Robert John Downey ( Elias Jr.; June 24, 1936 – July 7, 2021) was an American film director, screenwriter and actor. He was known for writing and directing his underground film Putney Swope (1969), a satire on the New York Madison Avenue advertising world. According to film scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon, Downey's films during the 1960s were "strictly take-no-prisoners affairs, with minimal budgets and outrageous satire, effectively pushing forward the countercultural agenda of the day."[2] He was the father of American actor Robert Downey Jr.

Robert Downey
Downey in April 2016
Robert John Elias Jr.

(1936-06-24)June 24, 1936
New York City, U.S.
DiedJuly 7, 2021(2021-07-07) (aged 85)
New York City, U.S.
  • Director
  • writer
  • actor
Years active1953–2011
  • Elsie Ann Ford
    (m. 1962; div. 1975)
  • Laura Ernst
    (m. 1991; died 1994)
  • Rosemary Rogers
    (m. 1998)
Children2, including Robert Jr.

Early life


Robert John Downey was born Robert John Elias Jr. in the Manhattan borough of New York City, on June 24, 1936.[3] He was the son of Elizabeth "Betty" McLauchlen, a model and magazine editor, and Robert John Elias Sr., who worked in management of motels and restaurants.[3] His paternal grandparents were Lithuanian Jews,[4] while his mother was of half Hungarian Jewish and half Irish ancestry.[5][6][7][8][9] He grew up in Rockville Centre, New York.[10] He changed his surname to Downey after his stepfather, when he wanted to enlist in the United States Army while being underage.[11][9] Downey later said he wrote an unpublished novel during his time in the army, though he spent much of his military career "in the stockade".[10]



Downey initially made his mark creating very low-budget independent films aligning with the absurdist movement, in line with counterculture, anti-establishment, 1960s America. His work in the late 1960s and 1970s was quintessential anti-establishment, reflecting the nonconformity popularized by larger counterculture movements and given impetus by new freedoms in films, such as the breakdown of codes on censorship. In keeping with the underground tradition, his 1970s films were independently made on shoestring budgets and were relatively obscure in the Absurdist movement, finding cult notoriety.[12]

In 1961, working with film editor Fred von Bernewitz, Downey began writing and directing low-budget 16mm films that gained an underground following, beginning with Ball's Bluff (1961), a fantasy short about a Civil War soldier who awakens in Central Park in 1961. He moved into big-budget filmmaking with the surrealistic Greaser's Palace (1972).[13] His last film was Rittenhouse Square (2005), a documentary capturing life in a Philadelphia park.[14]

Downey's films were often family affairs. His first wife appears in four of his films (Chafed Elbows, Pound, Greaser's Palace, Moment to Moment), as well as co-writing one (Moment to Moment). Daughter Allyson and son Robert Downey Jr. each made their film debuts in the 1970 absurdist comedy Pound at the ages of 7 and 5, respectively; Allyson would appear in one more film by her father, Up the Academy. Robert Jr.'s lengthy acting résumé includes appearances in eight films directed by his father (Pound, Greaser's Palace, Moment to Moment, Up the Academy, America, Rented Lips, Too Much Sun, Hugo Pool), as well as two acting appearances in movies where his father was also an actor (Johnny Be Good, Hail Caesar).[15][16][17]

Personal life and death


Downey was married three times. His first marriage was to actress Elsie Ann Ford (1934–2014) in 1962, with whom he had two children: actress-writer Allyson (b. 1963) and actor Robert Jr. (b. 1965). The marriage ended in divorce in 1975. His second marriage, to actress-writer Laura Ernst, lasted until her death on January 27, 1994, from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.[10] In 1998, he married his third wife, Rosemary Rogers, humorist and co-author of Saints Preserve Us! and other books. They lived in New York City.[18] Downey died of complications from Parkinson's disease in his sleep at his home in Manhattan, on July 7, 2021, thirteen days after his 85th birthday.[10][19][20]



The Criterion Collection released five of his films (the National Film Registry inductee Putney Swope, Babo 73, Chafed Elbows, No More Excuses and Taos Tonight) as part of the Eclipse Series.[21] A 2022 documentary film simply called "Sr." was made by Chris Smith of American Movie fame and was produced by his son. It won the National Board of Review Award for Best Documentary Feature.[22]





Filmmaking credits

Year Title Director Writer Producer Notes Ref.
1953 The American Road No No No Short film; cinematographer [23]
1961 Balls Bluff Yes Yes Yes Short film; also actor [24]
1964 A Touch of Greatness Yes No Yes Documentary film; also cinematographer [15]
Babo 73 Yes Yes Yes [15][16]
1965 Sweet Smell of Sex Yes Yes No Also cinematographer [16]
1966 Chafed Elbows Yes Yes Yes [15][16]
1968 No More Excuses Yes Yes Yes Also actor [15][16]
1969 Putney Swope Yes Yes No Also uncredited voice dubbing [15][16]
1970 Pound Yes Yes No [15][16]
1971 Cold Turkey 2nd unit No No [16]
1972 Greaser's Palace Yes Yes No [15][16]
1973 Sticks and Bones Yes Yes No Television film [24]
1975 Moment to Moment Yes Yes No a.k.a. Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight [15][25]
1980 Up the Academy Yes No No [15][16]
The Gong Show Movie No Yes No [15][16]
1986 America Yes Yes No [15][16]
1988 Rented Lips Yes No No [15][16]
1991 Too Much Sun Yes Yes No [15][16]
1997 Hugo Pool Yes No No [15][26]
2005 Rittenhouse Square Yes No No Documentary film [15][26]

Acting credits

Year Title Role Notes Ref.
1969 Putney Swope Putney Swope (Voice) Uncredited, Dubbing Arnold Johnson
Naughty Nurse Desk Clerk Short film [27]
1971 You've Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You'll Lose That Beat Head of Ad Agency [16]
Is There Sex After Death? Himself Mockumentary and mondo film [24][16]
1985 To Live and Die in L.A. Agent Thomas Bateman [15][16]
1988 Johnny Be Good NCAA Investigator Floyd Gondoli [16][26]
1994 Hail Caesar Butler [17]
1996 The Sunchaser Telephone Voices [24][25]
1997 Boogie Nights Burt [24][16]
1999 Magnolia WDKK Show Director [24][16]
2000 The Family Man Man in House [24][16]
2004 From Other Worlds Baker [15][16]
2011 Tower Heist Judge Ramos [16][24]
2022 "Sr." Himself Documentary film [28]


Year Title Role Notes Ref.
1985–1986 The Twilight Zone Mr. Miller also directed 3 episodes
acted in segment: "Wordplay"
1987 Matlock Judge Warren Anderson Season 2, Episode 3: “The Annihilator” [15]
1988 Moving Target Weinberg Television film [15][16]
1988–1989 1st & Ten Mike McDonald / Reporter #4 /
Reporter / Sports Writer
4 episodes [31]
1993 Tales of the City Edgar's Doctor Miniseries; 1 episode [24][16]
2015 Saturday Night Live Himself Episode: "Tina Fey & Amy Poehler/Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band"


  1. ^ Finn, Natalie (September 26, 2014). "Robert Downey Jr.'s Mother Dies: Read His Moving, Candid Tribute to Elsie Ann Downey". E!. Retrieved April 16, 2015.
  2. ^ Wheeler Winston Dixon, Rutgers University Press, July 11, 2007, Film Talk: Directors at Work, Retrieved November 10, 2014 (see page xi Introduction paragraph 3), ISBN 978-0-8135-4077-1
  3. ^ a b Duchovnay, Gerald, ed. (2012). Film Voices: Interviews from Post Script. SUNY Press. p. 131. ISBN 9780791484753.
  4. ^ Bloom, Nate (April 12, 2012). "Celebrity Jews: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Barbara Walters, Larry David, Ben Stiller & more". J. The Jewish News of Northern California. Retrieved May 10, 2018.
  5. ^ Gates, Henry Louis (September 15, 2014) [First published 2014]. "Robert Downey Jr.". Finding Your Roots: The Official Companion to the PBS Series (1st ed.). UNC Press Books. ISBN 978-1469618012. Retrieved March 29, 2015.
  6. ^ Robert Downey Jr. – Inside The Actors Studio Pt. 1 on YouTube
  7. ^ Daisy Fried (May 1, 1997). "Senior Class". Philadelphia City Paper. Archived from the original on October 14, 2015. Retrieved June 17, 2008.
  8. ^ Hedegaard, Erik (August 21, 2008). "To Hell and Back With Robert Downey Jr". Rolling Stone. Retrieved May 10, 2018.
  9. ^ a b Diamond, Jamie (December 20, 1992). "FILM; Robert Downey Jr. Is Chaplin (on Screen) and a Child (Off)". The New York Times. Retrieved June 17, 2008.
  10. ^ a b c d Genzlinger, Neil (July 7, 2021). "Robert Downey Sr., Filmmaker and Provocateur, Is Dead at 85". The New York Times. Retrieved July 8, 2021.
  11. ^ Fulton, Rick (October 27, 2010). "Robert Downey Jr: I don't even know what it's like to be stoned any more". Daily Record.
  12. ^ Dollar, Steve (May 18, 2012). "Decades Later, Less 'Weird'". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved July 7, 2021.
  13. ^ Vincent Canby. "Review: Greaser's Palace". The New York Times. Retrieved June 17, 2008.[permanent dead link]
  14. ^ "Rittenhouse Square (2005) IMDB". IMDb. Retrieved October 10, 2014.
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t "Robert Downey Sr". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved July 7, 2021.
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y "Robert Downey – Filmography". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved July 7, 2021.
  17. ^ a b Weldon, Michael (1996). The Psychotronic Video Guide. Titan Books. p. 248. ISBN 9781852867706.
  18. ^ "Weddings: Rosemary Rogers, Robert Downey". The New York Times. May 10, 1998.
  19. ^ Stasi, Linda (July 7, 2021). "Robert Downey Sr., accomplished filmmaker and actor and dad of Robert Downey Jr., dead at 85". New York Daily News. Retrieved July 9, 2022.
  20. ^ "Robert Downey Sr death: Celebrated filmmaker and father of Robert Downey Jr dies aged 85". The Independent. July 7, 2021. Retrieved July 8, 2021.
  21. ^ "Eclipse Series 33: Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr". The Criterion Collection.
  22. ^ Lewis, Hilary (December 8, 2022). "National Board of Review Names 'Top Gun: Maverick' Best Film". The Hollywood Reporter.
  23. ^ Blistein, Jon (July 7, 2021). "Robert Downey Sr., Filmmaker Known for His Countercultural Satires, Dead at 85". Rolling Stone. Retrieved July 7, 2021.
  24. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Robert Downey". British Film Institute. Archived from the original on September 13, 2016. Retrieved July 7, 2021.
  25. ^ a b "Robert Downey Sr. List of Movies and TV Shows". TV Guide. Retrieved July 7, 2021.
  26. ^ a b c "Robert Downey, Sr". American Film Institute. Retrieved July 7, 2021.
  27. ^ Armstrong, Stephen B. (April 24, 2017). Paul Bartel: The Life and Films. McFarland. p. 31. ISBN 9780786499151.
  28. ^ Wilson Chapman (November 14, 2022). "'Sr.' Trailer Captures the Last Days of Robert Downey Jr.'s Father". Indiewire. Retrieved November 15, 2022.
  29. ^ Lee, Benjamin (July 7, 2021). "Film director Robert Downey Sr dies at 85". The Guardian. Retrieved July 7, 2021.
  30. ^ Thompson, Dave (November 1, 2015). The Twilight Zone FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the Fifth Dimension and Beyond. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 9781495046117.
  31. ^ Evans, Greg (July 7, 2021). "Robert Downey Sr. Dies: 'Putney Swope' Director, Father Of Actor Robert Downey Jr. Was 85". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved July 7, 2021.
  32. ^ Beresford, Trilby (July 7, 2021). "Robert Downey Sr., Actor and Counterculture Director, Dies at 85". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved July 7, 2021.