Robert Downey Jr. may be sober, but temptation still falls into his lap. After a screening of The Singing Detective at the Toronto Film Festival in September, Downey stayed clear of the alcohol flowing freely around him—until a waiter spilled a cocktail on the star’s trousers. Sheepishly the waiter grabbed a club soda to clean up the mess. Downey declined the assistance. “But I’ll drink it, thanks,” he said, grabbing the can. “It’s warm,” said the waiter, offering to get some ice. “That’s okay,” replied Downey, who guzzled it down while the party hummed around him.
If Downey isn’t toasting with champagne these days, that’s reason enough for him to celebrate. The actor, 38, now says he’s sober after a long odyssey with drugs and alcohol. He’s also putting some normalcy in his life, spending time with a new girlfriend and his 10-year-old son Indio and getting great notices for The Singing Detective, his first film in three years. In the adaptation of the 1986 BBC miniseries, he plays a writer with a severe case of psoriasis who dreams of—and inserts himself into—the screenplay of his first novel. “Some viewers,” wrote Variety, “will see the role as an eerily apt metaphor for the actor’s own all-too-public struggles with recurrent personal problems.”
“I don’t know who else could have done it,” says Detective director Keith Gordon, who shot the film last spring while Downey was still in a yearlong rehab program. “From the darkest depths to the silly comedy to the singing and dancing, Robert has that ability to change gears emotionally.” Mel Gibson, who produced and costars in Detective, has also played a large role in his friend’s recovery. “He’s like a big brother who is like the star of the football team and doesn’t want to see me on the bench,” says Downey. Gibson first piqued Downey’s interest in the film by dropping off tapes of the BBC series when Downey was undergoing drug treatment. About a month into the shoot, Gibson rewarded his pal with a BMW motorcycle. “I figure if you made it two-thirds of the way through,” he told Downey, “you can’t do anything wrong.”
Though he says “it has been ages” since he has taken drugs, Downey admits that staying sober is tough. “It’s really hard unless you stop imagining that there’s some way you can control that stuff,” he says. Marvels composer Jonathan Elias, a longtime friend: “He has more of a sense of well-being than I’ve seen in a long time.” Even so, his troubled past is causing him some professional headaches. “He has to put up a lot of his own salary to get insured,” says Joel Silver, producer of Downey’s upcoming thriller Gothika. Insurance issues led to Downey’s being dropped from consideration for an upcoming Woody Allen film. “We could’ve worked it out,” insists Downey, who says he’s not considering a lawsuit. (Allen’s rep says the insurance was prohibitively expensive.) “I’m less of an insurance risk than anybody I am going to work with for the next while,” Downey adds, “because I am aware of my limitations.”
That wasn’t the case for much of his life. After his first brush with drugs at 8 (taking a hit off a joint from his dad, filmmaker Robert Downey), he fell into a self-destructive spiral during the ’90s, even as he impressed critics with his performances in Chaplin and Natural Born Killers. In June 1996 he was pulled over for speeding, and police found heroin, crack and an unloaded gun in his car. He spent the next six years in and out of prison and rehab, due to various probation violations and relapses (which also led to his 2001 firing from a career-rejuvenating turn on Ally McBeal).
Now cleaned up, Downey has put his love life back on track as well with Susan Levin, a producer whom he met while making Gothika last spring. “She’s been very firm that if he’s going to be with her, he has to really toe the line, and he’s done that,” says Silver. Levin “has got me in a freakin’ choke chain, and I love it,” says Downey, who sports a new “Susie Q” tattoo on one arm. His other arm bears the name of son Indio, whose mother is Downey’s estranged wife, Deborah Falconer (the couple separated in 1996). “He sees him a lot,” says a Downey friend. “They go camping and play video games together, and Robert always goes to his soccer games.” On his own time, Downey practices yoga and martial arts at a pal’s modest house in Malibu. “He’s taking good care of himself physically, mentally, everything,” says a friend. “There’s no stopping him now.”
Mark Dagostino in Toronto, Brenda Rodriguez and Rachel Biermann in Los Angeles and Caroline Howard in New York City