Robert Downey Sr.—actor and filmmaker best known for his work on Putney Swope and Greaser’s Palace—has died from Parkinson’s disease. His son, Robert Downey Jr., confirmed his death on Instagram. He was 85.
“Last night, 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..According to my stepmoms calculations, they were happily married for just over 2000 years. Rosemary Rogers-Downey, you are a saint, and our thoughts and prayers are with you,” Robert Downey Jr. wrote.
Downey Sr. began his filmmaking career in the ’60s, focusing on making anti-establishment, absurdist films. The first film he wrote, directed, and produced was the short film Balls Bluff (1961) which was about a Civil War soldier who wakes up in Central Park in the—at the time—present-day 1960s. Downey Sr.’s first successful feature was 1966’s Chafed Elbows, a comedic still image film starring his first wife, Elsie Ann Downey. Downey Sr.’s biggest film, Putney Swope, came a few years later. The satirical film tackles the white power structure, and it is about a Black advertising exec who takes the reins of an advertising agency after the sudden death of the company’s chairman.
In a chat with Paul Thomas Anderson for Criterion, Downey Sr. recalled that “nobody wanted Putney Swope.” He added, “I mean, the other ones at least they got into Bleecker Street and people said what? ‘Nuh-uh.’”
But the filmmaker’s luck changed. “The producer, the money guy, had one more screening for some distributors and just as the film was ready to start, this guy was banging on the door of the screening room and I said ‘Fuck him, he’s late, whoever he is.’ And he kept bang, bang, bang,” explained Downey Sr. “So I went to the door and said ‘Who are you?’ and he said ‘I’m Don Rugoff’ and I said ‘So?’ and he said ‘I know I’m late but I’m sorry’ so he came in, and after the screening he came up to me and he said, ‘I don’t understand it but I like it’ and he opened it like a month later, because he owned the theaters.”
Downey Sr. also had small acting roles in The Twilight Zone (which he also directed three episodes of), Matlock, Johnny Be Good, and Boogie Nights. In the latter, Don Cheadle’s character is given the surname “Swope” as an homage to Downey Sr.’s film, and Downey Sr.’s own appearance in the film furthers the reference.