Robert Downey Sr., who made provocative movies, like “Putney Swope,” that avoided mainstream success but were often critical favorites and were always attention getting, died on Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 85.
The cause was Parkinson’s disease, his wife, Rosemary Rogers, said.
“Putney Swope,” a 1969 comedy about a Black man who is accidentally elected chairman of a Madison Avenue advertising agency, was perhaps Mr. Downey’s best-known film.
“To be as precise as is possible about such a movie,” Vincent Canby wrote in a rave review in The New York Times, “it is funny, sophomoric, brilliant, obscene, disjointed, marvelous, unintelligible and relevant.”
The film, though probably a financial success by Mr. Downey’s standards, made only about $2.7 million. (By comparison, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” that same year made more than $100 million.) Yet its reputation was such that in 2016 the Library of Congress selected it for the National Film Registry, an exclusive group of movies deemed to have cultural or historical significance.
Also much admired in some circles was “Greaser’s Palace” (1972), in which a Christlike figure in a zoot suit arrives in the Wild West by parachute. Younger filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson (who gave Mr. Downey a small part in his 1997 hit, “Boogie Nights”) cited it as an influence.
None other than Joseph Papp, the theater impresario, in a letter to The New York Times after Mr. Canby’s unenthusiastic review, wrote that “Robert Downey has fearlessly descended into the netherworld and come up with a laughing nightmare.” (Mr. Papp’s assessment may not have been entirely objective; at the time, he was producing one of Mr. Downey’s few mainstream efforts, a television version of the David Rabe play “Sticks and Bones,” which had been a hit at Mr. Papp’s Public Theater in 1971.)
Between “Putney Swope” and “Greaser’s Palace” there was “Pound” (1970), a political satire in which actors portrayed stray dogs. Among those actors, playing a puppy, was Robert Downey Jr., the future star of the “Iron Man” movies and many others, and Mr. Downey’s son. He was 5 and making his film debut.
That movie, the senior Mr. Downey told The Times Union of Albany, N.Y., in 2000, was something of a surprise to the studio.
“When I turned it into United Artists,” he said, “after the screening one of the studio heads said to me, ‘I thought this was gonna be animated.’ They thought they were getting some cute little animated film.”
Robert John Elias Jr. was born on June 24, 1936, in Manhattan and grew up in Rockville Centre, on Long Island. His father was in restaurant management, and his mother, Betty (McLoughlin) Elias, was a model. Later, when enlisting in the Army as a teenager, he adopted the last name of his stepfather, Jim Downey, who worked in advertising.
Much of his time in the Army was spent in the stockade, he said later; he wrote a novel while doing his time, but it wasn’t published. He pitched semi-pro baseball for a year, then wrote some plays.
Among the people he met on the Off Off Broadway scene was William Waering, who owned a camera and suggested that they try making movies. The result, which he began shooting when John F. Kennedy was still president and which was released in 1964, was “Babo 73,” in which Taylor Mead, an actor who would go on to appear in many Andy Warhol films, played the president of the United States. It was classic underground filmmaking.
“We just basically went down to the White House and started shooting, with no press passes, permits, anything like that,” Mr. Downey said in an interview included in the book “Film Voices: Interviews From Post Script” (2004). “Kennedy was in Europe, so nobody was too tight with the security, so we were outside the White House mainly, ran around; we actually threw Taylor in with some real generals.”
The budget, he said, was $3,000.
Mr. Downey’s “Chafed Elbows,” about a day in the life of a misfit, was released in 1966 and was a breakthrough of sorts, earning him grudging respect even from Bosley Crowther, The Times’s staid film critic.
“One of these days,” he wrote, “Robert Downey, who wrote, directed and produced the underground movie ‘Chafed Elbows,’ which opened at the downtown Gate Theater last night, is going to clean himself up a good bit, wash the dirty words out of his mouth and do something worth mature attention in the way of kooky, satiric comedy. He has the audacity for it. He also has the wit.”
The film enjoyed extended runs at the Gate and the Bleecker Street Cinema. “No More Excuses” followed in 1968, then “Putney Swope,” “Pound” and “Greaser’s Palace.” But by the early 1970s Mr. Downey had developed a cocaine habit.
“Ten years of cocaine around the clock,” he told The Associated Press in 1997. His marriage to Elsie Ford, who had been in several of his movies, faltered; they eventually divorced. He credited his second wife, Laura Ernst, with helping to pull him out of addiction. She died in 1994 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Mr. Downey drew on that experience for his last feature, “Hugo Pool” (1997).
In addition to his wife and son, he is survived by a daughter, Allyson Downey; a brother, Jim; a sister, Nancy Connor; and six grandchildren.
Mr. Downey’s movies have earned new appreciation in recent decades. In 2008, Anthology Film Archives in the East Village restored and preserved “Chafed Elbows,” “Babo 73” and “No More Excuses” with the support of the Film Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to film preservation. At the time, Martin Scorsese, a member of the foundation’s board, called them “an essential part of that moment when a truly independent American cinema was born.”
“They’re alive in ways that few movies can claim to be,” Mr. Scorsese told The Times, “because it’s the excitement of possibility and discovery that brought them to life.”
Mr. Downey deflected such praise.
“They’re uneven,” he said of the films. “But I was uneven.”
Alex Traub contributed reporting.