Is addiction a Downey family legacy?

The rough history behind Robert Downey's son's arrest

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 30, 2014 7:05PM (EDT)

Robert Downey Jr.       (AP/Joel Ryan)
Robert Downey Jr. (AP/Joel Ryan)

Those Downey men. Handsome. Talented. And they seem to really have a fondness for drugs. On Sunday afternoon, the car 20-year-old Indio Downey was a riding in was stopped in West Hollywood, and police subsequently arrested the young man on felony narcotics charges stemming from reported possession of cocaine and drug paraphernalia. Early reports say that the incident ignited when he was spotted smoking from a pipe.

The arrest came at what should otherwise have been a victorious week for his father, Robert Downey Jr. On Monday morning, he was named as Forbes' most powerful actor, in a story describing him as a man who not merely pulled in an estimated $75 million in the past year alone but whose presence can propel a small indie like Jon Favreau's "Chef" into the big leagues. And had Indio Downey been just any son of one of the wealthiest, most successful men in Hollywood, it would be easy to brush off his scrape with the law as being an almost inevitable side of effect of being youthful, rich and in Los Angeles.

But he's a Downey. Indio's grandfather, filmmaker and actor Robert Downey Sr., has had a notoriously public appetite for drugs. According to his famous son, Downey Sr. introduced him to alcohol, marijuana and other substances when he was still a young child. In a 1988 interview, Downey Jr. recalled his childhood: "There was always a lot of pot and coke around ... When my dad and I would do drugs together, it was like him trying to express his love for me in the only way he knew how." And his father concurred, describing his "horrible nightmare" of drug abuse to Us in 1996, and admitting, "I blew five, six years on that drug [cocaine] … I wasn't around as much as most fathers. I was out making films. If Robert wanted to be wild, it was OK with me. I wouldn't do anything differently, except I wouldn't allow anyone to smoke marijuana. I can't believe how we thought it was OK. I don't want to become like an A.A. babbling jerk, but if I knew then what I know now …"

By his early 20s, Downey Jr. was traveling down a similar path, spending "every night out getting drunk ... making a thousand phone calls in pursuit of drugs." What followed – all while racking up memorable roles and award nominations – were nearly 20 years of drug use, arrests, prison, rehab stints and crazy, often dangerous behavior. And Downey Jr.'s son was born right in the thick of it. By the time he finally made sobriety stick, Downey Jr. had gone from one of the most promising performers in the business to virtually unemployable, and an insurance nightmare for directors. But in the past decade, he rebounded outstandingly, thanks to solid work in smaller features and soon after, blockbusters like the "Iron Man" franchise -- as well as a consistently witty, self-deprecating older and wiser persona.

But going through hell is no guarantee your family will avoid the same fate. Last fall, reports surfaced that Indio was in treatment for prescription pill addiction. And a statement from Downey Jr. Monday makes it clear his son's arrest was not the result of an isolated incident. "Unfortunately, there’s a genetic component to addiction and Indio has likely inherited it,” he said. "Also, there is a lot of family support and understanding, and we're all determined to rally behind him and help him become the man he's capable of being. We’re grateful to the Sheriff’s Department for their intervention, and believe Indio can be another recovery success story instead of a cautionary tale."

Sometimes, the thing that would destroy you can also be the thing that would save you. Having a family history of substance abuse is a crappy thing to be born into, both environmentally and quite likely biologically. But having family that understands both how bad it can get and how good life can still become can be the difference between not just success and cautionary tales but life and death. And if Indio's current troubles stem from taking after his father, there's the hope his redemption can as well.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Drug Abuse Indio Downey Robert Downey Jr. Robert Downey Sr.