All About Robert Downey Jr.'s Late Dad, Robert Downey Sr.

Famed filmmaker Robert Downey Sr. died in July 2021 after a five-year battle with Parkinson's Disease

Actor Robert Downey Jr. and father Robert Downey Sr. arrive at TIME's 100 Most Influential People Gala at Frederick P. Rose Hall on May 08, 2008 in New York City.
Photo: Stephen Lovekin/Getty

Get to know the creative footsteps Robert Downey Jr. followed.

The Iron Man actor's recently released Netflix documentary, titled Sr., pays homage to his late dad's life-long commitment to absurdist, satirical independent film while revealing a behind-the-scenes look at their father-son relationship.

Directed by Chris Smith (100 Foot Wave), the intimate and emotionally raw film serves as tribute to Robert Downey Sr. and explores the massive influence the famed filmmaker had on his son's life — both for better and for worse.

While Downey Sr. brought Downey Jr. into the world of moviemaking, putting him in his first film when he was five, he also introduced his son to drugs at a young age. Both men would go on to struggle with addiction and sobriety.

"It's kind of a redemption story that doesn't have a happy ending, but it's funny. And those are my favorite kind of stories," said Downey Jr. at a Q&A following a screening at the Telluride Film Festival in September.

He added of the doc: "It's a meditation on a period in time in several generations. And I think that [if this] generation has a better chance of doing the 'art' part without all the trauma part, it would be great."

Here's everything to know about Downey Jr.'s late dad.

He was born and raised in New York

Sr. (L to R) Robert Downey Sr. and Elsie Downey in Sr.
Courtesy of Netflix

Downey Sr. was born on June 24, 1936. His mother, Elizabeth, was a model, while his father, Robert John Elias, worked in restaurant management. Downey Sr. was born in Manhattan but grew up in Long Island, New York.

After living in New York his entire life, he stayed to raise his children there as well — specifically in Manhattan. Downey Sr. was married three times; his first wife was actress Elsie Ann Ford, whom he married in 1962. The pair welcomed two kids together: a daughter, Allyson, born in 1963, and Downey Jr., born in 1965.

When their marriage ended in divorce in 1975, Downey Sr. wed actress-writer Laura Ernst. They remained together until she passed away on Jan. 27, 1994. He wed his third wife, author Rosemary Rogers, in 1998.

He was a movie director and actor

UP THE ACADEMY, director Robert Downey (right) with actor in Alfred E. Neuman mask on set, 1980
Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection

Downey Sr. was known for his work as an underground film director. Though his movies — notably provocative, like his 1969 satire Putney Swope — didn't garner mainstream success, they were critic favorites. Putney Swope was even selected for preservation by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Although his projects weren't necessarily financial successes either, they drew in select audiences who admired his work for different reasons. In fact, Downey Sr.'s work has inspired generations of directors in his wake.

Five-time Oscar-nominated Paul Thomas Anderson, for example, has cited Greaser's Palace (Downey Sr.'s 1972 western classic) as one of his influences. While Downey Sr. primarily placed his focus on filmmaking, he had a few acting stints as well — even appearing in Anderson's Boogie Nights in 1997.

He was a military veteran

Sr. (L to R) Robert Downey Sr. and Robert Downey Jr. in Sr.
Courtesy of Netflix

Prior to pursuing his filmmaking passion, Downey Sr. served in the United States Army. In fact, he enlisted underage, a significant move that shaped his famed identity. Originally born Robert John Elias Jr., he changed his alias to Downey when he adopted his stepfather Jim Downey's last name upon enlisting as a teenager.

He spent most of his hitch in the stockade where he wrote an unpublished novel. A man of many talents, Downey Sr. also pitched semi-pro baseball for a year and wrote plays for off-Broadway.

He battled with an alcohol and drug addiction

Director Robert Downey Sr. and actor Robert Downey Jr. attend Time's 100 Most Influential People in the World gala at Jazz at Lincoln Center on May 8, 2008 in New York City.
Larry Busacca/WireImage

Downey Sr. battled an addiction to drugs and alcohol, a part of his life that his son acknowledges in the Netflix documentary, Sr.. "Ten years of cocaine around the clock," he told The Associated Press in 1997. Three years later, Downey Sr. told Vanity Fair in 2000 about the moment he gave drugs to Downey Jr. at age 6 when he caught him sipping wine.

"We were all sitting around, smoking grass and playing poker down in the old West Village loft, and Robert was staring at me kind of funny — Robert was always an observer of it all, even at a very young age. And I go, 'You know, you ought to try a little of this instead of drinking.' I passed him a joint," he recalled at the time. "And suddenly I knew I had made a terrible, stupid mistake."

"Giving a little kid a toke of grass just to be funny," he continued. "The story keeps getting repeated. By now you'd think Robert was Jimmy Cliff's dealer at age 8. I'll never forgive myself, but Robert and I have dealt with it, and he's said to me, 'I'm not a victim, Dad. I don't blame anybody.' "

Downey Jr. reflected on his dad's addiction as a disease in a recent Deadline interview, saying it's an "uncomfortable" conversation in general since "nobody wants to admit complete defeat over trying to deal with something like alcoholism or addiction."

He suffered from Parkinson's disease

Sr. (L to R) Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Downey Sr. in Sr.
Courtesy of Netflix

Downey Sr. died in July 2021 at age 85. His wife Rogers credited his five-year battle with Parkinson's Disease as the cause, noted the New York Times.

The Netflix documentary turns the camera on Downey Jr.'s relationship with his father during his decline with the disease. The film includes one of the star's final visits with his weakened dad, who had become confined to his bed. Downey Jr.'s son, Exton, also makes an appearance alongside his grandfather — marking three generations of Downeys onscreen together.

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