Robert Downey Sr.

Robert John Downey ( Elias Jr.; June 24, 1936 – July 7, 2021) was an American filmmaker and actor. He was known for writing and directing the underground film Putney Swope, 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]

Robert Downey Sr.
Robert Downey Sr.jpg
Downey during the 1960s
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
  • Actor
  • director
  • producer
  • writer
  • cinematographer
Years active1953–2013
  • Elsie Ann Ford
    (m. 1962; div. 1975)
  • Laura Ernst
    (m. 1991; died 1994)
  • Rosemary Rogers
    (m. 1998)
Children2, including Robert Jr.

Early lifeEdit

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 (née McLauchlen), a model, and Robert John Elias, 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, James Downey) when he wanted to enlist in the United States Army while being underage.[11][9] Downey later said he wrote an unpublished novel during his time in the army, though he spent much of his military career "in the stockade".[10]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 deathEdit

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 (born 1963) and actor Robert Jr. (born 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]


Year Film Role Credit Notes
1953 The American Road[23] Unknown Cinematographer Short film
1961 Balls Bluff[24] Civil War Union Soldier Director, writer, and producer Short film
1964 A Touch of Greatness[15] Unknown Director, producer, and cinematographer Documentary
1964 Babo 73[15][16] Unknown Director, writer, and producer
1965 Sweet Smell of Sex[16] Unknown Director, writer, and cinematographer
1966 Chafed Elbows[15][16] Unknown Director, writer, and producer
1968 No More Excuses[15][16] Private Stewart Thompson Director, writer, and producer
1969 Putney Swope[15][16] Unknown Director and writer Voice, uncredited
1969 Naughty Nurse[25] Desk Clerk Short film
1970 Pound[15][16] Unknown Director and writer
1971 You've Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You'll Lose That Beat[16] Head of Ad Agency
1971 Is There Sex After Death?[24][16] Himself Mockumentary and mondo film
1971 Cold Turkey[16] Unknown Second unit director
1972 Greaser's Palace[15][16] Unknown Director and writer
1973 Sticks and Bones[24] Unknown Director and writer Television film
1975 Moment to Moment[15][26] Unknown Director and writer Retitled Two Tons of
Turquoise to Taos Tonight
1980 Up the Academy[15][16] Unknown Director
1980 The Gong Show Movie[15][16] Unknown Co-writer
1985 To Live and Die in L.A.[15][16] Senior Secret Service Agent Thomas Bateman
1985–1986 The Twilight Zone Mr. Miller[27] Director[28] Directed 3 episodes
acted in segment: "Wordplay"
1986 America[15][16] Unknown Director and co-writer
1986 Matlock[15] Judge Warren Anderson Episode: "Judge Warren Anderson"
1988 Rented Lips[15][16] Unknown Director
1988 Moving Target[15][16] Weinberg Television film
1988 Johnny Be Good[16][29] NCAA Investigator Floyd Gondoli
1988–1989 1st & Ten[30][31] Mike McDonald / Reporter #4 /
Reporter / Sports Writer
4 episodes
1991 Too Much Sun[15][16] Unknown Director and co-writer
1993 Tales of the City[24][16] Edgar's Doctor Miniseries; 1 episode
1994 Hail Caesar[17] Butler
1996 Sunchaser[24][26] Telephone Voices
1997 Hugo Pool[15][29] Unknown Director and co-writer
1997 Boogie Nights[24][16] Burt
1999 Magnolia[24][16] WDKK Show Director
2000 The Family Man[24][16] Man In House
2004 From Other Worlds[15][16] Baker
2005 Rittenhouse Square[15][29] Unknown Director Documentary
2011 Tower Heist[16][24] Judge Ramos
2022 “Sr.”[32] Himself Documentary


  1. ^ Finn, Natalie (September 26, 2014). "Robert Downey Sr.'s Mother Dies: Read His Moving, Candid Tribute to Elsie Ann Downey". E! Online. 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. 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.
  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. ^ Top Gun: Maverick Named Best Movie of 2022 by National Board of Review - 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. Retrieved July 7, 2021.
  25. ^ Armstrong, Stephen B. (April 24, 2017). Paul Bartel: The Life and Films. McFarland. p. 31. ISBN 9780786499151.
  26. ^ a b "Robert Downey Sr. List of Movies and TV Shows". TV Guide. Retrieved July 7, 2021.
  27. ^ 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.
  28. ^ Lee, Benjamin (July 7, 2021). "Film director Robert Downey Sr dies at 85". The Guardian. London. Retrieved July 7, 2021.
  29. ^ a b c "Robert Downey, Sr". American Film Institute. Retrieved July 7, 2021.
  30. ^ 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.
  31. ^ Beresford, Trilby (July 7, 2021). "Robert Downey Sr., Actor and Counterculture Director, Dies at 85". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved July 7, 2021.
  32. ^ Wilson Chapman (November 14, 2022). "'Sr.' Trailer Captures the Last Days of Robert Downey Jr.'s Father". Indiewire. Retrieved November 15, 2022.

External linksEdit