From Rock Bottom to Iron Man With Robert Downey Jr.

Most people know Robert Downey Jr. as the crime-fighting billionaire Tony Stark. While his longtime status as the first star of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe has made him the face of a multi-billion-dollar franchise, Downey lived many lives before he made it to the top of Hollywood’s food chain.

Robert Downey Jr. / Sarah Jessica Parker, Robert Downey Jr. / Iron Man / Robert Downey Jr., Susan Downey.
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After an epic saga from destruction to redemption, worthy of a Marvel superhero, Downey had to lose everything to pull himself out of a dark hole. He triumphed over many obstacles to become one of the world’s most lovable and recognized actors, but the headlines haven’t always been kind to him.

Surrounded by Drugs and Actors

Born in Manhattan, New York, to underground filmmaker Robert Downey Sr. and actress Elsie Downey, Robert Downey Jr. was raised in an artistic household in Greenwich Village. However, he and his older sister Allyson were exposed to drugs at a young age because their father was an addict and introduced them to substances.

A dated portrait of Anthony Michael Hall, Robert Rusler , Robert Downey Jr. and Ilan Mitchell-Smith.
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When Downey was eight, his dad let him try marijuana at a party. He later revealed that doing drugs was his way of bonding with his father. Unfortunately, this early exposure to substances led him down a destructive path later in life. But, as a child, he didn’t know anything different.

Acting Started Early

As the son of a filmmaker, Downey because involved in show business early. When he was five, his dad gave Downey his first film role, playing a sick puppy in the 1970 movie Pound. Two years later, Robert Sr. gave him a role in Greaser’s Palace opposite his mom Elsie.

Robert Downey Jr. is on stage during awards.
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Besides doing drugs together, giving his son roles was how Robert Sr. expressed his love for Downey. Downey’s professional acting career didn’t begin until years later, but the parts he played in his father’s films were additional training. He also attended Stagedoor Manor Performing Arts Training Center in upstate New York as a teenager.

East Coast to West Coast and Back

When Downey’s parents divorced, he moved to California with his dad. But he didn’t like California as much as his home on the East Coast. Downey dropped out of Santa Monica High School during his senior year and moved back to New York to pursue a full-time acting career.

A portrait of a younger Robert Downey Jr.
Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

Downey went to school in California with Sean Penn, Rob Lowe, and Emilio Estevez, so he wanted early fame like they had. However, he spent most of his school years smoking pot and skipping class, so Downey didn’t feel like he was getting anything out of sitting in a classroom.

“Big Break” Fake Out

Downey began building his resume with theater roles when he moved back to New York. He was in the short-lived, off-Broadway musical, American Passion in 1983. People thought he was about to get his big break in 1985 when he joined the entirely new cast of Saturday Night Live.

A studio portrait of Robert Downey Jr.
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He was one of several non-comedians selected for the cast, which included Joan Cusack and Anthony Michael Hall. While these people were all future stars, the season didn’t do them any favors. Season 11 of SNL was a massive flop, and Downey’s contract wasn’t renewed, but he became a member of the Brat Pack.

The Real Breakthrough

Although SNL didn’t work out for Downey, the silver lining to the season was that working with Hall ensured his place in the Brat Pack, which helped him work with the biggest stars of the ‘80s. In 1987, he got his big break in Less Than Zero.

Downey Jr. is in a still from the film.
Source: Copyright: 20th Century Fox

Starring opposite Hall, Downey got significant attention and acclaim for his performance. He played a privileged cocaine addict on a downward spiral, which was different from his comedic parts in Weird Science and Back to School. He said this character was his “ghost of Christmas future.”

His Drug Use Escalated

Downey was already a regular drug user when he started filming Less Than Zero. He had previously kept the drug use separate from his work, but things escalated for Downey because of the movie’s subject matter. His then-manager demanded that he go to rehab in 1988.

Robert Downey Jr. arrives at an event.
Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images

He didn’t go to rehab, but the film drove Downey to bigger budget projects like Chances Are (1989) and Air America (1990). In the background, his drug and alcohol use started to take hold of his life. Every time he tried to be sober for work, Downey would slip up.

Roles Surrounding Drugs

At the beginning of his career, Downey’s roles were always associated with drugs. In the 1990 action comedy Air America with Mel Gibson, Downey played a drug smuggler during the Vietnam War. He became friendly with Gibson because they bonded over their struggles with substance abuse.

Mel Gibson and Downey Jr. are in a promotional shot for the film.
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He looked up to his co-star. Although working with Gibson was an incredible experience for Downey, their talks about substance abuse didn’t encourage Downey to get clean and sober. Moreover, their friendship over the years wasn’t well-received by the public because of their controversial reputations.

Getting Into Character

One of Downey’s earliest triumphs was the 1992 film Chaplin where he played Charlie Chaplin. He prepared extensively by learning how to play both the violin and tennis left-handed. It wasn’t an easy job to play one of history’s most distinctive entertainers, but Downey had help.

Robert Downey Jr and Marisa Tomei in a scene from the film “Chaplin.”
Photo by Carolco Pictures/Getty Images

He watched every Chaplin film, and an acting coach helped him imitate Chaplin’s posture, walk, and mannerisms. The movie might not have been well-received, but critics and audiences loved Downey’s performance. He earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor but lost to Al Pacino.

His Addictions Caused a Few Break-Ups

After meeting on the set of Firstborn in 1984, Downey started dating Sarah Jessica Parker. They stayed together until 1991, but his addictions proved to be too much, so they separated. However, that wasn’t his only relationship ruined by his substance abuse.

A portrait of Sarah Jessica Parker and Downey Jr.
Photo by Barry King/Sygma/Getty Images

A year later, in 1992, Downey married his first wife, Deborah Falconer, after dating for just over a month. They had a son, Indio, in 1993, but their relationship was far from perfect. Downey’s addiction and repeated trips to rehab caused Falconer to leave him in 2001.

On a Downward Spiral

In the early ‘90s, Downey got high-profile roles despite his addictions, but that quickly changed. In 1996, his luck changed when he was pulled over for speeding and arrested for possessing heroin, cocaine, and a gun in his car. Three weeks later, he was arrested again.

Downey and his wife attend an event.
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Downey became a tabloid fixture for his repeated arrests while under the influence. However, he was always professional on set. Unfortunately, he started having more court appearances than films. Fewer directors wanted to work with Downey because it was too much of a risk.

Why Did Robert Downey Jr. Go to Jail?

Although he maintained professionalism on set, Downey’s struggles came to a head in 1999. He had to take regular drug tests as part of his probation for a previous arrest and knew he would go to jail if he missed one.

A mugshot of Downey Jr.
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Despite spending six months behind bars for missing a drug test in 1997, Downey was arrested again in 1999 for the same reason. This time the judge sentenced him to three years at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison. He only served a year of his sentence.

He Almost Made a Comeback

Soon after his release from prison in 2000, Downey was cast in Season 4 of Ally McBeal as a new love interest. He was a hit with audiences, earning a Golden Globe win and nomination for an Emmy. However, Downey was once again arrested, twice within eight months.

Downey Jr. and Calista Flockhart are in a promotional shot for the television series.
Source: Copyright: Fox Broadcasting Company

Due to his arrests, he was fired and written off the show. The season finale where Downey and Calista Flockhart get married had to be rewritten. Downey was at the lowest point in his life, and he didn’t care if he ever acted again.

Rock Bottom

As a result of his two arrests, Downey lost a high-profile role in America’s Sweethearts. In 2001, he pled no contest for possession of cocaine and Valium in his hotel room in order to avoid jail time. Instead, Downey was ordered to rehab and received three years’ probation.

Downey Jr. attends an event.
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Downey said this was his “rock bottom” because he had lost everything. Falconer had left him and taken their son, and Downey was on the verge of bankruptcy. He decided he was finally ready to take his life back.

First Job as a Clean Man

After five years of arrests, rehab, and relapses, Downey spent a year fully addressing his substance abuse. After recovery, his first job was in Elton John’s 2001 video for “I Want Love.” Downey wasn’t in demand by movie studios, but Elton reached out to Downey for the shoot.

A picture of Elton John and Downey Jr. on stage.
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Downey played a young Elton and filmed the video in one take. Some of the lyrics felt very personal to him, which shows in the clip. It received huge acclaim and sparked a new chapter for Downey. It was his first time fully sober since he was eight.

An Important Test

Major studios were hesitant to hire Downey, fearing he would relapse and not complete a project. After the Elton John music video, he worked on a few indie films before getting his first significant post-rehab role in 2003’s Gothika, co-starring Halle Berry.

Halle Berry and Downey Jr. attend the world premiere of “Gothika.”
Photo by Carlo Allegri/Getty Images

The film was his first test of staying sober during a production. Downey was hired for a supporting part under the condition that 40 percent of his salary would be withheld until the end of the shoot. He remained clean, but the movie wasn’t a success.

Meeting Someone Special

Although Gothika wasn’t a hit, it was a fresh start for Downey. The movie not only gave him a second chance, but it helped him meet his future wife. Susan Levin worked as a producer on the film, and the two quietly struck up a romance.

A photo of Downey Jr. and Susan Levin at the film premiere.
Photo by Gregg DeGuire/WireImage/Getty Images

Susan worried the relationship would end after the movie, but the couple stayed together after production wrapped. He was still going through the divorce from his first wife, but Downey knew he wanted to be with Susan. In 2004, his divorce was finalized.

A Milestone Moment

After meeting Susan, Downey started hanging around her producing partner’s office. When screenwriter Shane Black went to Joel Silver and Susan’s office to discuss his directorial debut, Downey read lines for the main character from Black’s script. They loved him for the role.

Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan and Downey Jr. pose for the press.
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Downey earned the lead part in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which showcased his motormouth sense of humor, allowing him to barrel through dialogue. The film had great reviews, but it wasn’t a financial success. Downey was grateful to Black for giving him the opportunity and later returned the favor.

Making Music

Downey had always been passionate about music, so he released his debut album in 2004. The Futurist was a jazz-folk album that received mixed reviews. He put a lot of effort into it, and his son Indio helped design the cover art and track list label.

Downey Jr. and Sting perform together on stage.
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It wasn’t a chart-topping album, so Downey said he wouldn’t release more music because it wasn’t worth the energy. He didn’t feel like it was appreciated, and his efforts weren’t compensated. However, it was a project he didn’t regret trying.

Walking Down the Aisle Again

Downey proposed to Susan on her 30th birthday in 2003, but the couple didn’t get married for two more years. He had to wait until his divorce was finalized. The couple wed in a ceremony in New York in 2005.

Susan Levin and Downey Jr. attend an event.
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He even got a tattoo that reads “Suzie Q” in tribute to her. She almost turned him down when they first started dating because they worked together, but it’s a good thing she didn’t because they are going on 17 years of marriage.

Climbing Up the Ranks

Over the next few years, Downey found steady acting work to build up his reputation in Hollywood. He called the producers of Family Guy to ask if he could assist in an episode creation, and they accepted his offer. He created and voiced the character of Patrick Pewterschmidt.

Mark Ruffalo, Chloe Sovigny and Robert Downey Jr. attend “Zodiac” premiere.
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Downey also signed on with HarperCollins to write a memoir about the highs and lows of his life and career. But in 2008, he returned the advance and canceled the book without reason. He also gained acclaim in 2007 after appearing in David Finch’s Zodiac.

Two Blockbusters in One Year

With all the highs and lows Downey had experienced throughout his career, he hadn’t been in a blockbuster film. However, that changed in 2008 when his career changed forever. That year, Iron Man and Tropic Thunder became box office hits, and Downey was the star of the year.

Downey Jr. is in the character of Tony Stark in Iron Man.
Source: Copyright: Paramount Pictures, Marvel Entertainment

He earned a spot on the 2008 edition of The Time 100 list. Ben Stiller said that Downey had always had the talent and box office pull, but in 2008 he finally got to “have his cake and let us eat him up all the way to the multiplex.”

Becoming Iron Man

When Iron Man was casting for its title character, director John Favreau said Downey was the most obvious choice. He understood what made the character tick because there were a lot of similarities between Tony Stark and Downey’s lives. Favreau insisted on casting Downey.

Downey Jr. is in a still from the film.
Source: Copyright: Paramount Pictures, Marvel Entertainment

He claimed, “Downey would be to Iron Man what Johnny Depp is to the Pirates of the Caribbean: a lead actor who could both elevate the film and increase the public’s interest.” Downey worked hard to gain 20 pounds of muscle in five months in order to become the superhero.

No More Mr. Nice Guy

Besides the physical demands to prepare for his role as Tony Stark, Downey also sat down with Favreau to discuss the character’s storyline. He was concerned that they would follow the cliché of the hero becoming a nice guy with strict morals and no development.

A photo of Downey Jr. behind the scenes.
Source: Copyright: Paramount Pictures, Marvel Entertainment

Downey wanted to add more comedy while making Stark a man with questionable morals and ethics. He helped create Stark’s egotistical persona, which helped him stand out from other superheroes while giving him room to grow and change throughout the movies.

Controversial Performance

Shortly after Iron Man, Downey appeared alongside Ben Stiller and Jack Black in Tropic Thunder. He played a self-absorbed, award-winning Australian method actor starring in a costly Vietnam-era film. In the movie, Downey’s character has a procedure to darken his skin to play an African American part.

Downey Jr. is in a still from the film.
Source: Copyright: Paramount Pictures, Dreamworks Pictures

Downey was worried that his portrayal of the character would be controversial. However, he and Stiller focused on the fact that they were playing insufferable actors, not African Americans. Surprisingly, people enjoyed it, and Downey got an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

The Success of Sherlock Wasn’t a Mystery

Despite the success of Iron Man and Tropic Thunder, if there were any doubts remaining about Downey’s abilities to lead a movie, Sherlock Holmes erased them. The 2009 blockbuster about the British detective proved that Downey didn’t need to tone down his eccentric persona to win over fans.

A photo of Downey Jr. on the set of Sherlock Holmes.
Photo by Fred Duval/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Downey was attracted to the character because Holmes was “quirky and kind of nuts,” qualities he saw in himself. His performance won him a second Golden Globe and closed the decade on a note of triumph.

The Face of the MCU

When the first Iron Man grossed $585 million worldwide, Downey proved he was the right choice for the character, and he signed on for two more Iron Man films and The Avengers. He kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe and became the face of the superhero team.

A promotional shot of Avengers: End Game.
Source: Copyright: Paramount Pictures, Marvel Entertainment

The second installment of Iron Man became the seventh highest-grossing movie of 2010, making $623 million worldwide. Downey helped the mainstream popularity of Marvel, and his character appeared in 11 MCU movies. People loved Downey as the main character of the franchise.

Couple Business Venture

With Downey’s background in acting and his wife’s experience with producing, they created the production company Team Downey in 2010. They intended to make films for Downey to star in. The company’s first project was 2014’s The Judge, starring Downey as a lawyer.

Downey Jr. and his wife attend “Dolittle” premiere.
Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage/Getty Images

The film was their bid to earn an Oscar, but The Judge got mixed reviews. It took another six years for Team Downey to produce another movie. In 2020, the company released Dolittle, which was another flop. He hoped The Judge would help him step out of franchise films.

Highest Paid Actor in Hollywood

During the first Iron Man, Downey only made $500,000. However, he earned $10 million for Iron Man 2 and $50 million for The Avengers because they were so successful. The Sherlock Holmes films also raked in big bucks, which helped Downey become the third highest-paid actor in Hollywood.

Downey Jr. speaks during a press conference.
Photo by The Chosunilbo JNS/Imazins/Getty Images

By his final Avengers film, Downey was earning $75 million. He was one of the highest-paid actors in the franchise, which ruffled a few feathers, but he fought for his co-stars to earn more because Avengers: Endgame grossed $2.7 billion, and they deserved more money.

How Much Is Robert Downey Jr. Worth?

Prepare to gasp because Downey’s net worth is $300 million. Downey earned around $380 million from the Marvel films alone, not counting residuals or money made from Iron Man-related products. He has done so many films throughout his career, but he is mainly known as Iron Man.

Downey Jr. arrives at an event.
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Once you add in his other popular films like Tropic Thunder and Sherlock Holmes, it is no surprise that Downey is worth $300 million. Although his production company hasn’t been a massive success, it does have Sherlock Holmes 3 on its slate.

There Was Supposed to Be Another Iron Man

While Marvel is always tight-lipped about their future plans, rumors have been circulating about another Iron Man. If you didn’t watch the last Avengers installment, skip ahead because spoiler alert: Tony Stark died in the movie. Therefore, how could he return for another film?

Chris Evans, Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson cast place their hand prints in cement.
Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Although Downey hasn’t made any comments about a future for Iron Man, fans would love to see him back on the big screen. Downey’s character was, and still is, one of the most beloved heroes in the MCU, but we don’t know if Downey would want to return to the franchise again.

A Real-Life Hero

Not only does he play a superhero on the big screen, but Downey is a hero in real life. Many children look up to him as they believe he is really Iron Man, and Downey never spoils the fantasy.

Downey Jr. is in a still from Iron Man.
Source: Copyright: Paramount Pictures, Marvel Entertainment

In 2015, seven-year-old Alex Pring was missing his right arm. As a massive fan of Iron Man, Pring was shocked when Downey presented him with a robotic arm designed to look like Iron Man’s armor. It was a special moment for both of them.

Taking Sobriety Like a Champ

Thanks to all the work he has put in over the years, Downey has remained drug-free since 2003. He credits his wife for helping him fully overcome his drug and alcohol habits. He also goes to therapy, meditates, and practices yoga.

Downey Jr. attends an event.
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In December 2015, he received a full and unconditional pardon from the governor of California for his prior drug convictions. When Oprah asked him if he would stay sober during an interview in 2004, he said it’s not difficult to overcome these problems… “What’s hard is to decide to do it.”

A Tragic Loss

In 2014, Downey lost his mom from complications due to heart disease. He brought her to many red-carpet events, and she was one of his biggest fans. After her death, Downey posted a moving tribute to her and shared that when she got sober, she never turned back.

Downey and his mom pose for the press.
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His mom was also an alcoholic, and she helped Downey with his sobriety. Although she wasn’t perfect, he said she was his role model as an actor and as a woman who got sober “and stayed that way.” It was a tough loss for Downey and his family.

He Is a Family Man

After marrying Susan, the couple welcomed two children. Their son Exton was born in February 2012, and his daughter Avri was born in November 2014. As someone who grew up in a toxic environment, Downey has done everything to be the best dad.

A studio portrait of Downey Jr.
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He tries to keep his three children out of the spotlight as much as possible, but his oldest son Indio (from his first marriage) has been to a handful of red-carpet events. Indio is in the music industry now, while Exton and Avri are growing up as normal kids.

Strange Friendship

After meeting on the set of Air America in the ‘90s, Downey bonded with Mel Gibson. While Downey overcame his controversial past, Gibson continues to make headlines. However, Downey has defended the actor throughout the years, saying “nobody’s perfect” about Gibson’s DUI.

Mel Gibson and Downey Jr. pose for the press.
Photo by Jeffrey Mayer/Getty Images

Downey and Gibson connected over their struggles with alcohol and drugs. Gibson even paid the insurance so that Downey could start working again after he got sober. Downey said that despite his Jewish background, Gibson should be forgiven for his antisemitic remarks because everyone makes mistakes.

Batman vs. Iron Man

Downey has made millions playing Iron Man, but the actor almost portrayed a different billionaire playboy superhero. He was considered for the role of Bruce Wayne in Batman but didn’t get the part. It might have been a blessing in disguise because Marvel has been so successful.

Downey Jr. attends an event.
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However, he did work with Michael Keaton (who once played Batman) in SpiderMan. Besides Batman, Downey was also rumored to be playing the Joker in the upcoming Batman film, but we doubt Marvel would let him jump ship for DC.

Foreign Affairs

Downey’s troubled past came back to bite him when he took a trip to Japan to promote Iron Man. He told David Letterman that he was interrogated at the airport for six hours for his years-old felony convictions. The country is very strict about felons.

A portrait of Downey Jr.
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His extensive arrest record was flagged when he tried to enter the country because it hadn’t been expunged yet. Letterman asked Downey, “Haven’t you paid your debts?” Downey did serve his time, but he said, “Clearly, I haven’t paid my debts to Japan.”

Royal Seal of Approval

While you might think that Queen Elizabeth would stay far away from a Hollywood actor with a troubled past, she approves of Downey. His performance in 1992’s Chaplin got the royal seal of approval after the Queen saw the film and loved it.

Downey Jr. plays around with his hat in a scene from “Chaplin.”
Photo by Carolco Pictures/Getty Images

He might have been snubbed for an Oscar, but the Queen thought he played the iconic film star perfectly. Downey might not have won an award for the movie but getting on the Queen’s good side is just as good.

Dancing Diva

It is hard to imagine Downey in tights and a leotard, but he once had professional ballet training. When he was ten, he studied ballet at the illustrious Perry House school in London. However, Downey said he mostly acted out instead of perfecting his dance moves.

Downey Jr. poses for the press.
Photo by Gregg DeGuire/WireImage/Getty Images

Downey admitted, “I don’t want to say that I did anything correctly at Perry House because the truth is that I spent my whole time there with my nose in the corner, being a moron.”

Saying Goodbye to His Dad

After losing his mom in 2014, Downey suffered another loss when his father passed away in July 2021. He battled Parkinson’s disease for five years before his death. Although his dad was the reason he went down a path of drugs and alcohol, Downey loved his father.

A picture of Downey Jr. and Downey Sr. arriving at an event.
Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

In a tribute to his dad, Downey praised his stepmom, saying she was a saint. Robert Sr. battled cocaine addiction and quit in front of his son. He told Downey, “If I made such an impression on you, then why can’t you do the same thing?”

Where Does Robert Downey Jr. Live?

As the son of a filmmaker, Downey moved around as a child for his father’s career. However, he is now settled in Malibu, California with his family. He and his wife spent seven years building their one-of-a-kind, energy-efficient, dome-shaped home. It was their long-term passion project.

An aerial view of Downey Jr.’s futuristic mansion.
Source: YouTube

Downey’s home runs on wind turbines and solar-generated water systems to reduce its carbon footprint. Downey and Susan are co-founders of the Footprint Coalition, which works to scale sustainable technology. It is only fitting that their home is eco-friendly. The property also has a farm.

Bi-Coastal Family

He might have spent nearly a decade building his Malibu home, but Downey could never give up his New York roots. He also owns a 19th-century windmill home in East Hampton, New York. The couple purchased the whimsical home in 2016 for $10.5 million.

An exterior shot of Downey Jr.’s East Hampton mansion.
Source: Architectural Diges

The home is perfect for summer vacations with the family. Downey loves to travel to the East Coast to escape the California heat. He also has a property in Venice Beach, California, that is used as the headquarters for Team Downey.

Man of Luxury

Downey might have been able to play Tony Stark so well because the two have very similar lives. Like his Marvel character, Downey also has a taste for the finer things in life, like his car collection. He owns a Ferrari, Bentley, Fisker Karma, and an Audi R8.

A photo of Susan Downey and Downey Jr. arriving at an event.
Photo by Jeff Vespa/WireImage/Getty Images

However, the most impressive additions to his collection are the vintage vehicles. Downey’s vintage fleet includes a 1967 Corvette Stingray and a 1970 Ford Mustang Boss 302. He also got to keep the custom Acura NSX concept from Iron Man 3, which is a one-of-a-kind car.

What’s Next for Robert Downey Jr.?

Downey has overcome several obstacles in his life and earned his way to become one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood. Now that he has said goodbye to his Iron Man armor, he is looking forward to many exciting upcoming projects like the third installment of Sherlock Holmes.

A studio portrait of Downey Jr.
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He will also appear in the sports comedy-drama All-Star Weekend, directed by Jamie Foxx. Downey will also play Lewis Strauss in Christopher Nolan’s biographical film Oppenheimer. The future looks bright for the actor. He will always be our favorite superhero.