April 24May 1, 1997
Robert Downey, Sr. at home.
Pioneer indie filmmaker Robert Downey, Sr. talks about his new movie, his famous son, the horrors of L.A. and the joys of off-track betting.
By Daisy Fried
C'mon Mikey, Mikey! Six hoss. Love it, yes. Go six. Whip! Whip! Mikey! Beautiful. Beautiful.
The filmmaker Robert Downey leads the way into the mid-race mutter and blurt of the OTB parlor at 38th and 7th Avenue, New York City. Grins his low-slung grin. On dozens of TV screens, horses dash right to left, left to right, close up, far away. Jockeys haul their tight little butts up off winning or losing horses to slow them down.
C'mon! Mikey! Go!
Men sit or stand in rows and clumps murmuring, yelling, silent. Pairs confer. Loners. Barflies. Porkpie hats. Shaved heads. Sad little gray ponytails curling down napes like leaky snails. Asians. Couple blacks. Mostly whites. Smokers who lift their cigs to the very centers of their lips, holding them under the first two fingers sucking in smoke as if drinking from a straw.
Six hoss! Ohhh yes.
"Let's go back and see if we can get a table," Downey says. "You're supposed to pay $20 each to sit there but I gave the waitress a good tip last time, so let's see if she recognizes me."
She sure does remember big handsome blue-eyed white-haired Robert Downey, Sr.: winks, nods, shoves a shoulder at a table. We sit. Green carpet, green booths, green curtains looped up from windows that don't let anything resembling natural light into the room. Downey, the original alterna/indie/experimental maker of quote-lines-to-your-friends-until-they-puke hilarious films, helps us bet.
Three minutes to the sixth Aqueduct race. I put two bucks on Cowboy Rudy and L'il Orphan Groovy for an exacta box. Julia the photographer stakes two to win on Cowboy Rudy. Same horse for Downey, only he bets $20 to win, $15 to place.
Downey or Senior, as some call him to distinguish him from his namesake famous-actor son watches people. He digs the guy with the serious pelvic spread, the flabby dandruffy brown jacket, the face crinkled into a weft of skin threads hanging off his cheekbones. He laughs out loud for joy when the fellow climbs up onto the bench of his horseshoe-shaped booth to get his foggy eyes closer to the odds flashing on the TV.
And that Asian guy bellowing in some tonal language into a miniature cell phone as he watches a race?
"He's made some mistake," narrates Downey. "He bet on something he shouldn't have or he could have bet on something and he didn't. He's betting a bankroll. He's getting shit from somebody. He fucked up, and he doesn't like the pressure."
And they're off. And Cowboy Rudy fades. And Groovy never goes anywhere. And we all lose.
"I am not a creature of habit, " says Downey. "I write at night. I write on trains. And I get a lot of writing done here. I place a few bets, and in between, write in my notebook. Or on the tablecloth. See, it's paper. You can tear it off and take it home. Can you see how it would be kind of soothing?"
Robert Downey, Sr. is back. Not that he was ever entirely gone. But after he made scabrously funny films like Putney Swope and Greaser's Palace in the late '60s and early '70s, he did too many drugs, divorced his wife, raised his kids (a daughter and Junior, as he calls his namesake), fell in love with and, in 1981, married a beautiful young woman named Laura Ernst, got off drugs, rehabbed entirely, got NEA and Guggenheim grants, had directing gigs on other people's movies, and finally, at 60, he's back with his own movie.
He's back without and because of Laura. She died three years ago of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. But before she died, she and Downey wrote the script to his new film, Hugo Pool. The movie has big-name stars, including Junior, and will come to Philly as part of the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema.
In Hugo Pool, a young female pool cleaner named Hugo Dugay, played by Alyssa Milano,must clean 44 pools in one day in the middle of a Southern California drought.
She's aided by her mother Minerva (Cathy Moriarty), who's a horse gambler with a big debt to a bookie named Irwin (Gong Show and Dating Game's Chuck Barris), and by her junkie dad Henry (Malcolm McDowell), who delivers rhyming lines like a whacked Dr. Seuss character.
A wiseguy (Richard Lewis) threatens to kill Hugo if she doesn't fill his pool by 6:30 p.m. Hugo sends her dad off in a water truck to siphon water from the Colorado River, since no one's allowed to fill their pools during the drought. He's accompanied by a mysterious hitchhiker (Sean Penn) who wears amazing blue shoes.
There's also a loony film director (played by Junior) who's out on bail for shooting an extra for overacting, and a wheelchair-bound hunk (Patrick Dempsey) who's got ALS, whom Hugo falls in love with.
The action exists in the surreal world of California backyards.
"You'll notice there are nocars, extras or reality to disturb it," says Downey.
In January, he took Hugo Pool to Sundance. Even with Downey's rep and the big-name stars who worked for next to nothing because they like Downey and the script Hugo Pool didn't get picked up till some weeks later, by the German distributor BMG.
Some reviewers love it. Some are freaked by the unapologetic serious and romantic turn of things in Hugo Pool, by the underlying sweetness, new for Downey. Or they're disturbed that a tender movie would have room for Downey's demented sense of humor.
In one scene, Malcolm McDowell and Sean Penn are driving along in the water truck.
"Give me four," says McDowell. "Five is too jive."
They slap high-four.
"My hand's on fire with camaraderie, my skin burns with bonding," says Penn in an affectless whine.
The movie is full of autobiographical bits: ALS, drug abuse, rehab, etc. Downey's one of the last people in the world you want to accuse of having a message. But if there is one, it's that innocence and happiness are possible in a cruel world where everyone knows too much.
Downey's movies, Hugo Pool included, operate according to an entirely individual logic. There's one rule for what gets included: what tickles Robert Downey. That's why they make you laugh in a different way from your average comedy. That's why they're hard to categorize. They aren't commercial Hollywood, and they aren't alternative arthouse, which is, of course, just commercial film for highbrows.
"I like this one," says Downey of Hugo Pool. "For me to have done a love story that's not all funny is attributable to Laura. I feel like she's stayed around to make sure I didn't fuck it up."
"We shouldn't have had a press screening at Sundance. Or at least we should have had the general screening first and let word of mouth build before the press screening. We had a free screening for 300 festival volunteers, the people who are there because they love movies and they had a blast and we had a blast. The further away you get from L.A. and my past, the more people like it."
"The best way to know what people think of your movie is to go down behind the screen and look at your audience. Because the screen is made of little holes and you can see through it but they can't see you. I've seen people sitting there like this [makes a moron face]; I've seen people dumbfounded, frowning, happy, I've seen people drinking from paper bags, picking their nose at what I thought were profound moments."
He says he doesn't care about reviews, except insofar as they supply adjectives to use in movie ads. "They say it's not like my old stuff. Well, they didn't like the old stuff either."
"To call [Putney Swope] undisciplined would be a considerable understatement," one reviewer complained in 1969.
"Vicious and vile," sniped another. "If intelligent people must see it, take along your retch-bags."
Photo by Julia Lehman.
Downey first got noticed back in the mid-'60s when he made a film mostly out of stills interspersed with live action. Chafed Elbows was about a man who marries his mother and goes on welfare. Banned in Boston, the movie played 10 months at New York's Bleecker Street Cinema on a double bill with Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising.
"When I started doing the college lecture thing they all thought I'd done Scorpio Rising, which is guys fucking guys on motorcycles to rock and roll music. Actually, that was an interesting movie. It had a lot of energy."
Then came Putney Swope, a wicked lampoon of the advertising industry and a lot of other things, in which a black guy takes over an advertising agency, changes its name to Truth and Soul, Inc., and refuses to make ads for cigarettes, booze or guns till cash flow gets tight.
In the '60s, Downey himself directed experimental commercials for an ad agency. In one Downey ad, an Asian woman coos, "No matter what your ethnic affliction, use Preparation H and you can kiss your hemorrhoids goodbye."
A black director at the agency pointed out to Downey that he and Downey were doing the same kind of work, but Downey was making more.
"So we went to the boss and asked why," says Downey. "The boss said, 'If I give him a raise, you'll want a raise and then we'll be right back where we started.'"
So began Putney Swope. The boss's line went into the movie, only Downey turned the tables, with a white worker petitioning his black boss.
Also in the film: a midget president, a black Muslim in sheik headdress, a Nazi named Mr. Borman and a flasher named Sonny. Black and white narrative is interspersed with fake color ads, for "Face Off" zit cream; for "Lucky Airlines" in which one lucky passenger gets to fly in a special padded area with a quartet of bouncing bare-breasted stewardesses; and one in which an old man crutches himself down the steps of a neoclassical edifice.
"They charge an arm and a leg in there but it's worth it," says the man, as you realize he's missing one of each limb.
"What's that for?" asks someone in the movie.
"Worth It Insurance," answers Putney.
Answers Downey, actually. The actor who played Swope couldn't remember his lines, Downey says.
"I didn't have enough money to start over. Luckily the cameraman told me since the actor had a beard, you wouldn't be able to see his mouth moving. So I did the voice [he dips his voice into Putney's gravelly whisper to demonstrate] and we dubbed it in. I nearly ruined my vocal cords."
As the TLA Film & Video Guide says, "While the liberal wing of Hollywood was making a big show out of taking Sidney Poitier home to dinner, Downey was preaching true equality when he argued that given half the chance blacks could be every bit as corrupt as whites... [his] wild narrative style... influenced mainstream movies for years to come."
But Downey was too weird to have big hits. His next movies did poorly.
In Pound, actors played dogs waiting to be adopted. Greaser's Palace (1972) was a bizarre, hilarious movie set in a 19th-century Wild West town into which parachutes a zoot-suited vaudevillian messiah who turns cartwheels on water, raises the dead (who say things upon resurrecting like "I was swimmin' in a rainbow with millions of babies and they was naked and then all of a sudden I turned into a perfect smile"), heals the crippled (sort of), warns of an evil demon named Bingo Gas Station Motel Nuclear Cheeseburger With A Side of Aircraft Noise And You'll Be Gary Indiana, and helps the constipated and violent tyrant Mr. Greaser to finally take a shit.
While editing Greaser's Palace, Downey started doing cocaine. He lost the next 10 years of his life, wrote nothing much, he says, but gibberish. He didn't hide his drug use from his kids, even let Junior experiment.
"Back then, we thought, 'Why be a hypocrite?' We should have been hypocrites. I was a real jerk about drugs."
Over the years, Downey's films have become cable staples.
"I think experimental film is coming back, and I think that's partly because of cable. I mean, there were 1,200 films at Sundance and somebody's paying for all of them. Bravo and the other indie channels have played my films a lot late at night, and it saved me. It's why I'm still alive."
Forward to 1990. Laura begins to have trouble with her feet on the set of Too Much Sun, a giddy comedy directed and partly written by Senior in which Junior plays a post-teen shyster and Laura who didn't act much, was more of a writer a beautiful lesbian.
Laura had ALS, which eats the nerves away, paralyzing and eventually suffocating the victim. Downey says 25,000 people in the United States suffer from ALS at any given time. There are 5,000 new cases every year, as if to replace the 5,000 who die of it each year.
Laura died on Jan. 27, 1994.
Photo by Julia Lehman.
Downey's New York apartment is on the 15th floor of an old Greenwich Village building. It's not big by Philadelphia standards, but it's light-filled, wood-floored, low-ceilinged, big-windowed, pleasantly undesigned. There's a futon couch with bright blankets, a collection of masks, including a big cheery gilt wood sun.
There's a big TV and a handful of videos, including Putney Swope, on the entertainment shelf; a Rolling Stone and a book about Godard on the coffeetable.
Downey has a trick of seeming to talk slowly while actually talking fast; of seeming to move slowly but actually covering a lot of ground. One of the first things he does when we walk in is show us photos.
The first one is him and Laura in a clinch, hanging onto each other, grinning ear to ear. She looks like the skater Katarina Witt, only smarter, looser, happier. Her smile takes up half her face. In the second, later, black and white photo, Laura's thinner, tireder, still gorgeous. The third, an unframed snapshot, is just Laura's head on a pillow, a blanket pulled up to her chin. Her eyes sparkle. Her smile is gigantic, lips red as a red red tulip.
"That was the day before she left," Downey says. "We worked on the script till two days before. You never know with ALS when they're going to go. The lungs collapse. She was just a kid, 36."
Patrick Dempsey's character in Hugo Pool is, of course, based on Laura. Everyone who knew Laura says he got her just right. I've only seen the photos of Laura. But I recognize the smile in the photo as the slow blossoming smile that widens Dempsey's face in the movie as he falls in love with Hugo Dugay.
Was Laura scared?
"No," says Downey. "She was so loose. And so funny. One time we had a guy in to fix some shelves. He was Russian, he'd been here two years, and he was in the next room and needed to come in to where she was. She said, 'Don't let him in, cover up my legs.' 'Why?' I asked. 'Because somebody hasn't waxed my legs for two months.' I hear him going heh heh heh in the next room. 'Plus I don't want to make him homesick,' she says."
"You know 89 percent of the people with ALS are among the smartest people in the country. They think it's environmental. There are so many theories, though. They've isolated a gene, they're trying all these medications. There was a guy in New York who had gonorrhea and ALS and he took a drug for gonorrhea. Forty hours after that he was out of bed, walking around for four months, no problem. So of course everyone wanted to get ahold of some of that. Laura got some through a catheter in her chest. Soon after, I told her she seemed different. She said, 'Don't fuckin' hype me.' Three hours later her toe moved for the first time in more than a year. Later we heard the guy came back down. But that's the way it is. One guy with gonorrhea in New York leads you somewhere."
When Laura Downey stopped being able to talk, she got a voice-activator machine, like the one that the Dempsey character uses in the movie. You can insert whole cartridges of opinion into the machine, which you get to talk by pressing one finger.
"It's a great device for a movie. Laura would go at it. I'd hear her in the middle of the night, typing away, with one finger. She made a very long cassette for my grandson Indio [Junior's 3-year-old kid] for his 21st birthday. My son has it in a safe somewhere out in California."
We go around the corner to Sammy's Noodle Shop and Grill. Crowded tables. Turquoise, orange and purple walls. Four waitresses strip a mound of snow peas on a table in the back against one of the turquoise walls.
"I'd like to put that scene in a window in a movie and get my kid talking to somebody in front of it," says Downey.
This is what he loves about New York the life, the variety, the funny things people say that you just couldn't make up. He says he's left L.A. for good.
"It's so ugly there. I don't think I could photograph it again. And I wrote myself out of there. I found I was repeating what I'd written in other scripts. But that's only a small reason why I left. Even before she got sick, Laura said, 'Let's not stay forever.' To tell you what L.A. is like: back in L.A. in the '70s, I was really messed up one night driving home at three in the morning and I went into the house next door by mistake. The guy who lived there was watching TV in the living room. I started to back out quietly because I was sure I was going to get shot any second. When I got to the door he just said, 'You never say hello.' I'd never seen the guy before and he lived next door. That's how superficial it is."
"It's a cowtown. The movies are so lousy it doesn't even have that to rationalize it. The few times they've asked me to direct something I didn't write, it was a disaster. I don't know what all that means guns and cars. I just can't do movies without writing the script. I couldn't make it funny. I mean [points to Julia] I wouldn't question her exposure. I wouldn't question your article. So how am I gonna question someone else's script? I went back in 1985 to do a three-month job directing a trailer for a friend and stayed 11 years. I hated it. I felt myself becoming ridiculous."
Downey was 16, and in the Army by virtue of a forged birth certificate, when he was on a prop plane and the engine went out. "We were sitting on bucket seats and we're buzzing like this [puts his hands together, palms down, sways them back and forth] between mountains. This beautiful WAF [Women's Air Force] came out and said, 'Don't worry everything's fine.' We'd have believed her except there was a guy with all these medals on his chest moaning 'I don't want to die, I don't want to die.' We're going lower and lower. We thought, 'Oh shit, he has all these medals, he must know something.'"
"So we all start screaming and crying, and then we crash landed, BANG! on the airport strip and flipped over and flipped over and flipped over and some of us were scratched up and some of us had broken bones, but the guy with the ribbons and medals got up and walked off like it was nothing. That schmuck. I could have killed him."
"To this day, I won't fly. It's pathetic, but I've given up everything else; I'm not giving up this fear. So I'm not going to go back to L.A. anytime soon unless it's imperative."
He rides trains instead.
"Trains are great for writing. I always get my own room on the train I'm not going to end up next to some abrasive fuckin' lunatic and not get work done but the boredom and the motion brings the stuff out."
The fortune cookies come. Downey likes Julia's the best: Young men think old men are fools, but old men know young men are fools.
"I should show that to my son," says Downey.
Robert Downey, Jr.
Actually, Downey doesn't think Junior is a fool. In fact he admires him immensely.
"He's a great artist, and a great friend, and when he beats this, he's going to be a great man. And I know he's going to beat it," he says.
"This" and "it" are Robert Downey, Jr.'s drug addiction. After a series of drug arrests last year, which led to stays in jail and rehab centers, Junior is on probation.
Junior is hounded by reporters; Senior is protective of him.
"There's trouble every time he has to go to court," Senior says. "One time, this reporter follows me I'm trying to divert his attention so my kid won't be bothered so he can go back to jail. I go to my car and get in the driver's seat and he gets his foot in the door. Here's what he says: 'Do you still love your son?' Well, I just fuckin'... They played that on TV. They cut the sound but it must have registered on my face because a friend of mine asked me, 'What did you say??' Well I'm half Irish, half Jewish, so half of me is a fuckin' idiot."
"Look, whatever you do, don't name your kid after yourself. He might turn out to be more well-known than you and it'll be very traumatizing. We still hadn't thought up a name in the cab on the way to the hospital. It was just laziness combined with male ego."
Occasionally, Downey Sr. gets recognized. At Sammy's, a woman keeps eyeing him as if she knows who he is. And one time, Junior did a TV documentary with his dad in it.
"He covered both political conventions back in '92," Downey explains. "He doesn't know much about politics so it was cute. He asked me to be in it. I said, 'You gotta vote for Clinton even though' well, Bush was just so horrendous. In the end I'm with my son screaming over a canyon, 'Come on Clinton, you've got work to do.' Well, a guy in a bank came up to me and said, 'Hey, you were great as your son's father.'"
Under the terms of his probation, Junior can travel for work. He and Senior are writing a new screenplay, in which Junior will play 30 different characters.
"My kid said, 'Is that all?' He's got a real gift he doesn't study much, he doesn't get into the whole motivation thing. He can do 12 people in 10 seconds. Robin Williams is nothing to him."
Downey's hoping Daryl Hannah will agree to be in the movie, which already has backers. He sees his son coming across the Brooklyn Bridge carrying her on his back as she screams at him.
"Cliches, like 'You never call me!' My son is tiny, and Daryl Hannah is over 6 feet tall. I said 'Do you think you can carry her?' He said, 'Yeah, sure, it'll be good if I drop her a few times.' He's so easy to work with. He's like a magnet, he can be anything. He'll become the character, and we'll just write down in an hour what would normally take hours and hours."
"He was always around my movies. That's him [at 7] and my first wife in Greaser's Palace. We were doing a scene with this big crew in New Mexico. We did a first take, and he wanted to go back to the house. I said, no, I need another take. He said, 'Why, I got it right, why do I have to do it again?'"
"The crew started laughing at me. He shook his finger at me and said, 'One more time, that's it.' We did it again, but a bird flew through the frame. And he refused to do it again. So I took him behind the wagon, gave him a little tap on the ass, and explained to him. But he knew more than I did that actors get it the first time. After that it's not as spontaneous. In Hugo Pool, in the scene where he's riding around in the back of the truck as the crazed film director with Patrick Dempsey in the wheelchair and he leans up into Dempsey's face and says, 'You're just one of God's little victims, like me'? That wasn't in the script. Thank God, I got the shot right. He didn't even know he'd said it. He couldn't have done it as spontaneously again."
Sean Penn and Malcolm McDowell in Hugo Pool.
Back at OTB, the Asian guy is still bellowing.
We're still making little fruitless bets.
Downey's drawn a klutzy little potato-head guy with round glasses on the table cloth.
This is not meaningful. It's just a doodle.
"I'm always writing little things down in notebooks, on legal pads," says Downey. "Jottings, images, once you've got a bunch of it, it might mean something later because you're you, and you're selecting pieces of the universe that interest you. Like those ladies with the string beans in the Chinese restaurant."
He does not use a computer, except to edit film. He has his notes typed, sends copies away for friends to hold on to.
"Because I lost my one original once, and had to write it all over again. Though it turned out better."
He's not particularly interested in plot.
"We've seen them all already. But in 40 years, one thing I've learned is, make sure your leading character is in a hurry. If you don't have a leading character, OK, but if you do, they have to be going somewhere physically or psychologically."
"You know, I was in a rehab therapy session with my son and Laura was there and there were 20 people going around telling their stories. So we get to the last guy and he starts crying and says, 'God, I can't talk about it.' And we're looking at each other, like 'Uh huh.' Then he says, 'I was beaten by my mother and father from the age of 4 to the age of 15' we're looking at each other 'and I miss it,' he says."
Downey figured the guy was a lost cause. "But my son put his arm around him. Well, I met him on the street five years later, and I'm thinking, 'I know that face.' He tells me who he is and tells me that that night was the beginning of his turnaround and he says,'Anything I can do to help your kid...'"
"It proved I don't know anything.So I just write what I see and hope somebody likes it."
In terms of working with actors, "I know when to leave them alone."
He took the awesome blue shoes Sean Penn wears in Hugo Pool over to Penn's house along with a rack of costumes. Penn looked over the rack, and they picked out a jacket to go with the shoes and then Downey said to Penn that he must have something else that could go with the jacket and the shoes.
"He goes upstairs, comes back down in the jacket, the shoes, and a pair of pants and the hat he wears in the movie. He goes out past his wife and his kids to his backyard, walks around for 10 minutes, comes back, says, 'Whaddya think.' He had the walk and he had the character it took him 10 minutes. It takes other actors hours. If for some reason my kid couldn't do our next script, I'd ask Sean."
He also knows how to make actors loyal.
Cathy Moriarty, Malcolm McDowell and Patrick Dempsey were on the back of the big blue pickup rehearsing a scene where they have to help Dempsey go to the bathroom. Moriarty, who starred in Raging Bull at 17, is now 37. They take a break.
"So Patrick came out of his ALS character and Malcolm stopped acting like a junkie, and they're grabbing her or teasing her, and Cathy says, 'That's no way to treat a blonde.' 'You're no blonde,' says one of the guys. And they start teasing her about that. Well I can tell Cathy's not happy with the subject, so I say, 'Cathy Moriarty knows I'm from the Bronx and I guarantee she's a real blonde.' She says in that deep voice of hers, 'Thank you baby.' Well, they just looked at me. They figured, 'Bob wouldn't say it if it wasn't true.'"
Downey also incorporates things his actors say into the script. "Alyssa, who I think felt a little overwhelmed by the other actors, but she was great, playing straight man to 20 other people, Alyssa has tattoos on both ankles and one here and one there [indicates breast and lower belly]. She also has a bellybutton ring. I asked her why. She said, 'I don't do drugs, I'm afraid of sex, so this is it.' That went into the movie. And then Cathy said, 'Don't you have troubles enough with the holes you already have?' and that went in, too."
"If there's one thing I've learned it's that it's all in the writing and in choosing good actors any fool can direct a movie. I'm serious," he says, flashing that low-slung grin.
The Asian man suddenly stops screaming, hand frozen mid-gesture.
"Look at that hand," Downey says.
"My kid hates the track," he says. "He went with me three or four times and he didn't win once. So I told him to bet a little bit on each horse. It's what Charles Bukowski did. You don't win much but you always do win, and if a long shot comes in you can do well. And you keep going up to the window to collect, so people think you know something."
Robert Downey, Sr. will be in town to introduce and talk about his film on Mon., May 5, at 7:30 p.m. at Annenberg Center's Zellerbach Theater. The film will also be screened Wed., May 7 at 4 p.m at Ritz at the Bourse.