Robert Downey Jr.’s long journey from being in prison to becoming Iron Man

robert downey jr
Photo by Ian Gavan/Getty Images

The Robert Downey Jr. we know today has come a long way from the Oscar-nominated actor who once spent years in and out of rehab programs and was sentenced to three years in prison. While several actors and actresses have turned their lives around after battling addiction, few have done so as drastically — and successfully — as Downey. 

We know him now as Tony Stark, the brilliant billionaire behind the Iron Man suit in the multi-billion dollar Marvel Cinematic Universe. With such a successful second half to his career, it’s easy to think of Downey’s past as a stepping stone to his current success. After all, he was pardoned by Gov. Jerry Brown of California in 2015 for any and all crimes.

But Downey’s past is more than just a footnote. His actions came with real-life consequences, and in 1999, the Iron Man actor found himself not only standing before a judge in court but also being sentenced to three years in the North Kern State Prison in Delano, California.

Let’s take a look back on Downey’s bumpy journey to the top. 

Why did Robert Downey Jr. go to jail?

Robert Downey Jr. in court
Robert Downey Jr. appears in court with his attorney. Photo by Jason Kirk/Getty Images/Newsmakers

Coming off a career-high in which Downey received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for the movie Chaplin, the Iron Man actor was sentenced to 180 days in the Los Angeles County Jail. He was pulled over for speeding down the streets of Malibu and charged with driving under the influence. Upon inspection of his vehicle, officials found 42 grams of heroin, 1.49 grams of cocaine, and .32 grams of crack cocaine. To make matters worse, they found an unloaded .357 magnum under the passenger seat and four lone bullets in the glove compartment. 

This was only the beginning of Downey’s descent to rock bottom. It took more instances of bumping up against the law to shake him to his senses. While awaiting trial for driving under the influence and being in possession of drugs, not to mention a .357 magnum, the actor drunkenly stumbled into his neighbor’s house one night and passed out in the bed of their 11-year-old son.

The judge decidedly placed Downey in a 24-hour drug rehabilitation program, but Downey had no intention of staying in such a program. He escaped through the back window and hitchhiked to a friend’s house, which gave the judge cause to place him in county jail for nine days. Upon release of those nine days, Downey was given six additional months of live-in rehab and three years of probation.

Robert Downey Jr. in 1999
Photo via Getty Images

Those events alone are enough for a lifetime, but things didn’t stop there. As often happens with high-profile actors, Downey was temporarily released from rehab on multiple occasions to appear on shows like Saturday Night Live and Prime-Time Live with Diane Sawyer. During this time, Downey’s drug counselor appeared in court to inform the judge that Downey skipped his mandatory drug testing, and in doing so, violated the terms of his probation. This gave the judge cause to sentence Downey to 180 days in county jail.

“I’m going to incarcerate you and I’m going to incarcerate you in a way that is very unpleasant to you,” the judge said to Downey, then adding, “I am willing to send you to a state prison. I don’t care who you are.”

That is exactly what happened, but not before more breaks in jail time in which Downey was furloughed to film movies such as U.S. Marshals and In Dreams. On the grounds of good behavior, the actor was released from jail after 113 days but was ordered into a 120-day drug rehabilitation program, one that required regular and strict drug testing.

A few months down the road Downey went the route of honesty and admitted to the judge that he missed several scheduled drug tests. The judge, therefore, handcuffed Downey and sentenced him to a 24-hour rehab program again, one in which Downey had no option but to obey the rules and await his final ruling.

Mo’ Downey, aka Inmate No. P50522

Robert Downey Jr. at 53rd Emmy Awards
Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images

“It’s like I’ve got a shotgun in my mouth, and I’ve got my finger on the trigger, and I like the taste of gun metal,” Downey said to the judge the next time he appeared in court.

This was the actor’s final and desperate attempt to keep from being sent to prison, as his lawyers no doubt warned him. The judge, unfortunately, had little sympathy. The Oscar-nominated actor was officially sentenced to three years in state prison (with a 201-day credit for the days he already served both in jail and in rehab). That left him with a year behind bars.

What exactly happened during his time in state prison is known only as much as Downey has shared. In a Vanity Fair exposé from 2000, he gave bits and pieces, including the new nickname he acquired from the inside: Mo’ Downey. The cellmates with whom he shared a “dorm” were “Figueroa Slim,” Timmons, “Sugar Bear,” and “Big Al”, names you’d expect to hear from characters in, say, an Oscar movie.

“I’m no more equipped for this than you are,” he told Steve Garbarino from Vanity Fair. So how did he make it through? By keeping his head down, maintaining his kitchen duties, and upholding his charismatic personality. He sent letters to his mom and his sister, speaking to them more clearly and frequently than he ever had before. That, and he played racquetball. Eventually, August 2000 rolled around and Downey was released. When Garbarino asked him if he was using again, Downey said “I haven’t used drugs since June of 1999… End of story.”

iron man 3

It’s 2022 and Downey has remained sober ever since. He went from being an actor who was uninsurable to becoming an irreplaceable part of the Marvel family. When he premiered as Iron Man in 2008 many weren’t sure what that’d look like for the once destructive Hollywood actor, but it’s been 14 years and life hasn’t looked brighter for the Oscar-nominated actor whose second half of his career has easily outshone his first, a compliment to any actor’s success. In 2015 he was pardoned by Gov. Jerry Brown on the grounds of living a “productive and law-abiding life” post-conviction.

Today, his past plays no role in his present or future. Even though it has was thirteen years ago that he first said, “I am Iron Man” and three years since he wrapped his stint as the Marvel hero in the box office phenomenon that was Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame, he will forever remain the often smart-mouthed yet exceptionally heroic Tony Stark in the hearts of MCU fans.