Robert Downey Sr., the counterculture filmmaker best known for his satire Putney Swope, died Wednesday, July 7th. He was 85.
Downey Sr.’s son, the actor Robert Downey Jr., confirmed his death with a post on Instagram, saying, “Last night, dad passed peacefully in his sleep after years of enduring the ravages of Parkinson’s… he was a true maverick filmmaker, and remained remarkably optimistic throughout… According to my stepmom’s calculations, they were happily married for just over 2,000 years.”
Downey Sr. rose to prominence in the Sixties when he began making 16mm underground films that garnered a cult audience. Not just a director, Downey Sr. worked as a writer, producer, cinematographer, and editor, and acted in films like Magnolia, Boogie Nights, and To Live and Die in L.A.
Downey Sr. was born Robert John Elias, Jr. on June 24th, 1936, later taking the surname of his stepfather, James Downey, when he enlisted in the Army. Prior to his film career, he played minor league baseball and was even a Golden Gloves boxing champion. He wrote a few off-off-Broadway plays as well, and in 1953, he scored his first film credit as the cinematographer on the documentary short, The American Road.
The first film Downey Sr. helmed was the 1961 short, Ball’s Bluff, about a Civil War soldier who suddenly finds himself in present-day New York City. His early works, like Babo 73 and Chafed Elbows, were made on minuscule budgets and steeped in absurdist humor.
“It was just fun,” Downey Sr. said of his early filmmaking days in a 2016 interview with the Village Voice. “We had no money. My wife would get a check from doing a commercial, and I’d grab it before she even saw it. Later, I’d pay it back. Nobody ever made a dime on these things. We didn’t have sync sound, just a spring wind. So you could only get 18 seconds, and that was the end of the take, whatever it was. And we put the words in later.”
Downey Sr.’s breakthrough came in 1969 with Putney Swope, a satire of the advertising world centered around a black man who’s suddenly put in charge of a company after its founder dies. The film was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2016.
Downey Sr. remained busy throughout the Seventies, kicking the decade off with 1970’s Pound, about animals in a pound, with all the animals played by human actors; it was based on an old play Downey Sr. wrote and it notably marked the first acting role for his son, Robert Downey Jr., who played a puppy. Downey Sr. also earned high praise for 1972’s Greaser’s Palace, about a Christ-like figure roaming around the old West. And as Variety notes, his 1973 television adaptation of the Tony-winning play Sticks and Bones was so fervently anti-war, the advertisers pulled their support and CBS ended up broadcasting it without commercials.
Into the Eighties and Nineties, Downey Sr.,’s filmmaking pace slowed, although he stayed busy with scattered acting roles. He would direct his son in 1997’s Hugo Pool, while the final film he made was 2005’s Rittenhouse Square, a documentary about the titular park in Philadelphia.