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Robert Downey Jr. Gives Rare Insight Into His Time in Prison

Photo Credit: John T. Barr / Getty Images
Photo Credit: John T. Barr / Getty Images

Robert Downey Jr. is undoubtedly best known for his role as Iron Man in the Marvel Comics film franchise. Yet before that success, he was a well-known name in Hollywood – until his career hit a wall following his struggles with addiction. During this time, he was sentenced to a brief stint in prison, something that the actor rarely talks about. While appearing on an episode of Dax Shepard’s podcast Armchair Expert, however, Downey finally opened up about what that experience was like for him.

Struggles with addiction

Although Downey has now been sober since 2003, his journey with drugs began at a very young age. He said his father had been partaking with him since he was only eight. Downey was still able to work on films, even earning an Oscar nomination for his role in the 1992 bio-pic Chaplin. Things really spiraled out of control for Downey, however, when he was pulled over for speeding down Sunset Boulevard in April 1996. When the police searched the car, they found numerous illicit substances and an unloaded gun.

Young Robert Downey Jr. posing for a mug shot in an orange jumpsuit.
Mug shot of Robert Downey Jr. taken at the California Department of Corrections, September 25, 1999. (Photo Credit: Kypros / Getty Images)

He was arrested on the spot, although was later released on parole. The following month, he was again arrested when, while under the influence of drugs, he found his way into a neighbor’s house and fell asleep. Downey was placed on three-year probation, requiring the actor to complete non-optional drug testing. The following year he missed one of these appointments and had to spend six months in a Los Angeles jail for violating parole.

Arrest and sentencing

In 1999 he failed to appear for a second drug test and was this time sentenced to three years at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison – although he only served one. He said of this experience, “I’m in court, I’m being over-sentenced by an angry judge, and at some point he said something in Latin. I thought he was casting a spell on me.” He went on, “Two weeks later, I’m in a place called Delano, which is a receiving center where they decide where you’re going to go.”

Young Robert Downey Jr. wearing an orange prison uniform and holding a bag as he walks towards a bus.
Robert Downey Jr. on his way to the bus after his hearing for violating his probation, August 5, 1999. (Photo Credit: James Peterson / Online USA, Inc. / Getty Images)

He added that it was “Arguably the most dangerous place I’ve ever been in my life because nobody is designated. If they’re a level 1, 2, 3 or 4 criminal, [everyone’s there]. You could just feel the evil in the air.” One particular moment there stood out to him, and he shared it with Shepard. Once, when he went to take a shower, he had his underwear on backward. It elicited “some strong chuckles and jeers from my fellow inmates.”

‘Sent to a distant planet’

Eventually, Downey explained, he was transferred to the prison where he would serve his actual term. He recalled, “Walking onto the yard that you’re gonna be doing more than a year on for the first time, the closest thing I can associate it to is being sent to a distant planet where there is no way home until the planets align…” Yet the actor also talked about how he adapted to his situation, and it didn’t remain horrific the entire time.

Robert Downey Jr. in a black suit and shirt, posing with his arms crossed.
Robert Downey Jr. attends the 60th New York Film Festival, October 10, 2022. (Photo Credit: Dimitrios Kambouris / Getty Images for FLC)

“We are programmed to, within a short amount of time, be able to adjust to things that are seemingly impossible (…) Day 15 was a ball. By day 15 I’m playing, literally, I’m dialed in.” That doesn’t mean that it was smooth sailing, there was still a certain level of ‘prison culture’ one had to adapt to: “As long as you have a willingness to do harm, it is unlikely that you will be targeted. It really is that thing of what is the difference between acting like you’re willing to do harm and being willing to do harm.”

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Downey was ultimately pardoned by the Governor of California in 2016 and had his right to vote restored. His conviction remains, but it was a gesture of goodwill toward the actor for getting clean and staying out of prison.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.