Even Robert Downey Sr. has a hard time believing that his films are now being presented in restored versions at retrospectives across the country. When he was starting out in the 1960s, he shot on the fly and screened his work in tiny theaters, often to small, half-baked audiences. But his experimental films now stand as signature works of American underground cinema, as do his breakthrough advertising satire, Putney Swope — about a black executive who is accidentally put in charge of a big-time firm and completely upends the industry — and the playfully bizarre Jesus-western Greaser’s Palace. He also gave his son, Robert Downey Jr., his first role — as a puppy in the surreal drama Pound. A selection of the director’s best work (including the lovely, underseen 2005 documentary Rittenhouse Square) will be showing at Film Forum this week. Downey sat down with us recently to discuss his wild career.
I read somewhere that when you were starting out in the early Sixties, it was a Village Voice review of one of your plays, What Else Is There?, that encouraged you to keep going.
That’s right. A guy named Arthur Sainer. A short review, and very much a faint-praise thing — but it was great. That was in a movie house where we did that, the Charles Theater, on Avenue A, I think. Once a year they had this festival. Everybody brought their films in. Your film would go in a stack up in the booth, and you didn’t know when it was gonna go on. I did that once, and it was fun. Then I wanted to do a play. I said, “Why not do it there? To hell with trying to get in with one of these theater groups.” And it worked out. It went up at midnight.
The play was about a group of nuclear missiles, only they were played by actors. Pretty absurdist stuff. Was it a comedy?
I was just trying to express something about the buried missiles all over the place. It was kind of a comedy, but also sort of a romantic story. One of them didn’t want to go — he wanted to wait for the other one, that kind of shit.
Did you ever think about turning that into a film?
No, it was very verbal. It was pivoted toward the audience. They [the missiles] didn’t move much — ’cause if they do, it’s over. [Laughs]
There’s an interesting parallel with that and your later film, Pound, where the actors are pretending to be not missiles, but dogs.
I hadn’t noticed that, but you’re right. I wish Pound was more surreal and crazy, to be honest with you.
What possessed you to get into filmmaking?
I’d rather do that than work. I got out of the Army and stayed with my sister in the Village for a while. She said to me, “A couple of blocks around that corner, there’s a thing called the Threepenny Opera. You might like it. It’ll give you something to do.” I went over, and whoa. Somebody could do this? That got me interested in doing theater. Then I was working at the Village Gate as a waiter, and one of my cohorts there said, “You’re writing? When you get something, let me know, I got a camera. We’ll make a movie. You be the director, I’ll be the cameraman.”
There’s a great line in your film Chafed Elbows where someone says something like, “In underground movies, all the action is behind the camera.” What was that action like for you?
It was just fun. 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. We didn’t have sync sound, just a spring wind. So you could only get eighteen seconds, and that was the end of the take, whatever it was. And we put the words in later.
In one of your films [the short Balls Bluff, later edited into the longer No More Excuses] you played a Confederate soldier who wanders onto the middle of the field at Yankee Stadium, during the game. Was that tough?
Oh, yeah. The actor we originally had refused to go on the field. He was too scared. We were stealing the shot — we had two cameramen, one behind home plate and one on the right-field line. I was terrified, too. They took me downstairs. They said, “If you had gone near Mickey Mantle, you could have been shot.”
You probably couldn’t do something like that today.
If I had to do it all over again, I would, even though I know it’s really dangerous now. But I did really say to the guy on first base, “Where are the Yankees?” That line actually wound up in the newspaper article about the incident, which we put in the film.
Chafed Elbows was kind of a hit.
Chafed Elbows had played at the Gate Theater on Second Avenue, which was like a hole in the wall in an apartment building, but it was great. The Bleecker Street Cinema had a distribution arm in the back called Impact, and the guy who ran it, Marshall Lewis, said, “When you leave the Gate, come on over here. We’ll put your film with Scorpio Rising and we’ll have a hit.” So I ended up at the Bleecker.
And then Putney Swope, which became a phenomenon.
That was a film that nobody wanted. Nobody. 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.
You’ll like this. Temple University, 1968 or ’69. I go down there to show Putney Swope. I think I had my kid with me. After the screening, this guy comes up — jacket and tie — and says, “I want to thank you for getting me into advertising.” That’s when I realized I don’t know anything about anything. That guy was serious. Isn’t that great? He thought he was going to have that kind of fun.
I wonder what that guy is doing now.
He’s probably running an ad agency.
When you were shooting these films, did you employ a loose, improvisatory style?
I did have scripts for most of them. For Putney, definitely. That’s the quickest thing I ever wrote. I couldn’t believe it. Now it takes me years to finish one of these things. But I am learning one thing. It took me sixty years to come to this: If you have a leading character, they should be in a hurry. You can slow it down when you’re shooting, but it helps in the writing: Even if they’re not moving, they’re thinking about moving on, or getting away from the scene they’re in.
Did Hollywood come calling after Putney Swope’s success?
I got offered a couple of things. A big film with Raquel Welch, which made no sense. Shot in California. I can’t remember the title. It was a famous Gore Vidal book.
Yeah, that’s it. They were gonna get rid of the director. I said, “I haven’t read the book.” They said, “You don’t need to.” I thought, “Wait a minute, I don’t need to do this, this is gonna be a nightmare.”
Have you seen it? It’s an atrocious movie.
Believe me, I wouldn’t have made it any better! I think I did see it. There was another one, with Bill Cosby, about an ambulance driver. I think Harvey Keitel is in it… [Mother, Jugs, and Speed] Wow. That hurt, to remember that. It actually hurt my head.
What was the response to Greaser’s Palace like? You had a pretty big budget for that, and it’s certainly one of your most beautiful films.
It was split right down the middle. Some people loved it, some people hated it. The guy playing the Jesus type, the guy in the zoot suit, said to me, “Listen, if I’m playing Jesus, I want more money.” I said, “Who says you’re Jesus?” He said, “Yes, bu-bu-bu-.” I said, “There’s the producer, go ask them.” He went over there, and she fucking tore into him. It was outrageous. He was a good guy, too. You know who he is? Allan Arbus. Diane Arbus’s husband. She killed herself while we were making that film. He said, “I gotta go back to New York. Diane died.” I said, “Go ahead, we’ll hold your place.”
That’s sad. I feel like Greaser’s Palace is in many ways a film about death.
I think I agree with that.
Was that what you were after? It’s one of your most quiet, somber films.
I just hoped it would hang together. And my wife, the mother of my kids, she refused to have any dialogue. She said, “It’s bad enough I gotta get fucking waylaid here. You’re gonna make up some dialogue, too?” She was dead right, too. It made it easy.
The Diane Arbus connection is interesting, since your son co-starred with Nicole Kidman in that Diane Arbus biopic, Fur. I think I’m one of the very few people who like that film.
You are one of the few. You and Patti Smith. It was an OK movie. Maybe if I didn’t know who Diane Arbus was, it’d be easier to watch for me.
You did some television work, too, no?
Not much. For Joseph Papp, I directed an adaptation of this thing called Sticks and Stones, by David Rabe, for CBS. The people at CBS never read it, they just read Papp’s Shakespeare stuff, and then they said, “We’ll do whatever you want to do,” so he got the money. It was outrageous. When they finally saw it, they said, “We’re not putting this on air!” They threatened not to put it on, but then the guys coming back from Vietnam heard about it. Even though Vietnam is not in it, that’s what it is. This guy comes back from the war and he’s blind, and his parents are trying to talk him into killing himself. And this girlfriend from Vietnam, he imagines she is in the house. And she ends up in a body bag. Her father kills her. But working with Joe Papp was just a pleasure.
About a decade ago you came out with a very unlikely film for you — a really lovely documentary called Rittenhouse Square, about the park in Philadelphia.
I don’t mind that one. I don’t like most of my movies; I think that’s a common trait. But I enjoyed doing Rittenhouse. Max Raab, the guy who produced Walkabout and A Clockwork Orange, was also a businessman who lived in Philadelphia. He had me come in and edit about a hundred hours of footage on something else, and after that he said, “I want you to come down and do a film about Rittenhouse Square.” I said, “Why me?” He said, “ ‘Cause you don’t have an opinion.” I loved that. I just went in every day, like going to work. On the first day, someone said, “There’s a young girl across the park playing the violin,” and I said, “Let’s go!” She wound up being the heart of the film. She was just learning to play, too. There’s a music school right there by the park. She’s still playing, in an orchestra.
Rittenhouse Square is also interesting because it starts off with a montage showing the park’s early years, and about these buildings going up around it. You think it’s going to be a film about the evils of urbanization. But instead, the rest of the film shows that, in some ways, the park is better appreciated now that it’s this oasis in the middle of a big city.
Absolutely. Those people love that park. They’ll let you know it, too. It’s their park.
It’s a lovely film about change. You’ve been in New York for most of your life. What do you think of the ways this city has changed?
My wife thinks Bloomberg was horrible. I don’t. Thanks to him, we’ve got a lot of people that didn’t die from smoking. The High Line is great. I’d been in California for a while, so when I met my current wife, I said, “Who’s this Giuliani guy?” She said, “Think of him as the hall monitor from school.” We’re at a dinner about a year later, and we met somebody who worked for him, and it turns out Giuliani actually was a hall monitor. [Laughs]
If there’s one piece of New York from your earlier years that you could preserve, what would it be?
Oh, the Bleecker Street Cinema. There was a screening at midnight one weekend. Before the lights went down in the theater, this heavyset guy comes down the aisle with a glass with a goldfish in it. And it was Charlie Mingus. People would just drop in there. It was right across the street from the Bitter End. It was a place where you could congregate in the lobby and not even go to the movie. Marshall, the guy I told you about who put the two films together, one afternoon he said, “Get back here, you’ll see something you’ll never see again.” We went back behind the screen, which is just a big piece of something with little holes on it. He said, “Watch.” And I could watch people watching my film, Chafed Elbows. I could see all sorts of things I didn’t want to see. People sleeping. “Oh, god,” I said. “Thanks for that.”
Putney Swope is set in the world of advertising, and it’s about people being sold the same garbage in the guise of irreverence and authenticity. I can’t help but think that Donald Trump is sort of like that.
You’re right. I never met Trump. I knew somebody who worked for him. He always said the guy was crazy. And Trump might win. At least Ted Cruz is gone. That guy was the lowest, and that other idiot from Ohio…. Trump looks like FDR compared to those two. How about Dr. Carson? It’s the end of satire. Political satire is over.
Let me tell you my Bill Clinton story. This happened a few weeks ago. We get an invite to Bill Clinton’s induction into the Irish Hall of Fame at the Metropolitan Club. We get up there and there’s a guy at the gate. He looks at me, he looks at my shoes. He says, “You’re not coming in.” “Why?” “You’re wearing sneakers.” And I’m wearing these nice black sneakers. [Points to elegant black sneakers that don’t look like sneakers at all.] My wife says to him, “I’ll give you forty dollars to drop this.” He says no. Then Clinton himself appears, from out of a car. Rosemary, my wife, says, “Mr. President, we need your help.” “What can I do for you?” “This guy won’t let my husband in to see your speech.” “Why not?” “ ‘Cause he’s wearing sneakers.” Clinton says, “I love sneakers! Follow me!” And we get in.
I was looking at a Village Voice from the election between Kennedy and Nixon, and there were these editorials about how Kennedy was this uninspiring establishment candidate and people were just voting for him as the lesser of two evils.
It’s true! My friends and I voted for Kennedy because his wife was good-looking. That was it! But I gained respect for him when he admitted he made a mistake with the Bay of Pigs. And then he handled the Cuban Missile Crisis well. Hey, how about Cruz’s dad’s picture in the National Enquirer with Lee Harvey Oswald? Seems everybody was in New Orleans at that time, and then they all just scooted over to Texas. That might be bullshit. Trump might even own the Enquirer.
He’s friends with the guy who does.
Yeah, that makes sense. I started to read the Enquirer years ago, because that’s how I’d know where my son was.
Even after he went clean?
Oh, sure. I tell you, he’s a miracle in that world, for doing that. Every time the phone rang after ten o’clock, I thought it was over. I was a druggie myself, so I never told him to stop or whatever. But I said, “Just don’t leave the planet.” He said, “You have my word.” And he kept it.
I remember this thing we went to, the Time magazine 100 most influential people or something. He calls me and says, “Would you wear a tuxedo for me? Thursday night we’re going somewhere.” I said, “I ain’t wearing a fucking tuxedo. Fuck you.” My wife comes in and says, “Call him back and say you’ll do it.” So I meet him on the day, and he’s giving me all sorts of shit about the tuxedo: “Where’s the cummerbund?” and all that. We go to Time Warner. Turns out everybody is bringing in somebody who’s a mentor to talk about them. Iron Man was just out. He says, “Can you believe what happened to me? The movie’s made 200 million dollars, and I’m the only convicted felon in this room.” I whisper to him, “No, you’re not.” The room is full of bankers and politicians. He says, “Do you have anything to say?” I say, “Yeah, I’m not your father.” That got a big laugh. He loved it.
Who’s the best actor you ever worked with? Besides your son, of course.
There’s a bald-headed guy in a lot of my films called Larry Wolfe. He’s the best. I didn’t have to say much to him. He says, “I got it!” And then he goes and does something else. He’s great. Daniel Day-Lewis was directed by Paul Anderson in There Will Be Blood. I said to Paul, who I’ve known for some time now, “How was he to work with?” He said, “Easy. All he ever said to me in between scenes was, ‘Hat on or off?’ That was it. Nothing else.” He was so well prepared, because he studies that script for a year.
I was also surprised by the guy in Putney, the Arab guy [Antonio Fargas] who’s questioning Putney all the time. He was in a play called Great White Hope. He’d come around after the play and see us every night. “What do you want me to do?” he’d say. “Go in there and tell that guy how awful he is.” He was in Starsky and Hutch. He was great in a movie called The Gambler, and in Car Wash. But the guy who played Putney was horrible. He couldn’t remember anything. I dubbed his lines. The cameraman said, “Don’t worry about it. See that beard? Nobody can tell what he’s saying.” So I relaxed and figured I’d dub him later.
A lot of your films have the credit “Directed by Robert Downey (a prince).” How did that come about?
We were just fucking around the editing room. Somebody said, “You’re a prince, Bob.” I said, “Fuck you, I’m putting that in the movie.”
Robert Downey (The Original)