Robert Downey Sr., the director of the anti-establishment satirical classic Putney Swope and the father of actor Robert Downey Jr., died early today in his sleep at home in New York City. He was 85.
His death was announced by his wife, the author and hagiographer Rosemary Rogers, to the New York Daily News. Rogers told the publication that Downey Sr. had suffered from Parkinson’s for more five years. Robert Downey Jr. confirmed the death on Instagram today, writing that his father was “a true maverick filmmaker” who “remained remarkably optimistic” throughout “the ravages of Parkinson’s.”
Read Downey Jr.’s Instagram tribute here.
Born in New York City, Downey Sr. became a significant force in the city’s underground film movement in the 1960s, writing and directing the 1961 short fantasy film Ball’s Bluff in which a Civil War soldier wakes up to find himself in 20th Century Central Park.
Other offbeat indie films followed, including 1964’s Babo 73, 1966’s Chafed Elbows and 1968’s No More Excuses.
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But it was 1969’s Putney Swope that introduced Downey Sr.’s work to a larger audience. Starring Arnold Johnson as Swope, a Black advertising executive who surprisingly and accidentally becomes the agency’s new chairman of the board. The satire landed spot-on swings at the advertising industry, Madison Avenue culture, corporate America and racism, and would inspire generations of independent filmmakers with its irreverent, low-budget approach that included a controversial poster featuring what appeared to be an upraised middle finger and the slogan “Up Madison Ave.”
Putney Swope was was selected for the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” in 2016.
From there, Downey Sr. moved toward larger-budget projects, including 1972’s surrealistic Greaser’s Palace starring Allan Arbus (M*A*S*H*) as a Jesus-like figure in the American West.
Subsequent credits would include the 1973 TV film Sticks and Bones, the feature Up the Academy (1980) and episodes of TV series including The Twilight Zone reboot and, in 2005, the feature documentary Rittenhouse Square set in the Philadelphia park.
Downey Sr. also worked as an actor, appearing in To Live and Die in L.A., 1st & Ten, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and in his final credit, 2011’s Tower Heist.
The filmmaker and first wife Elsie had two children: actress-writer Allyson Downey (born in 1963) and Robert Downey Jr. (born in 1965). The couple divorced in 1982, and Downey Sr. married second wife Laura Ernst in 1991. Following her death, he married Rogers in 1998.
Both of Downey’s children appeared in Greaser’s Palace, and Downey Jr. starred in his father’s 1990 comedy Too Much Sun, which also featured Arbus, Eric Idle, Andrea Martin, Ralph Macchio and Howard Duff.
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