Robert Downey (The Original)

Robert Downey Sr. on the set of Putney Swope (1969)

In 2012, we released a collection of five unclassifiable movies made between 1964 and 1975, Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr. Paul Thomas Anderson, a fan who had given Downey small roles in Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999), came into the Criterion office to chat on camera with Downey and revisit the films. Downey addresses the question PTA raises (“What the fuck is going on?”) with a laugh after a sequence from Babo 73 (1964), which features Warhol acolyte Taylor Mead as the president of the “United Status.”

In all of the films from this period, the director is credited as “Robert Downey (a prince).” Interviewing Downey for the Village Voice in 2016, Bilge Ebiri asked him why. “We were just fucking around the editing room,” Downey replied. “Somebody said, ‘You’re a prince, Bob.’ I said, ‘Fuck you, I’m putting that in the movie.’” In 2008, he told Aaron Hillis in the Voice that when Johnny Carson had asked him the same question on The Tonight Show, “I said: ‘I’m too young to be a king, and too committed to be a queen.’ Now I’m too old to be anything!”

At some point, as his son was emerging as a spectacularly talented actor, the parenthetical moniker gave way to “Sr.” A few years ago, Film Forum presented a retrospective with a title that spoke not only to the distinction between father and son but also to Downey’s status as a major figure in the short history of American underground cinema: Robert Downey (The Original). On Wednesday, Robert Downey Jr. posted a tribute on Instagram, noting that “dad passed peacefully in his sleep after years of enduring the ravages of Parkinson’s. He was a true maverick filmmaker, and remained remarkably optimistic throughout.” Robert Downey Sr. was eighty-five.

Born Robert Elias Jr. in Manhattan and raised on Long Island, Downey took his stepfather’s name when he enlisted in the Army as a teenager. He wrote a novel, played semi-pro baseball, did some boxing, studied acting, and started writing plays. A friend with a camera suggested that they make a movie together. Balls Bluff (1961), in which a Civil War soldier wanders then-present-day Central Park, was incorporated into the collagelike No More Excuses (1968).

Along with Babo 73 and Chafed Elbows (1966), the eclectic chronicle of a Manhattanite having his “annual November breakdown,” No More Excuses was restored by Anthology Film Archives, which remembers Downey in its latest newsletter as “a peerlessly inventive and uproariously witty filmmaker.” Anthology notes that there are “more restoration projects in the works as we speak. And we had the privilege of hosting him for numerous screenings, including a week-long run of Pound (1970) in 2005, a retrospective in 2008, and a special screening of his little-known Sticks and Bones (1973) in 2012. Downey’s appearances were as memorable as they come—befitting his films, he was a profoundly good-natured and charismatic raconteur, imposing in stature, and bursting with vitality.”

Brendan Gill, a staff writer for the New Yorker, was so impressed with Babo 73 that he helped secure a Guggenheim grant for Downey. As Stuart Klawans noted in the New York Times in 2008, Chafed Elbows was “a breakout hit for New York’s underground cinema. Rapidly acquiring a reputation as one of the most rudely hilarious films ever made, it enjoyed marathon runs at the Gate and the Bleecker Street Cinema (where it played for months with Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising) and brought its startled author his first fame.” Pound, an adaptation of Downey’s play about stray dogs awaiting execution, features not only Robert Downey Jr. making his on-screen debut at the age of five but also, as Ed Halter noted in the Voice in 2005, “ecstatic funk-powered freak-outs.”

Anthology cofounder Jonas Mekas was a vital champion of Downey’s early work. “Robert Downey is one of the troubadours of our time,” he told Klawans. But Mekas had his qualms about the film Downey is best known for, Putney Swope (1969), a savagely funny takedown of corporate culture. Arnold Johnson, his voice dubbed by Downey himself, plays Putney Swope, the sole Black member of the board of a Madison Avenue advertising agency. When the chairman dies, the other members all vote for Swope to replace him, each of them assuming no one else will.

Swope fires all the white people but one and renames the company Truth and Soul, Inc. “Though he has always denied having any sort of unifying artistic philosophy,” writes Michael Koresky in the essay accompanying our Downey box set, “his brand of in-your-face satire unmistakably came from a political consciousness—these are the works of an angry young man cynical about any form of leadership or conformity and not interested in adhering to any set parameters, social or aesthetic.”

Mekas was put off by the setting, telling Downey in a 1969 interview in the Voice that “this is an occupation, a profession I know nothing about.” Downey: “But there are millions of these people. If they don’t work in advertising, they use it. I worked in it, for two years. I am trying to cleanse myself in this film by showing everything that I saw while working in advertising. I couldn’t believe, for instance, that a Black man was getting less money than me for doing the same thing I was doing.” The interview turns feisty, so Downey turns the tables. “Maybe I should interview you as the filmmaker of Swope.” Of course, Mekas is game. “It’s a very serious business to make a comedy,” he says. “That’s what I mean, when I say that Swope is a serious film for me.”

Swope, Babo 73, Chafed Elbows, and No More Excuses are now on the Criterion Channel alongside Greaser’s Palace (1972), an acid western that Time’s Jay Cocks called Downey’s “funniest, most accomplished, and most audacious film yet,” and Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight (1975), featuring Downey’s wife, Elsie, in multiple roles. The collection is topped off with a new tribute, Robert Downey: Moment to Moment, from Sean Price Williams, the cinematographer known for his work with Josh and Benny Safdie, Alex Ross Perry, and most recently, Abel Ferrara. And by the way, Mekas eventually came around to Putney Swope, introducing the interview that ran as his Movie Journal column that week with a plug: “I am quite certain that it’s the funniest, the most absurd, and probably the most intelligent film you’ll see in town this week and next week and the week after that.” 

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