Actor Robert Downey Sr.

Robert John Downey Sr. (né Elias Jr.; June 24, 1936 – July 7, 2021) was an American filmmaker and actor. He is known for having written and directed the 1969 underground film Putney Swope, a satire on the New York Madison Avenue advertising world. According to film scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon, Downey Sr.’s films during the 1960s were “strictly take-no-prisoners affairs, with minimal budgets and outrageous satire, effectively pushing forward the countercultural agenda of the day.”

Early life

Robert John Elias Jr. was born in the Manhattan borough of New York City, the son of Elizabeth (née McLauchlen), a model, and Robert Elias Sr., who worked in management of motels and restaurants. His paternal grandparents were Lithuanian Jews, while his mother was of half Hungarian Jewish and half Irish ancestry. He grew up in Rockville Centre, New York. He changed his surname to Downey (after his stepfather, James Downey) when he wanted to enlist in the United States Army while being underage. Downey later said he wrote an unpublished novel during his time in the army, though he spent much of his military career “in the stockade”.


Downey initially made his mark creating basement budget, independent films aligning with the Absurdist movement, coming of age in counterculture anti-establishment 1960s America. His work in the late 1960s and 1970s was quintessential anti-establishment, reflecting the nonconformity popularized by larger counterculture movements and given impetus by new freedoms in films, such as the breakdown of codes on censorship. In keeping with the underground tradition, his 1970s films were independently made on shoestring budgets and were relatively obscure in the Absurdist movement, finding culture notoriety.

In 1961, working with film editor Fred von Bernewitz, Downey began writing and directing low-budget 16mm films that gained an underground following, beginning with Ball’s Bluff (1961), a fantasy short about a Civil War soldier who awakens in Central Park in 1961. He moved into big-budget filmmaking with the surrealistic Greaser’s Palace (1972). His last film was Rittenhouse Square (2005), a documentary capturing life in a Philadelphia park.

Downey’s films were often family affairs. His first wife, Elsie, appears in four of his movies (Chafed Elbows, Pound, Greaser’s Palace, Moment to Moment), as well as co-writing one (Moment to Moment). Daughter Allyson and son Robert Downey Jr. each made their film debuts in the 1970 absurdist comedy Pound at the ages of 7 and 5, respectively; Allyson would appear in one more film by her father, Up the Academy. Robert Jr.’s lengthy acting résumé includes appearances in eight films directed by his father (Pound, Greaser’s Palace, Moment to Moment, Up the Academy, America, Rented Lips, Too Much Sun, Hugo Pool), as well as two acting appearances in movies where his father was also an actor (Johnny Be Good, Hail Caesar).

Personal life

Downey was married three times. His first marriage was to actress Elsie Ann Downey (née Ford; 1934–2014), with whom he had two children: actress-writer Allyson Downey (born 1963) and actor Robert Downey Jr. (born 1965). The marriage ended in divorce in 1975. His second marriage, to actress-writer Laura Ernst, lasted until her death on January 27, 1994 from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. In 1998 he married his third wife, Rosemary Rogers, humorist and co-author of Saints Preserve Us! and other books. They lived in New York City.

Downey died at his home in Manhattan on July 7, 2021, at age 85, after having Parkinson’s disease for over five years.


Year Film Role Credit Notes
1953 The American Road Unknown Cinematographer Short film
1961 Balls Bluff Civil War Union Soldier Director, writer, and producer Short film
1964 A Touch of Greatness Unknown Director, producer, and cinematographer Documentary
1964 Babo 73 Unknown Director, writer, and producer
1965 Sweet Smell of Sex Unknown Director, writer, and cinematographer
1966 Chafed Elbows Unknown Director, writer, and producer
1968 No More Excuses Private Stewart Thompson Director, writer, and producer
1969 Putney Swope Unknown Director and writer Voice, uncredited
1969 Naughty Nurse Desk Clerk Short film
1970 Pound Unknown Director and writer
1971 You’ve Got to Walk It Like You Talk It or You’ll Lose That Beat Head of Ad Agency
1971 Is There Sex After Death? Himself Mockumentary and mondo film
1971 Cold Turkey Unknown Second unit director
1972 Greaser’s Palace Unknown Director and writer
1973 Sticks and Bones Unknown Director and writer Television film
1975 Moment to Moment Unknown Director and writer Retitled Two Tons of
Turquoise to Taos Tonight
1980 Up the Academy Unknown Director
1980 The Gong Show Movie Unknown Co-writer
1985 To Live and Die in L.A. Senior Secret Service Agent Thomas Bateman
1985–1986 The Twilight Zone Mr. Miller Director Directed 3 episodes
acted in segment: “Wordplay”
1986 America Unknown Director and co-writer
1986 Matlock Judge Warren Anderson Episode: “Judge Warren Anderson”
1988 Rented Lips Unknown Director
1988 Moving Target Weinberg Television film
1988 Johnny Be Good NCAA Investigator Floyd Gondoli
1988–1989 1st & Ten Mike McDonald / Reporter #4 /
Reporter / Sports Writer
4 episodes
1991 Too Much Sun Unknown Director and co-writer
1993 Tales of the City Edgar’s Doctor Miniseries; 1 episode
1994 Hail Caesar Butler
1996 Sunchaser Telephone Voices
1997 Hugo Pool Unknown Director and co-writer
1997 Boogie Nights Burt
1999 Magnolia WDKK Show Director
2000 The Family Man Man In House
2004 From Other Worlds Baker
2005 Rittenhouse Square Unknown Director Documentary
2011 Tower Heist Judge Ramos

External Links

Actor Robert Downey Sr. – Wikipedia

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