Nine Films You Forgot Robert Downey JR Was In

You know him as Iron Man, the wise-cracking millionaire playboy turned tech-savvy superhero. But Robert Downey Jr enjoyed a long and varied career before he burst into the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe).

Before Marvel, there were the wilderness years. It’s common knowledge that Downey Jr struggled with drink and drug abuse. He even did a stint in prison as a result of his misadventures. His rise from recovery to super-stardom since 2008 is little short of miraculous. And let’s face it – Hollywood loves a comeback.

But this isn’t the whole story. Downey Jr starred in a host of great movies, long before he donned the red metal suit. Let’s take a look at nine of those, starting with the most recent and working back to his baby-faced youth.

ZODIAC (2007)

The year before he debuted for Marvel Studios, Downey JR played seasoned journalist Paul Avery in David Fincher’s true-life serial killer tale. A cynical, wise-cracking alcoholic, the role might have been tailor-made for the actor, who channels his easy charm into a performance so subtle, it was overlooked at awards season. The perfect foil to Jake Gyllenhaal’s puppy dog enthusiasm, Downey JR excels in this standout performance.

CLIP: Downey Jr as Paul Avery


Genius director Richard Linklater took cult sci-fi author Philip K. Dick’s novel of mind-bending druggy paranoia and assembled a stellar cast for this highly original film. Using rotoscoping, a technique where animators paint over filmed frames, Linklater cast Downey Junior as Keanu Reeve’s skin-headed, opinionated housemate Barris. The freewheeling comic dialogue is perfect for Downey’s scattershot style, later exhibited when he became Tony Stark in Iron Man.

CLIP: Downey Jr as James Barris


Downey Jr is searingly powerful in this independent crime drama which also features Channing Tatum and Shia La Boeuf. A latter-day Mean Streets, the film is set in the 1980s and present-day New York. It’s a semi-autobiographical character study by director Dito Montiel. Downey Jr plays Dito, a writer returning to his old neighborhood with mixed feelings about his ailing father, with whom he clashed as a boy. La Boeuf plays 1980s Dito, which makes this the film where Shia La Boeuf grows up to be Robert Downey Jr. Wishful thinking, some might say.

CLIP: Downey Jr as Dito Montiel


This independently-financed action comedy was screenwriter and director Shane Black’s comeback film. After the million dollar spec script bubble burst in the 1990s, Black was persona non grata in Hollywood. He enlisted equally blackballed stars Downey Jr and Val Kilmer for his directorial debut. Against all odds, they created a film that critics enjoyed, although audiences mostly stayed away. The film plays like a crazy pinball machine of twists and wisecracks. Downey Jr breezes through it with ineffable charm, even when a dog eats his finger.

CLIP: Downey Jr as Harry Lockhart


It’s fun seeing Downey Jr playing a gay character for a change, as a publisher who seduces and toys with the affections of Tobey Maguire’s wannabe writer. In a supporting role, Downey Jr ironically plays it rather straight, leaving most of the witticisms to star Michael Douglas. It is a generous and roguish performance to add to his varied repertoire. The film also provides the answer to a perfect pub quiz movie trivia question – in which film does Iron Man end up in bed with Spiderman?

CLIP: Downey Jr as Terry Crabtree


It’s tough playing straight man to Steve Martin on a career high but Robert Downey Jr almost steals his scenes as smug Hollywood studio executive Jerry Renfro. In a film that also features the comedic talents of Eddie Murphy playing two contrasting characters, Downey more than holds his own in a role where’s he’s required to do little but look slick and ridiculously handsome. Nice suit too.

CLIP: Downey Jr as Jerry Renfro


In 993 Downey Jr worked with the legendary Robert Altman on his Hollywood-set ensemble movie Short Cuts. In the same year he also made this, largely forgotten, high concept comedy from City Slickers director Ron Underwood. Downey Jr plays a man inhabited by the souls of four recently-deceased people with business on earth to complete. The actor clearly relishes the challenge of playing four contrasting roles, including two female characters. His bouncing back and forth between the clashing personalities is a comic tour-de-force in a very underrated and remake-worthy movie.

CLIP: Downey Jr as Thomas Reilly (and four others!)

CHAPLIN (1992)

This is the film for which Downey Jr won his Academy Award, and rightly so. Playing comedy icon Charlie Chaplin was a huge challenge for an actor who’s been stuck in mushy rom-coms and dumb comedies for the best part of a decade. Richard Attenborough clearly saw more than just a likeness in the young Downey Jr, who displayed a previously unexplored gift for physical comedy. Although critics were a little cool about the film, Downey’s performance was singled out for praise. His career should have taken off. Alas, some unfortunate life choices (and career choices) kept him from stardom for a little longer.

CLIP: Downey Jr as Charlie Chaplin


Even before his Oscar, there were glimpses of real talent in the 22-year old star. There’s a feeling that the “out of control” drug-addled character he plays in this long-forgotten 1980s drama isn’t so much of a stretch for Downey Jr. Two years before the better known Drugstore Cowboy, Bret Easton-Ellis’s expose of the young and privileged of Beverley Hills allows Downey Jr to act everyone else off the screen. He even steals the scene after his character’s demise – that’s the sign of a charismatic actor!

CLIP: Downey Jr as Julian

Whether he’s a lowlife, a charmer, a silent screen star or a black single mom (in Heart and Souls – seriously), Robert Downey Jr has always been the comeback king. He’s worked hard to enjoy his newfound mega-stardom. Perhaps it’s time to cut the wisecracking reprobate some slack?

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