Filmmaker Robert Downey, Sr. Dead at 85

robert downey sr
(Photo: (Photo by Larry Busacca/WireImage))

Robert Downey, Sr., the father of Iron Man star Robert Downey, Jr., and a celebrated filmmaker in his own right, has died. He was 85 years old. Downey is best known as the director behind Putney Swope, a celebrated, anti-establishment satire on the advertising world of Madison Avenue. He worked as an actor and director regularly from the early '50s until 2011, when he appeared in his final film, Tower Heist. In addition to directing film, he worked on some notable TV, including three episodes of The Twilight Zone. For the last decade, Downey has been living in New York with his wife, Rosemary Rogers, who was at his side when he passed away as a result of a five-year battle with Parkinson's.

Downey was born in Manhattan in 1936 as Robert Elias, Jr. He would later take the last name of his stepfather, James Downey, reportedly as part of an attempt to get into the military when he was underage. That gambit doesn't appear to have worked, but the name stuck, and distancing himself from his paternal grandparents' Lithuanian-Jewish heritage may have helped him in his early career.

Downey was a leading figure in '60s independent cinema, creating micro-budget movies, often with a distinctly counter-cultural sensibility, and often using sharp observations about culture and trenchant humor. In addition to Putney Swope, Downey worked as the second unit director on Norman Lear's the Dick Van Dyke movie Cold Turkey, about a town that tries to quit smoking en masse in order to win a contest and help a cigarette manufacturer "prove" that tobacco isn't addictive. Echoes of Downey's early work can be seen in his son's 1993 documentary The Last Party, in which Downey, Jr. took a humorous, but not uncritical, look at the 1992 U.S. Presidental campaign.

Downey, Sr. would enter mainstream cinema with 1972's Greaser's Palace, but given the wild filmmaking style of the movie, and its clearly counter-cultural appeal (it's a Western that riffs on the life of Christ and was shot with an eye toward psychedelia), it would be hard to characterize that as selling out.

Downey also continued to work as a cinematographer, actor, second unit director, and all-purpose presence on films that weren't his, long after he became a fairly mainstream and marketable filmmaker. He had roles in shows like Matlock and Tales of the City, as well as brief appearances or cameos in Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia and Boogie Nights.

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Downey was married three times during his life, and is survived by not just Robert Downey, Jr., but also his daughter Allyson (both born from his first marriage, to Elsie Ann Downey) and his wife, Rosemary. Downey was predeceased by his second wife, writer and actress Laura Ernst, who passed away in 1994.