Robert Downey, Jr. has pulled off an incredible feat in his career, going from nearly less than zero for around 25 years to box office hero in the last two. Aside from supporting roles in a few popular movies, Mr. Downey could have been labeled box office poison for most of his career, better known for the poisons he was putting into his system than for his movies. But despite so many commercial strikes, Hollywood kept letting him play, and it finally paid off in 2008.
Following supporting work in movies like Back to School and Weird Science, Robert Downey, Jr.'s first at-bat as a leading man was The Pick-Up Artist in 1987, playing a womanizer opposite Molly Ringwald. The comedy wasn't disastrous in its first September weekend, grossing $4.5 million at 1,129 theaters, but it was overshadowed by the debut of Fatal Attraction that same weekend and fizzled out rapidly by the era's standards, winding up with a $13.3 million final tally.
In Nov. 1987, Mr. Downey's next major role opened. Co-starring Andrew McCarthy, Less Than Zero lived up to its title with a $3 million opening weekend at 871 sites (Fatal Attraction still dominated the box office in its eighth weekend), but it held up better than The Pick-Up Artist, coming in at $12.4 million by the end of its run. Less Than Zero seemed more popular than it actually was, due to the heavy rotation of The Bangles' "Hazy Shade of Winter" tie-in video on MTV. On the 1987 chart, Pick-Up Artist and Less Than Zero ranked 78th and 82nd, respectively.
Downey played support for another well-known 1980s actor, Anthony Michael Hall, in Johnny Be Good, but the comedy didn't fare much better, grossing $17.6 million. Later that year, his next theatrical release, 1969 with Kiefer Sutherland, tanked with a $6 million sum. He next starred opposite James Woods in True Believer. Released in Feb. 1989, the legal drama's case was dismissed at a mere $8.7 million. Fantastical romance Chances Are followed the next month, and it wooed more patrons but still earned a modest $16.3 million.
His next theatrical release was his first stab at a summer entertainment. Released in Aug. 1990, Air America was headlined by Mel Gibson but still failed to get off the ground. The action comedy generated $8.1 million at 1,902 in its opening weekend and closed with $31.1 million, ranking 37th for 1990. The next summer, Downey was part of the ensemble comedy Soapdish, but that picture didn't go very far either, tallying $36.5 million.
At the end of 1992, Chaplin was Downey's first top-billed role, and it also featured a raft of familiar faces in support. Though he received acclaim and an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Charlie Chaplin in the biographical drama, the high-profile picture was a bust at the box office, drawing just $9.5 million in its entire run.
The next summer, Downey had another shot at leading man status with Heart and Souls, and the supernatural comedy was presented as a Chaplin-like acting showcase in which various ghosts would possess his character. Audiences weren't interested, though, and the picture grossed just $16.6 million. Later, Downey was himself in the political campaign documentary The Last Party that next to noone saw, was part of the Short Cuts ensemble and had a supporting part in the popular Natural Born Killers.
In 1998, Downey had a supporting role in The Fugitive follow-up U.S. Marshals, but it didn't take off like its predecessor, grossing $57.2 million. His next leading role, Two Girls and a Guy, reunited him with his Pick-Up Artist director James Toback, but it was another disappointment, making $2.1 million from a sizable limited release.
In 2000, Downey joined the fourth season of the television series Ally McBeal as the main character's love interest. At the time, he was credited for creating new interest for the series. The ratings dipped only slightly that season, so he may have added some stability, but he was fired in 2001 and written out after yet another drug incident. In his absence, Ally McBeal went into a tizzy, and its ratings dropped significantly in its fifth and ultimately final season. (Ally creator David E. Kelley would later enlist Downey's Less Than Zero and Tuff Turf co-star James Spader for a season of The Practice and spun Mr. Spader's character off into the successful series Boston Legal.) After rehabilitation, Downey starred in the video for Elton John's 2001 song "I Want Love."
Between television and rehab, Downey was away from the big screen for more than three years until his Air America co-star, Mel Gibson, hired him for the lead in The Singing Detective. Released in Oct. 2003, the movie was yet another box office failure for Downey, earning a mere $337,174. The next month, he had a supporting role in the Halle Berry horror thriller Gothika, which grossed a decent $59.7 million.
Supporting work in big movies and leads in small movies followed. In 2005, he appeared in George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck. and headlined Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, opposite Val Kilmer. The latter was highly-regarded and would be the prototype for blockbuster roles of the future, but few were interested at the time as the movie made only $4.2 million (peaking at 226 theaters).
Through the decades, Downey may have been troubled and prone to making unappealing movies, but his talent was respected and people liked him enough to root for him to succeed. As unpopular as some of those movies may have been individually, they collectively simmered in the culture until the right role and movie arrived to bring things to a boil. It was in 2008 when it all came together for Downey in the form of Iron Man.
Though it was the summer kick-off of 2008, Iron Man wasn't always a slam dunk. Prior to its launch, no superhero movie outside of the most well-known characters (Batman, Spider-Man, Superman, X-Men) had reached true blockbuster status. While director Jon Favreau and Marvel Comics had crafted many winning elements for what was essentially a brighter, happier version of Batman, the casting of Downey supercharged the proceedings.
Downey's charming and witty bad boy image, informed by the heft of his dramatic chops, matched the character of Tony Stark, and Iron Man blasted off with $98.6 million its first weekend and went on to earn $318.4 million by the end of its run. It would rank as the second-biggest movie of the year behind The Dark Knight. What Downey did for Iron Man was legitmately compared to what Johnny Depp brought to Pirates of the Caribbean, and it's a rarity in this day and age for an actor to make more than a lick of difference.
Downey's newfound stardom stemmed from him embracing his persona, instead of just being an actor. Very few actors can be bankable and be actor's actors as well. Once in a great while an actor's quirks or chameleon-like behavior can become part of their persona and be accepted by the public. Johnny Depp is a prime example of this, and now Downey has ventured down the same path.
Towards the end of Summer 2008, Downey was back in theaters with the comedy Tropic Thunder, in which he played an Australian method actor playing a black American soldier in Vietnam, replete with darkened skin. It sounded risky on paper, but Downey pulled it off and the picture was another hit, grossing $110.5 million. It also yielded his second Oscar nomination.
The Soloist, co-starring Jamie Foxx, followed in late April 2009, but the music-themed drama was originally pushed as 2008 Oscar bait and floundered from the unceremonious delay and release date. With material that was hard to gin up interest for, it made $31.7 million, representing Downey's one commercial blight since 2008.
Downey came roaring back with Sherlock Holmes, a movie more in the spirit of Iron Man in terms of its appeal. It set the Christmas day record when it opened and went on to gross $209 million. Recently, a sequel was announced for Dec. 2011. Iron Man 2 then started Summer 2010 with a $128.1 million bang and has accumulated nearly $295 million in seven weeks. Next up, for Downey is the road-trip comedy Due Date from The Hangover director Todd Phillips.
All told, Robert Downey, Jr.'s movies have grossed over $1.66 billion and counting (or the equivalent of around $2.23 billion adjusted for ticket price inflation). His five movies from Iron Man on have accounted for nearly 60 percent of that total, and the disparity is even greater looking at just lead roles. So don't call Iron Man a comeback, because Downey is far more popular now than he ever was. It was simply the moment he became a star.