July 08, 1996 12:00 PM

AT 23, ACTOR ROBERT DOWNEY JR. TOLD The Los Angeles Times that the character he played in Less Than Zero, the 1987 movie about cocaine-frenzied Beverly Hills teenagers, was “medicating all his feelings with people, places and things. And I was doing the same thing.” In 1992, Richard Attenborough, who directed him in Chaplin, for which Downey was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, called him a “Brat Pack gadfly with virtually no discipline.” Even after fatherhood-he has a 3½-year-old son, Indio, by former model Deborah Falconer-and the widespread assumption that he was close to becoming a superstar, friends wondered just how far from zero Downey had really come.

On June 23 police may have provided the answer when they pulled Downey over for speeding near his Malibu home. When they searched his black Ford pickup, authorities say, they found crack, powder cocaine, black-tar heroin, which is usually injected, and an unloaded .357 Magnum pistol. Downey was booked for possession of a concealed weapon, possession of controlled substances and driving while under the influence and is due in Malibu Municipal Court on July 26.

For Downey, 31, taking the fall may have been only a matter of time. Just two months ago, Larry Hagman says he offered to pay for rehab after Downey asked to borrow $100,000, and as recently as six weeks ago a concerned Sean Penn chartered a plane to fly him to a detox center in Arizona. Within 24 hours, Downey had fled. Amidst the wreckage of his bender, friends say, is his breakup with Falconer, who took Indio and left the Malibu house in April. Meanwhile, the actor’s father, director Robert Downey (Putney Swope, 1969, and Pound, 1970), stands by his son. “He is a great artist, a great friend,” he says. “And when he beats this, he’ll be a great man.”

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