes I feel different even now,” he says. “You know, you suddenly drop down into this different thing and you smell different smells and feel different things and a car drives by and you get a sense that something else in the City of Angels is going on, that (it is a different time) and different movies are opening.”

Downey also regrets that he never crossed paths with the icon that he would come to portray. “It drives me crazy to think that when I was 7 years old in 1972 and Chaplin was in L.A. to pick up his Oscar that I was probably here with my dad, who would have been editing ‘Greaser’s Palace.’ Who would have guessed? This is in the self-indulgent version, but it’s like Clinton shaking hands with Kennedy or Stephen King’s ‘The Dead Zone.’ I really feel like there is something going on.”


Although the facile, charming actor has been long considered by many to be a director’s dream, Attenborough suggests that after “Chaplin,” “Robert is now Tom Cruise and a great character actor in one,” the director says, “a great romantic character actor and if he chooses his projects right, the world will be his oyster.”

If such projections are yet to be realized, Downey is currently well occupied. At the moment he is shooting “Heart and Souls,” a new comedy with director Ron Underwood (“City Slickers”) that co-stars Alfre Woodard and Charles Grodin. Downey can also be seen in Robert Altman’s upcoming “Short Cuts.” And he is in the process of signing a recording contract with Epic Records, the distributors of the “Chaplin” soundtrack album, on which Downey sings a version of “Smile,” which Chaplin wrote. Although Downey’s rendition does not appear in the film itself, the single will be released Jan. 5.

But Downey seems less confident of his future than either this plateful or Attenborough’s assessment suggest. “I don’t know,” he says, stifling a yawn. “Attenborough has convinced me you can be a character actor and a leading man too and I’m up for anything, but I don’t feel like I have to worry about it so much. I mean I’ll always worry but some of my peers are forever reading stuff and doing stuff and trying to meet people and branch out and sometimes I wish I had something going on with a development deal, but I really believe that you don’t have to try so hard.”

If you press him, Downey will admit to wanting to work with certain directors--”Scorsese or Spielberg; I would love to be the person who does, like, the new Indiana Jones movies”--or turning his hand to some script ideas he’s been kicking around for a while.

But he seems to prefer seeing his work in “Chaplin” as emblematic of larger, off-camera changes in his life. After a seven-year live-in relationship with actress Sarah Jessica Parker ended last year, Downey married actress Deborah Falconer in a spiritual ceremony seven months ago. (When asked if the couple is legally married, the actor’s spokesperson said, “As far as Robert and Debbie are concerned, they are married.”) And after several years of being a consistent user of drugs who went through a series of substance-abuse rehab programs--”I’m just not an AA guy”--Downey says he is now completely clean.

“I don’t get off on that bad-boy feeling anymore,” he says. “ I’m thinking about how I’ll feel tomorrow.”


Any question that his new-found success has created any awkwardness between himself and his filmmaker father, who lives a few blocks from Downey in the Hollywood Hills, and the actor dismisses the speculation. “When I was growing up I used to wish that my dad was Garry Marshall so my friends and I could have visited him on the set of ‘Happy Days,’ ” he says with a laugh. “But it’s all relative. The perception might be that I’m more successful than my father, but my father is a saint, who was always, always there for me.”

Downey, who dropped out of Santa Monica High School to pursue an acting career in New York more than 10 years ago, turns pensive at suggestions he grew up too fast to appreciate his position now. “No, I don’t think I grew up too fast,” he says, stubbing out his cigarette. “I feel a little like astronauts returning from space, that everything is a little different.

“But something did happen at the premiere the other night,” he adds, growing eager again. “(Actor) Jimmy Woods was at the screening because he plays a lawyer in ‘Chaplin,’ and when I did ‘True Believer’ with him there was like nothing I wouldn’t have done to be him. But last night he comes up to me and says, ‘I feel like I saw my kid grow up.’ And I said, ‘Does this mean I can get you on the horn now?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely not.’ But I did feel like someone handed me a baton, like I had graduated and that I didn’t have to go out and get drunk and ruin it. I just went home and went to bed early and I didn’t worry about it.”

Downey lets a slightly rueful smile flicker across his face.

“I, like, grew up in spite of myself.”