Back in New York with Robert Downey Sr.

On Film / Short Takes — May 23, 2016
Robert Downey Sr.’s 1966 film Chafed Elbows
“It was just fun,” Robert Downey Sr. says of his early New York filmmaking days, in a new interview with Bilge Ebiri for the Village Voice. “We had no money. My wife would get a check from doing a commercial, and I’d grab it before she even saw it. Later, I’d pay it back. Nobody ever made a dime on these things.” Downey, who first emerged as a figure on New York’s underground cinema scene in the 1960s, his films playing in hole-in-the-wall theaters in the Village, soon became an icon of experimental filmmaking, and his brilliantly twisted career is currently the subject of Robert Downey (The Original), a weeklong retrospective at Film Forum.

Among the films playing in the series, which runs through Thursday, is Downey’s most popular feature, 1969’s Putney Swope, an eccentric comedy about race and advertising. “That was a film that nobody wanted. Nobody,” he tells Ebiri. “I think there was one distributor left who hadn’t seen it. A guy named Rugoff, who owned Cinema Five and all these theaters uptown. He said, ‘I don’t understand it, but I like it.’ He took the film and opened it in about a month in one of his theaters. Cinema Two. A big deal, and damn right. It sold out.” Downey also discusses a famously stolen shot in No More Excuses, his 1968 examination of New York’s singles scene, in which he strolls onto the field at Yankee Stadium dressed like Confederate soldier. “We had two cameramen, one behind home plate and one on the right-field line,” he says. “I was terrified, too. They took me downstairs. They said, ‘If you had gone near Mickey Mantle, you could have been shot.’ ”

Read the interview in its entirety for more insights into Downey’s fascinating oddball perspective, his recent run-in with Bill Clinton, and the theater-going experience in sixties New York. (And for more on Downey, check out another interview he did recently, for the Gothamist, which has more on his filmmaking process and his advice to this year’s crop of presidential candidates.)