Robert Downey Sr., who made provocative films like “Putney Swap” that avoided mainstream success but was often critical favorite and always garnered attention, died Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 85 years old.
The cause was Parkinson’s disease, said his wife, Rosemary Rogers.
“Putney Swap”, a 1969 comedy about a black man who is mistakenly elected president of the Madison Avenue advertising agency, was perhaps Mr. Downey’s most famous film.
“To be as precise as possible about a film like this,” Vincent Canby wrote in a review in The New York Times, “it’s funny, sophisticated, brilliant, vulgar, unconvincing, wonderful, vague and relevant.”
The film, though perhaps a financial success by Mr. Downey’s standards, grossed only $2.7 million. (By comparison, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” made over $100 million in the same year.) Yet such was its reputation that the Library of Congress awarded it in 2016 National Film Registry, a specific group of films of cultural or historical importance.
Also widely praised in some circles is “Greaser Palace” (1972), in which a Christ-like figure in a zoo suit is parachuted into the Wild West. Younger filmmakers such as Paul Thomas Anderson (who gave Mr. Downey a small part in his 1997 hit, “Boogie Nights”) cited it as an influence.
Theater impresario, none other than Joseph Papp a letter The New York Times, after Mr Canby’s enthusiastic review, wrote that “Robert Downey has fearlessly descended into the Netherworld and returned with a laughing nightmare.” (Mr. Papp’s assessment may not have been entirely objective; at the time he was producing one of Mr. Downey’s few mainstream efforts, a television version of David Rabe’s play “Sticks and Bones”, which was based on Mr. Papps. was a hit. Public Theater in 1971.)
Between “Putney Swap” and “Greaser Palace” was “Pound” (1970), a political satire in which actors portrayed stray dogs. of those actors, a puppy is playing, Robert Downey Jr., the future star of the “Iron Man” films and many others, and was the son of Mr. Downey. He was 5 years old and made his film debut.
Senior Mr. Downey told The Times Union of Albany, NY in 2000 that he was a surprise addition to the film studio.
“When I turned it over to United Artists,” he said, “after the screening one of the heads of the studio said to me, ‘I thought it was going to be animated. He thought he was getting some lovely animated film.”
Robert John Elias Jr. was born on June 24, 1936, in Manhattan and grew up at Rockville Center on Long Island. His father was into restaurant management, and his mother, Betty (McLaughlin) Elias, was a model. Later, enlisting in the military as a teenager, he adopted the last name of his stepfather, Jim Downey, who worked in advertising.
Most of his time in the army was spent in reserves, he later said; He wrote a novel while doing his time, but it was not published. He played semi-pro baseball for a year, then wrote a few plays.
Among the people they met on the Off-Broadway scene was William Vering, who had a camera and suggested they try making movies. The result he began shooting when John F. Kennedy was still president and was released in 1964 was “Babo 73”, starring Taylor Mead, an actor who would appear in several Andy Warhol films. Played the role of President of America. It was classic underground filmmaking.
“We basically went to the White House and started shooting, without any press passes, permits, anything like that,” Mr Downey said in an interview covered in the book “Film Voices: Interviews from Post Script” (2004). “Kennedy was in Europe, so nobody was very tight with security, so we were mainly outside the White House, ran around; we actually threw Taylor with some real generals.”
He said the budget was $3,000.
Mr. Downey’s “Chaffed Elbows”, about a day in the life of a misfit, was released in 1966 and was a success of sorts, earning him respect from the Times’ steady film critic, Bosley Crowther.
“One of these days,” he wrote, “Robert Downey, who wrote, directed and produced the underground film ‘Chaffed Elbows,’ which opened at the Downtown Gate Theater last night, is going to clean, wash himself He has dirty words coming out of his mouth and does something worthy of mature attention as kooky, satirical comedy. He has the audacity for it.
The film enjoyed an extended run at the Gate and Bleacher Street Cinemas. “No More Excuses” followed in 1968, then “Putney Swap,” “Pounds” and “Greaser Palace.” But by the early 1970s, Mr. Downey had become addicted to cocaine.
“Ten years of cocaine clocked in,” he told the Associated Press in 1997. His marriage to Elsie Ford, who had been in many of his films, faltered; They eventually divorced. He credits his second wife, Laura Ernst, with helping him out of addiction. He died in 1994 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Mr. Downey drew on that experience for his final feature, “Hugo Pool” (1997).
Apart from his wife and son, he is survived by a daughter Alison Downey; a brother, Jim; a sister, Nancy Connor; and six grandchildren.
Mr Downey’s films have earned new appreciation in recent decades. In 2008 Anthology Film Archives in the East Village restored and preserved “Chaffed Elbow,” “Babo 73” and “No More Excuses” with the support of the Film Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to film preservation. At the time, Martin Scorsese, a member of the foundation’s board, called them “an essential part of the moment when truly independent American cinema was born.”
“They are alive in a way that few movies can claim to be,” Mr Scorsese told the Times, “Because it is the excitement of possibility and discovery that has brought them to life.”
Mr. Downey disregarded such praise.
“They’re unequal,” he said of the movies. “But I was uneven.”
Alex Traub contributed reporting.