Saturday Night’s Children: Robert Downey Jr. (1985-1986)
Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 36 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
While live television was an unfamiliar gig for Robert Downey Jr. when he joined the cast of SNL in 1985 alongside movie stars like Randy Quaid and Anthony Michael Hall, his experience performing extended back to 1970 both backstage and on-screen, starting with his role as a puppy in his underground filmmaker father’s debut film Pound at age five. He may not have survived through the following season, but Downey has since gone onto mega-stardom, and his year on SNL has been all but forgotten in the process, overshadowed by his drug and legal problems in the 1990s as well as his current action superstar status via the Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes franchises.
Downey was born in Manhattan and grew up in Greenwich Village to parents with heavy ties to the entertainment world — his father Robert Downey Sr. a filmmaker and his mother Elsie an actress who appeared in several of her husband’s films, like as “All Women’s Roles” in 1966’s Chafed Elbows. Due to his parents’ film work, Downey spent much of his childhood traveling and lived in New York, Connecticut, California, Paris, and London, where he attended the Perry House School at age 10 and briefly studied classical ballet. At 17, he dropped out of Santa Monica High School to pursue acting, first working odd jobs as a bus boy, shoe salesman, and as “living art” at Soho’s underground club Area.
After landing several off-Broadway roles, Downey was hired as a cast member for SNL‘s eleventh season as part of Michaels’ effort to revive the show with young rising stars instead of improv newcomers. Along with Anthony Michael Hall, Downey was already known for his Brat Pack fame thanks to his part in Weird Science, and after SNL he went on to appear with Molly Ringwald in The Pick-Up Artist and Hall in Johnny Be Good in 1988. While on SNL, Downey had two recurring characters who each appeared three times — the name-dropping New York actor Jimmy Chance from “Actors on Film” and redneck commercial salesman Rudy Randolph III. He also impersonated celebrities including George Michael, John Cougar Mellencamp, Elvis, Paul Simon, Sean Penn, and Julian Lynch in the sketch “Models Against the Wilderness,” which isn’t available online but you can check out a shirtless-with-a-lynx Downey shot from it here.
As cancellation loomed closer for SNL after a season of dwindling ratings, Michaels decided to retool the show and fired every cast member except A. Whitney Brown, Nora Dunn, Jon Lovitz, and Dennis Miller. But like Joan Cusack and Anthony Michael Hall, Downey evolved from his rocky SNL start to an overflowing and respected film career, with an impressive range of blockbusters like Air America, Tropic Thunder, Sherlock Holmes, Iron Man and lower-profile and sometimes risk-taking indies like Two Girls and a Guy, A Scanner Darkly, and Home for the Holidays, earning him a long list of award wins and nominations including a Best Actor Oscar nom for his starring role in 1992’s Chaplin, in which he became the first SNL cast member to receive a leading Academy Award nomination. He also had a recurring role as Larry on Ally McBeal from 2001-2002, voiced Lois’ insane brother Patrick in a 2005 episode of Family Guy, and released a solo musical album The Futurist in 2004.
Of course no discussion of Downey can overlook his 1990s crashes on drugs including heroin, his bouncing in and out of rehab, his waking up in strangers’ houses, and his spectacularly disheveled mug shots, but it’s a testament to his acting prowess and charisma that he’s managed to remain the bad boy everyone wants on their team. He returned to SNL as host in November 1996 and used his monologue to poke fun at his bad press, showing fake slides of his summer vacation spent scoring drugs, getting frisked by policemen, and sleeping in a child’s bed in some stranger’s house (which actually happened). The starring roles have kept coming for Downey, and the callow narcissistic airs have gone in place of an older, wiser fey alacrity. Luckily we can still check in with the spotty but occasionally brilliant SNL episodes he appeared in and witness his raw talent, still unchecked and unarrested, like a crazy-ass flower in mid-bloom.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.