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Robert Downey Jr Is 50! Happy Birthday Iron Man. We Chart the Highs, the Lows and the Comeback

04/08/2015 06:16 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2015

He's fought drugs and depression and is now the star of the Iron Man franchise and the highest paid actor in Hollywood. Robert Downey Jr is going from strength to strength and turned 50 on April 4. High50's Alexa Baracaia dissects his second act.

Where to start with Robert Downey Jr? He's fought drugs and depression and is now the star of the Iron Man franchise and the highest paid actor in Hollywood. Robert Downey Jr is going from strength to strength having turned 50 this week.

The Brat Pack beefcake, the drug addict, the Oscar hope, the out-of-control star speeding down Sunset Boulevard with a .357 Magnum, the off-his-face actor breaking into a neighbor's home and conking out on one of their beds (really).

The jail term, the comeback, the downfall, the comeback. The romances, the marriages, the Iron Man. The highest paid star in Hollywood. He's fought drugs and depression and is now the star of the Iron Man franchise and the highest paid actor in Hollywood. Robert Downey Jr is going from strength to strength and has now just turned 50.

How About We Start With The Wing Chun Kung Fu?

Following 30 years of addiction (set in motion at the age of eight when his indie filmmaker father Robert Downey Sr first shared a joint with him), two sojourns in the LA penitentiary after arrests for heroin and cocaine possession, and more than one stint in enforced rehab, Downey Jr credits the hardcore combat discipline as key to his sobriety and third-time-around success. He took up Wing Chun -- Bruce Lee's beloved martial art -- in 2003, maintaining he's been as clean as a whistle ever since.

"I can't say how much its impacted my ability to stay well and focused," he told Oprah Winfrey a few years back, waxing lyrical about the standing meditations and six-times-a-week workouts designed to keep his mind in the moment. "It's just amazing; it's a spiritual practice, it's grounded me."

Robert Downey Jr's Acting Career

The silver screen came early but less than salubriously for the Manhattan-born actor, whose first role was in one of his father's underground films, the trippy people-as-dogs movie Pound (1970). He was five, playing a puppy, and charged with the debut line: "Have any hair on your balls?"

From there he joined the 1980s Brat Pack fraternity with roles in Weird Science and The Pick-Up, alongside Molly Ringwald.

He was desperately moving as drug-addicted rich boy Julian Wells in Less Than Zero, acclaimed as a bloodthirsty journo in Oliver Stone's 1994 pack-a-punch movie Natural Born Killers and scooped his first Oscar nomination as star of 1992's biopic Chaplin.

The Drugs And The Downfall

But in the 90s, his personal life orbited out of control. A high-profile romance with Sarah Jessica Parker fell apart as the drug abuse spiralled, and a troubled marriage -- following a 42-day fling -- with actress/singer Deborah Falconer hit the skids in 2001, although not before the pair had a son together (Indio, now 21). He told a judge in 1999: "It's like I've got a shotgun in my mouth with my finger on the trigger, and I like the taste of the gun metal."

In 2000, there were fresh plaudits for his performance as Calista Flockhart's love interest in the smash hit legal drama Ally McBeal: he was nominated for an Emmy and scored a Golden Globe. But barely a year later he was ditched from the show following a string of arrests, later insisting: "It was my lowest point in terms of addictions. At that stage, I didn't give a fuck whether I ever acted again."

He nearly didn't. Insurance companies refused to bond him for movies; he couldn't get roles. Woody Allen's plans to cast him in Melinda And Melinda were scuppered because the studio couldn't cover the collateral on the insurance premium to cover him.

In the end, the comeback came only after long-time pal Mel Gibson paid Downey's insurance bond for the 2003 movie The Singing Detective. That same year he won a role in supernatural horror Gothika, but producer Joel Silver withheld 40 per cent of his salary until completion.

Then, in 2008, there was Iron Man: Downey's first action hero, and his first blockbuster.

The Iron Man Comeback

Director Jon Favreau had suggested the casting "multiple times" and been rejected. But, believing that the Iron Man story lined up "with Robert in all the good and bad ways," he now says: "It was my job as a director to show that it was the best choice creatively... and now the Marvel Universe is the biggest franchise in film history."

On release, Iron Man grossed more than $585 million worldwide. Time magazine raved: "Downey's the best. In movies he's usually been the sceptical observer in a supporting role (perhaps because his drug history has made producers reluctant to cast him in the lead)...

"But having been entrusted to carry Iron Man, Downey sets the pace, establishes the tone and this big movie whirls along to keep up with him... They don't call it Marvel for nothing."

That year, Downey Jr made it to number 60 in the Time 100, with fellow actor Ben Stiller eulogizing: "Yes, Downey is Iron Man but he really is Actor Man... In the realm where box office is irrelevant and talent is king, the realm that actually means something, he has always ruled."

Seven years and two Iron Man sequels later, 'Bob' is the highest paid actor in Hollywood, raking in $75 million in 2013-2014.

Downey's Oscar Nominations

He scooped a second Oscar nomination for his role as Aussie method actor Kirk Lazarus in 2008's Tropic Thunder. In 2009 there was a Golden Globe for Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes. And coming up this May is a second instalment in Marvel's similarly blockbusting The Avengers franchise, Age of Ultron.

Why, his superhero skills are so awe-inspiring that there are actual real headlines out there swooning: "Robert Downey Jr puts receipt in mouth while carrying three heavy shopping bags". Another puff piece marvels at his impressive walking: "The actor flashed a smile and kept his arms swinging, balancing one foot in front of the other." Oh, all right, so they're both from Mail Online, but that's some adulation.

Wing Chun and wondrous walking aside, however, Downey Jr also credits his success to his second wife, film producer Susan Levin, 41. The pair met in that critical year for the actor, 2003, when both were working on Gothika.

She turned down his romantic advances twice on the basis that he was 'weird' and it wouldn't last ("he's an actor, I have a real job"). But, after getting hitched in 2005, the couple now have a three-year-old son Exton, a five-month-old daughter, Avri, and are the powerhouse duo behind new Hollywood production company Team Downey. Their debut project, the father-son yarn The Judge, scooped Robert Duvall an Academy Award nomination this year.

"[Susan] told me, 'I'm not doing that [drug] dance with you," recalls Downey Jr. "She was absolutely clear about that. That doesn't mean that other women, business associates, movie directors, insurance companies, judges and law enforcement hadn't been clear about it too. It was that, before I met Mrs. Downey, I just didn't give a goddamn. What changed is that I cared."

Well, then, Robert Downey Jr. Happy 50th, and here's a toast to your turnaround.

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