Sick, and busted three times in four weeks, Robert Downey Jr. becomes the most recent casualty of Hollywood's heroin resurgence

By Tom Gliatto
Updated August 19, 1996 12:00 PM

A WEEK INTO A COURT-ORDERED 45-DAY TREATMENT program for cocaine and heroin addiction, Robert Downey Jr., sitting behind locked doors and barred windows, had a question for Joe Bilella, his best friend, business partner and only allowable visitor: Had his recent troubles, Downey wondered, made any headlines out there?

“I told him, ‘Yeah, you could say that,'” says Bilella.

Downey’s summer of living dangerously came to its official close on July 29 in Malibu municipal court. That morning, in what was essentially the coda to a bizarre string of arrests, escapes and escapades, the 31-year-old star of Chaplin, Restoration, Only You and Natural Born Killers stood before Judge Lawrence Mira for the third time in seven days. At the first appearance, July 22, attorney Charles English, speaking on his client’s behalf, had entered a plea of not guilty to two felony charges and three misdemeanors, including possession of heroin and cocaine, driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs, and carrying an unloaded .357 Magnum handgun in his truck. Downey, in a yellow prison jumpsuit, had appeared sallow and thin—confirming one Malibu neighbor’s recent comment that “he looks a hundred years old.”

On July 29th, Downey’s third appearance, English, L.A. County prosecutor Ellen Aragon and Judge Mira agreed that Downey would be sent off to a private rehab clinic and remain there, under round-the-clock supervision, at least until Aug. 23. Mira sternly asked Downey whether he appreciated the seriousness of his situation. For the first and last time in any of the hearings, Downey spoke. “Yes,” he said quietly. “I do.”

By then, he probably did. Aragon, stating the case bluntly, had called him “a danger to himself and the community,” and even English had conceded to reporters, “He has a problem.” In the courtroom, actress Deborah Falconer, Downey’s estranged wife and mother of their 2-year-old son, Indio, gave her own mute testimony from her seat, at times choking back tears. His mother, Elsie Downey, a former actress, had flown in from her home near Pittsburgh. And the actor’s father, director Robert Downey Sr., talking to PEOPLE, said simply, “I’m glad he’s alive.”

Downey’s former manager Loree Rodkin, who says now that she falsely assured studio executives that he was clean, just sighs when asked about the actor. “Every day I look in the newspaper,” she told PEOPLE, “and I think that I am going to read Robert’s obituary.”

Downey’s nightmarish predicament suggests a personal hell at odds with his devil-may-care affability. A performer of unique but unmistakable star appeal—puppyish energy, warm-eyed vulnerability, an undertone of fey decadence—Downey always seemed to be waiting for the breakthrough hit that would finally earn him superstardom. “I have never met a person with more raw talent,” says a screenwriter who worked with Downey. Since 1987 the actor has appeared in some two dozen movies and, at 27, was a Best Actor Oscar nominee for Chaplin.

But instead of breaking through, he has broken down. If River Phoenix’s fatal heroin-and-cocaine overdose at 23 came as a heartbreaking jolt almost three years ago, Downey’s legal misadventures were increasingly desperate postcards from the edge.

On June 23 at 11:15 a.m., Malibu sheriffs pulled him over after his black 1996 Explorer was clocked going 70 mph along a 50-mph stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway. They found heroin, cocaine and crack—and the gun. Downey posted $10,000 bail and left. Then, three weeks later, he stumbled into the Malibu home of strangers and passed out in an 11-year-old’s bed. Four days after that, he went AWOL from the detox center where he’d been placed by court order.

The actor looked sickly and depressed when brought into Malibu municipal court on July 22 for his arraignment with his hands cuffed behind his back. (His short haircut was for One Night Stand, in which he plays a man with AIDS.) By the July 25 hearing, though, Downey appeared more alert—”lucid,” according to a sheriff’s deputy. He mouthed a “Hi, Mom,” to his mother, who has been divorced from Robert Sr. since 1982.

Downey is one of several show-business luminaries to tangle with heroin of late On July 12, Jonathan Melvoin, 34, a keyboard player for Smashing Pumpkins, died of an overdose. (The band fired drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, who had done heroin with Melvoin that night.) In June, Scott Weiland, lead singer of Stone Temple Pilots, checked into rehab, bolted, then turned himself in again. And Kurt Cobain had been struggling with heroin addiction when he committed suicide in 1994.

The rise in heroin use isn’t epidemic, but any upward tick is alarming. A 1995 survey by the Office of National Drug Control Policy reports increased use among young and middle-class adults. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, heroin-related ER visits rose 27 percent recently. Thanks to worldwide bumper crops of poppy, the most common source for heroin, supply is up, prices are down. And purity has increased. That means highs may take users that much higher and can be achieved by inhaling or smoking—easing fears of HIV-infected syringes.

But the heroin experience soon turns from calming to harrowing. Withdrawal brings nausea, cramping and fever. By far the strongest component of addiction is psychological. “Heroin becomes part of [an addict’s] self-definition,” says Jonathan Caulkins, a researcher for the RAND institute of Santa Monica, a nonprofit think tank. “To give up the habit amounts to giving up one’s identity. It’s like a death.”

However Downey regarded himself, one twentysomething L.A. dealer laughs him off as ludicrously inept. It isn’t necessary to drive around with contraband in your car, the source told PEOPLE, when dealers will drop drugs off at your home. Why, then, would a star, with so much to lose and such easy access to privacy, be out on the road with a stash? Did Downey, as one friend suspects, regard himself as an urban desperado, riding into a dealer-friendly neighborhood to score? Perhaps, says the friend, he was drawn to the “romance of the underside of the drug culture—the slumming.”

If so, slumming may have been expensive. One friend says Downey had been calling around lately trying to borrow money. Larry Hagman, from whom Downey once rented another Malibu home, says he turned down the actor’s request, offering instead to pay for rehab. (Bilella denies that Downey has a money problem.) When another concerned friend—who, now clean, says he freebased cocaine with Downey in the ’80s—phoned him last year to confront him with rumors of renewed drug use, Downey answered, “I’ve got everything under control.”

Not likely. Even in the good times, Downey always has seemed to thrive on a lack of restraint. When he was living with actress Sarah Jessica Parker in 1984, his father told PEOPLE, “Without her, Robert would go at 100 miles an hour into a brick wall.” In bad times? After his first stint in rehab, in 1988, Downey told New York Newsday that he had been willing to try everything from “rope to Sterno.” As one family friend puts it, “He just does everything he can get his hands on.”

A source close to Downey says that even old friends who were used to his volatility had begun worrying about him. Just prior to the June 23 arrest, Sean Penn “got concerned” about Downey, says the source, and “basically took [Downey’s] car keys away and kidnapped him.” Penn reportedly flew Downey to Arizona and checked him into Sierra Tucson, the same high-priced clinic where Downey tried to deal with his cocaine problem seven years ago. This time, he is said to have checked himself out within 24 hours.

For Downey, drugs have been virtually a lifelong companion. In a 1988 interview for The New Breed, a book on young actors edited by Karen Hardy Downey claimed his father had introduced him to drugs (marijuana, says a female friend of the actor’s) in New York City before he was a teenager. As director of such irreverent comedies as Putney Swope, Greaser’s Palace and Pound (in which 5-year-old Robert played a puppy), Downey Sr. was a force in the counterculture of the late ’60s and early ’70s. In his family, said Downey Jr., “there was always a lot of pot and coke around.” Drugs became an emotional bond. “When my dad and I would do drugs together,” explained Downey, “it was like him trying to express his love for me in the only way he knew how.” Eventually, Downey saw no reason not to “spend every night out getting drunk…making a thousand phone calls in pursuit of drugs,” he said.

His drug use only increased with his stardom. By the mid-’80s, his former manager Loree Rodkin says, Downey was routinely getting high. “I couldn’t stand to see him demolish himself,” she says. She finally begged him to seek help in rehab in 1988. “And when he came out, he fired me for making him face it.” (She later switched to jewelry design, partly because she was tired of dealing with clients’ abuse problems.)

But in less than three years, Downey was off the wagon. Rayce Newman, author of a 1994 tell-all memoir, The Hollywood Connection, recalls an escapade with the actor in 1991. “I had a gun, freebase cocaine, powder cocaine, Ecstasy,” says Newman. “I’m holding the wheel going 100 mph, high as a kite, and he’s taking a hit off a cocaine pipe.”

Still, for stretches of up to several months, Downey has sometimes stayed clean. John Eskow, who coproduced Air America, a 1990 comedy in which Downey costarred with Mel Gibson, was impressed by the young actor. “He was newly clean and had been attending AA meetings,” says Eskow. The movie was shot in Thailand, he says, “and drugs were very accessible. But he was turning them away. He waged a heroic battle.”

Until recently, Downey had been working. A week after his first arrest, he finished shooting his father’s film Hugo Pool. And, between the first arrest and the second on July 16, he completed work on the drama One Night Stand. “He showed up when he was scheduled to show up,” says a spokesman for New Line Cinema, “and finished when he was scheduled to finish. And he didn’t miss a day.”

But neither work nor jail stopped his downhill momentum. On July 16 he wandered, dazed and confused, into the Malibu home of neighbors Bill and Lisa Curtis, stripped to his underwear, draped his jeans over a chair and curled up in their son’s bed. When Lisa peeked in the room a little after 9 p.m., she wondered if her son had gone to sleep early. She pulled back the sheets and discovered Downey, whom she didn’t recognize. Unable to rouse him, she dialed 911.

Police booked Downey, for the second time in three weeks, for being under the influence of a controlled substance. (Curtis declined to file trespassing charges.) After spending the night at the USC Medical Center’s ward for prisoners, he dashed into the morning light, a T-shirt on his head, and made an obscene gesture to reporters. Two days later, under court order, Downey was delivered to a drug-rehab program, the Exodus Recovery Center in Marina del Rey. Two burly private guards accompanied him. As he was led to his room, Downey smiled and taunted the guards, telling them he’d have no trouble escaping.

He made good on that boast Saturday morning, July 20. Escaping through the window in his bathroom, Downey crawled out and hitchhiked to a friend’s home in Malibu. Security guards tracked him down and returned him to the clinic four hours later. “I’m back,” he announced to no one in particular. Then, having violated a court order, he was taken off to jail.

Now Downey must accept help or risk death. At the undisclosed Los Angeles rehab center, he goes to therapy sessions, cleans his room and takes part in group recreation. His friend and business partner Joe Bilella has brought him books, a letter from Falconer and pictures of their son, and fan mail. “He’s put on some weight and he’s feeling well,” says Bilella. “When he gets that smile, and we look at each other, I know he’s back inside there. Robert wants to get better.” Mary Jo Slater, a casting director and mother of actor Christian Slater, agrees. “He’s going to have a road back,” says Slater, who knows Downey, “but I think people will root for him because of his talent.”