The back-deck view from the A-List is quiet and spectacular. That’s the monstrous ivory Getty Center standing mid ground, and through the haze across the San Fernando Valley, the mountains. There’s a woman taking a gentle dip in a pool beyond the far side of the deck, her head bobbing in silent profile.
Here the root beer is microbrewed; all proceeds go to help shelter dogs. The water, an advanced hydration beverage patented for high levels of stabilized dissolved oxygen, is A-list, too. Luncheon — sliced steak and salmon fillet — is being prepped by the chef, Louise, whose shortcake-and-cream dessert will be gluten-free.
Is this heaven, or Pacific Palisades?
I am not making fun. I want to stay here, live here, curl up on the bench and snooze the afternoon away. The root beer is frosty and delicious. The woman in the pool is standing now, shoulder-deep, her back turned, talking on the phone; too soft to hear, her voice floats on the late-summer breeze, hidden by birdsong. Sun-kissed, my tape recorder shines, waiting for our host.
Our host is in a meeting, in the house; the A-list means the meetings come to you. A few moments more and time will jerk forward again, this blissful silence will flee in holy terror, and Robert Downey Jr. will come, calling me the name that only he has ever called me — dude — and I will tell him how happy I am to see him and to see how far he has come since I saw him last.
“Oh, dude,” he’ll say. “It’s so cool. It’s just so gratifying. This morning I was feeling this overwhelming sense of gratitude. I was having an argument with myself, and the thing that came into my head was, If two plus three is five, then five minus three is two — do you fucking get it?”
He gets it, and that’s really all that counts. The last time I spent time with Downey, the Iron Man crew was just building the sets, and he had yet to be — despite his unparalleled chops, and the infamy of his hellride, and the hard labor of recovering himself and his career — the star of a smash hit. The last time, he was nervous, maybe even a trifle frightened by Jon Favreau and Marvel rolling a $140 million pair of bones by casting a fortyish ex-con to star as a second-tier comic-book superhero in the sort of movie he had never made before.
Anxious, too, about being on a real magazine’s cover for the first time in many mug shots, Downey poured forth 47,900 words — the transcript was 127 pages, single-spaced — over three days running.
Relax, I said at one point. We’ve got enough for three cover stories.
“We need ten,” he told me.
Then Iron Man grossed more than half a billion dollars, and Downey, in blackface, stole Tropic Thunder and got nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and now Iron Man 2 is in the can and he just finished a week of London reshoots for Sherlock Holmes — the meeting in the house today is to spitball Sherlock 2 — and he’s leaving for Atlanta this week on a four-month shoot for a Todd Phillips comedy called Due Date — and then and then and then?
“The whole pacing thing has come up in front of the review board — and I’m the one who said that if I don’t take a break after Iron Man 2, there is something desperately wrong here. I’m not a guy who in order to be well I need to have one or another carrot in front of me the whole time. I can’t keep going at this stride and be okay — but I can keep checking all the dials. This is a big, glorious impasse — but Mama needs a new pair of shoes, dude.”
“Yes. Absolutely. But Mama needs a new pair of shoes, not a heart transplant and a face-lift.”
Surely not a face-lift. Mama, chair of the review board, is Susan Levin Downey, Downey’s wife, a chestnut-haired beauty from Chicagoland who came west for film school and became a heavy-hitting producer and the heart that beats in Downey’s chest right next to his.
“There’s no understanding for me of the bigger picture in real time in a hands-on way without her. Because it was the perfect, perfect, perfect matching of personalities and gifts.”
So you’ll take a break after Due Date?
“Might be. I’m not sure right now.”
Downey’s forty-four years old, with hard miles on the odometer, a blown gasket or two thwapping in his head, and a lead foot on the gas, still gunning it to make up for all that time he lost.
“I hit my stride later than most folks. A couple years ago, it really was a big old hip-hip-hooray and let’s get somethin’ shakin’ here. Then pfffffff — it reorganized at this higher level, and now there’s more to manage, and more opportunity. And then there’s nothing except the question of pacing — because I can go fast like this for a little while or I can start pacing it down and get where I’m actually supposed to be heading — and it’s really, really elusive.
“I hand it to any and everyone who has made it past their late thirties and has any sense of contentment, because you know so much, and the anxiety can be so overwhelming — and managing the anxiety is a skill set that seems like a menu that changes every day. My insanity is thinking that somehow or another I was responsible — personally, directly responsible — for altering the course of things that have us sitting here on this deck. There’s so many other factors in this — so many other people and past relationships, my kid and my folks, and the centerpiece of it all, Susan. It’s like I know what happened, and I know that I got the ball and ran with it, and hip-hip-hip, and then like they’re saying, ‘Look — before you blow out a knee, we’d like to give you a bunch of endorsements,’ and I go, ‘Great.’
“The truth of the matter is, it’s always been like this. It hasn’t gone up from down; it’s just that it’s finally got wide enough that I can be contained.”
Downey looks past me and spots the woman at the far end of the yard, in the pool.
“Want to see something beautiful, dude?”
Downey watches her for a minute or two without another word. She’s his mom, Elsie, who now lives down the street. She was a cabaret singer and an actress, best known for her work in Robert Downey Sr.’s movies — a trove of outrÇ work, including Putney Swope and Greaser’s Palace, two cult favorites of no wee influence among today’s more daring directors.
This is, in fact, a huge part of Junior’s aesthetic lineage: He grew up in New York City, the hyperkinetic son of a maverick filmmaker who defined commercial success as failure and an actress who sunk her own career into her husband’s and into motherhood.
“What I have from my mom is the very distinct education in not blindly but somewhat wantonly throwing yourself into the work — and being very brave and dedicated. Because that gal sunbathing with her back to us dedicated her life to working in accord with my dad’s vision.
“And speaking of wider, dude — there I am, and it’s Rocky Horror Picture Show, Friday and Saturday night at the Eighth Street Playhouse, and there’s my buddy Frank Hall — who I’ve known since I was five — and there are these kids from a local club calling us Rocky Horror freak-outs, and we get our asses kicked. And there’s my mom, fresh out of doing these movies with my dad, and they’ve broken up, and we’re living in a nasty walk-up place on Forty-eighth and Madison. There we were — there were those times and those trials — and now.
“I look at it like that, like the poles between it. Now I’m not worrying about her, she’s not inundating me, we’re both healthy and happy — and there’s enough space for her to do what she likes to do and me to do what I like to do, and Susan’s doin’ what she wants to do. It’s about so much more than a deck with three different spaces — it’s about something that we’ve been able to figure out, which is tough, which is all these things Western and Eastern civilizations say: ‘This is the pyramid, and if you have this, you are closer to God.’ And the closer you get to that little capstone, the more dissatisfying it is — because it’s what you’ve known all along.”
Damn. We’re suspended somewhere between El Camino Real and Kapilvastu, motes drifting in the beam of light sprung from Vishnu’s palm, when Louise brings lunch.
Downey wants a root beer, too.
All proceeds go to shelter dogs, I say.
“Is that true?” he asks Louise. “Stop buying that garbage. And I want a three-legged poodle with cataracts over here tomorrow — can we arrange that? I gotta keep the image up.”
The back-deck house in Pacific Palisades turns out to be a rental until the end of November — another in a series of rented houses going back to the bad old days, when Downey’s first marriage fell apart and all the dollars went up in thick white smoke. Nobody in show business ever talks about their own money, so when Downey tells me we’re heading to an undisclosed location and jumps into a black Jetta station wagon — with me trailing in my rental unit — I figure maybe Marvel’s paying him in licorice and Spideybux until the bookkeepers can no longer hide the profits.
I frankly can’t resist: Let me guess your lease, I say — we’re in visual and cell-phone contact as we wend our way through Santa Monica — $379 a month?
“Shall I tell you the joys of the Jetta station wagon, dude? It’s low-profile. It’s got it all. The instrumentation, while firmly rooted in the twenty-first century, could easily be mistaken for 1993. The steering wheel has nothing but the steering wheel.”
Yeah, yeah — but what do you drive for fun?
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“I just realized — this is my old stomping grounds, when I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. The first guy who ever knocked me out with a left hook — Todd Bryant — lived right there, the street on your right, Marguerita.
“You see the sign that says CLEANER BY NATURE, there on your right? It’s now an eco-friendly dry-cleaning establishment; it was a German delicatessen where, if you were fifteen years old but said that you went to UCLA — and paid cash — you could buy Spaten lager and Grolsch. We would wind up hammered in Douglas Park — then we would enjoy the environs of Jack in the Box afterwards.
“This is home. This Rite Aid on your left, on the far side of Nineteenth Street, used to be a Thrifty’s — and that Thrifty’s was where Lino Bruni, Reed D’Eugenio, and I ran — and by the way, I was anything but the brains of the operation — we ran a counter scheme there, where our friends would come in, buy a lawn mower, and we’d ring up thirty cents, and they’d give us five bucks. Which we would spend here, at the now seemingly still open but looking defunct Bagel Nosh that we just passed. The Coffee Bean there has nothing to do with the eighties, and therefore I’m going to absolutely discount it.”
Downey’s in full-strobe mode now — right down to spelling his old running buddies’ last names for me. This is where he came to stay with his dad when his old man left New York to bang his barbarian head against the studios’ gates — and where young Bob found his narcotic mÇtier.
“This 7-Eleven on the left is where I was first detained by undercover officers in the mid-nineties who were wondering if my activity, though suspicious, would reveal anything more if they searched my car — they did; they found nothing. And here of course is Zucky’s, where Ramon Estevez — son of and brother to the Estevez-Sheen clan — taught me about punk rock and tap dancing and introduced me to the rigors of various aspects of theater arts — which culminated in my being cast in the Santa Monica High production of Oklahoma!
“I guess I’m talking about those SanMo High years in 1981 — 2. Then I dropped out — I would’ve been class of ’83.”
“I did not — I got my GED in the penitentiary. One block over would be where I got my first DUI — although I didn’t have my license yet. My friend Chris Bell’s mom’s Mercedes suddenly became the object of my affection — I got my hands on the keys, I went driving, I got lost, I pulled over to ask a police officer directions before he pulled me over to ask if I had a license — and I was shortly thereafter in custody.
“Now for the sake of my geographical privacy, I will give no further indication of what landmarks could point to where we’re going, but I will say that we’re heading south to Venice. More shall be revealed — goodbye for now.”
Then my phone rings again.
“By the way, I so didn’t have it in my mind that this would be this travelogue. I feel like I’m doing Gestalt therapy. Like I said — wider. It’s just so nice: Everyone has a story, and the story changes, and the more I can root into the truth of things — it’s so hard — I don’t think anyone ever really puts it all together. But somewhere along the way it all became fused.”
Yo, Sherlock: No shit.