The American Cinematheque tribute to Robert Downey Jr last night held might have been unthinkable just a few years ago when the actor was hopelessly hooked on drugs, destroying his career and winding up in prison. But if there is anything Hollywood loves, it is redemption –  and a second (or third or fourth) chance. That’s something Downey received and ran with largely thanks to his wife Susan who put him on the right course and hasn’t let him fall off since. With a hot career thanks to a second Oscar nomination for Tropic Thunder and blockbuster franchises like Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes, Downey not only turned around his career, he fixed his life and now he’s reaping the rewards as evidenced by the great turnout on Friday night at the Beverly Hilton. But the evening took a serious turn when Downey made an impassioned plea to Hollywood to “forgive” his friend Mel Gibson who was on hand to present him with the award. “Unless you are without sin — and if you are, you are in the wrong [expletive] industry, you should forgive him and let him work,” Downey said to much applause.

The undisputed highlight of the night came when previously unannounced guest Mel Gibson appeared.  Gibson and Downey Jr co-starred in Air America and Gibson’s unwavering support of Downey during his darkest hours was well-documented at the time. Gibson brought up Downey to accept the award to a standing ovation and said, “He taught me many things and I will use the ‘C’ word, courage. There’s nothing so much wrong with him. Of course you have to worry about the guy making the judgement here. He’s a good dude with a good heart.”

“This is my fuckin’ time,” Downey said. “Mel and I have the same lawyer, same publicist and same shrink. I couldn’t get hired and he cast me. He said if I accepted responsibility – he called it hugging the cactus – long enough, my life would take meaning. And if he helped me, I would help the next guy. But it was not reasonable to assume the next guy would be him.” Downey then went to on to hug Gibson and urge people to let Mel continue his career without shame.

It was a star-studded event, to be sure. Jack Black called Downey a “stone cold stud muffin” while Michael Douglas (looking great) said working with Robert Downey Jr on The Wonder Boys was “something special. He absolutely has the ability to be more alive in front of a camera than in his own life.” Downey’s Iron Man director Jon Favreau told the crowd he didn’t know the Robert that “screwed up”. He said when the actor came in for the role he was focused, dedicated and knew it was his part. Downey’s Iron Man co-star Gwyneth Paltrow, on tape, called him “one of the finest actors this business has ever seen – but everyone knows that.”

That opening pre-tape piece didn’t pull any punches. “It’s amazing how clean he is with all that cocaine,” said Jamie Foxx of the night’s honoree at one point, and that was pretty much the tone all night. Downey was laughed at everything. Jodie Foster came out and noted that they both had worked with Gibson twice and said Downey was “crazy brilliant and brilliantly crazy. Luckily for us, he flipped the switch and got sober.” Jennifer Aniston on the other hand cracked she knew “he would never let his career get in the way of classic Grade-A drugs”. Anthony Hopkins also appeared on tape and led into clips from Downey’s Best Actor Oscar-nominated perrformance in Chaplin which should have been a winner but unfortunately lost to what amounted to a career award for Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman.

Robert’s pregnant wife Susan appeared and said she fell for him despite “his well-documented DNA. But I’m not going anywhere.” On his acting she commented, “Give him one line and he will give you 100 variations”. The whole family was there including Robert’s mother Elsie, sister Allison, and first son Indio. Robert Downey Sr, a fine filmmaker in his own right, showed footage from Downey Jr’s film acting debut at age 5 in his father’s Pound which he was cast in because, as Sr said, “we could not afford a babysitter”.  In one of the night’s most poignant moments, Downey’s dad turned to him and said, “Robert, the moment you turned your life around is more heroic than any movie. I’m proud to be your father.”

The tribute to Downey Jr brought out filmmakers like Sean Penn in the audience to Joel Silver who spoke (too long) with Jared Harris to Universal Pictures chief Adam Fogelson. Warner Bros Pictures top execs Jeff Robinov, Dan Fellman, and Sue Kroll were out in force: their Sherlock Holmes sequel is that studio’s big holiday release this year. Its director Guy Ritchie also spoke. Also there was Downey’s agent, CAA’s Bryan Lourd, who recounted to me how he had to go to the Marvel board to assure them Downey would be clean and sober to do Iron Man. The actor was still a big risk then, and Lourd said the board had to be convinced. The rest is obviously history, but it was a reminder of how far Downey has come in so little time.

The whole evening was about as loose – and honest – as these events ever get. Perhaps that was due to the lack of cameras. Dedicated to showing and preserving the great films and operating my favorite theatres (the historic Egyptian and Aero in Los Angeles), American Cinematheque did not lock in a TV deal this year after having their annual award show broadcast on AMC and most recently ABC. Comedian Gary Shandling made note of that right off the top: “It’s untelevised this year. It’s been downgraded to a live show. If you don’t see it on TV, does that mean it’s good? Does that mean you can say F***?” And then Jamie Foxx, in the same pre-taped bit, started singing CeLo Green’s ‘F*** You’ song.