December 22, 1997 12:00 PM

MAYBE IT WAS THE LOLLIPOP HE sucked on so morosely, or the way he nervously squeezed the hand of his estranged wife, singer Deborah Falconer, but as he waited outside a Malibu courtroom on Dec. 8, Robert Downey Jr., 32, did not exactly radiate confidence. Standing before a judge 20 minutes later and trying to explain why he had violated his probation on multiple drug charges, he seemed the very portrait of a hopeless case. “I have been addicted to drugs in one form or another since I was 8 years old, and when I was 15, I started to try to get help,” said Downey, who has claimed he was turned on to pot by his filmmaker father, Robert Sr., 61. In a whispery voice, the star most recently seen in One Night Stand asked to remain free but acknowledged his lapses: “I have no excuses,” Downey said. “I find myself defenseless.”

It was not a good week to be a Hollywood bad boy. Malibu municipal court judge Lawrence Mira agreed with Downey about having no defense for his September lapse—and sentenced him to 180 days in jail. The following day, in West L.A., judge Joseph Biderman accepted a plea bargain in the case of Christian Slater, whose troubles stem from an Aug. 11 incident during which the actor, on a cocaine and alcohol binge, beat his girlfriend, bit a man who came to her defense and tussled with cops. Slater, 28, who was not required to appear in court, and didn’t, drew 90 days in the slammer, followed by 90 days in residential rehab and three years’ probation.

Downey, with his hands cuffed behind his back, was led away from a life that has been more or less out of control for several years. By his own account, he has resisted many attempts from friends—including Sean Penn, who once broke down his door and packed him off to rehab—to wean him from drugs. “It was grotesquely amusing to watch people try to fix me,” he told Playboy in its December ’97 issue.

Downey’s current legal troubles began with a bizarre pair of arrests in 1996. That June 23, he was pulled over for speeding on the Pacific Coast Highway. Sheriffs found heroin, cocaine and crack, as well as an unloaded .357 Magnum, in his Ford Explorer. Then, on July 16, while out on bail, Downey wandered in a stupor into his neighbors’ Malibu home and passed out in the bed of their young son. Ordered into rehab, he went AWOL after four days. Recaptured four hours later, Downey spent 10 days in jail and 45 more in treatment before being released on the condition that he submit to twice-weekly drug testing.

Though that sentence was lenient, Downey, for a while, seemed to have been scared straight. “It was just horrible, being in jail,” he said in the otherwise largely unrepentant Playboy interview. “It was only for 10 days, but I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.” Three months ago, however, Downey in effect wished jail tune on himself by missing drug tests. A month later his lawyer confirmed that Downey had resumed drug use for a couple of days.

Downey, who was permitted to finish filming an untitled thriller with Annette Bening before last week’s hearing, was by some accounts still holding out hope for further mercy. “He told me that he thought he would not have to go to jail but would be able to go into a court-appointed rehab situation,” says Mark Burg, who produced The Gingerbread Man, starring Downey and Kenneth Branagh, which is due out next month.

Slater probably harbored no such illusions. In 1989 the star of Heathers and Broken Arrow spent 10 days in an L.A. jail for his second drunk-driving offense. In 1994 he slept behind bars again after an unlicensed handgun was found in his carry-on luggage at New York City’s Kennedy Airport. But his Aug. 11 rampage was his most serious crime to date. After drinking for days and using cocaine, Slater roughed up his then-girlfriend, fashion editor Michelle Jonas, assaulted a maintenance worker and bit the chest of acquaintance Jacques Petersen, in whose tony L.A. apartment the fracas began. When police arrived, Slater tried to grab one officer’s gun. Slater, who spent 118 days in rehab after being released on bail, last week said in a statement, “I have been acting since the age of 8, and I have been a celebrity for a long time. And when you’re a celebrity, you start believing you can act off the screen any way you want without consequence. Now I know that that is not the way I wish to live my life, and I’m ready to take responsibility for my actions.” Slater’s publicist Stan Rosenfield says, “Christian is trying harder than anyone I’ve ever met to do the right thing.”

Still, some things don’t change: On cue, supporters of Downey and Slater lamented the stiff sentences. “The only person that he’s hurt is himself,” says James Toback, who directed Downey in Two Girls and a Guy, a comedy due out next spring. “Jail is not a place, on any level, that he belongs.” Slater’s lawyer, meanwhile, promptly asked for a sentence reduction based on time the actor had spent in rehab; the court will rule on the motion Jan. 9. Slater is due to start his sentence Jan. 10—six days before his next movie, the big-budget disaster epic Hard Rain, opens across America.

Where Slater and Downey will serve their time has not yet been decided. For now, Downey is being held at the so-called Twin Towers, a new facility in downtown L.A. He may stay there or be assigned to the L.A. County Men’s Central Jail, whose celebrity row has housed O.J. Simpson, Erik Menendez and Kelsey Grammer.

The one thing that seems certain is that both actors have used up their second chances, perhaps to their own benefit. “I am running out of ways to rehabilitate you,” Judge Mira lectured Downey from the bench. “I don’t care who you are. What I care about is that there is a life to be saved from drugs.”

SAMANTHA MILLER

JOHN HANNAH, PAULA YOO, JEFFREY WELLS, JEANNE GORDON, LYNDON STAMBLER and LORENZO BENET in Los Angeles

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