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Life out here by Bret Kofford: Uncomfortable in his own skin

May 16, 2001

The late-night comedians have made him a laughingstock, the columnists have labeled him a lost cause and the entertainment industry may have finally given up on him.

I have a little different perspective on Robert Downey Jr. because I've looked him in the eye.

I don't know him well and he probably wouldn't recognize me if he saw me, as wrinkles have come and hair has gone in the years since we conversed. I did have a couple 15- to 30-minute conversations with him about 15 years ago.

I actually held off on writing this column for months because a couple of my colleagues think I'm a name-dropper. That said, I was working for the Savannah News-Press and Downey was in town filming "1969," a movie that bombed, and rightfully so. There was basically one place in Savannah where you could listen to live music that didn't involve men in the audience named Duane screaming "Free Bird!" after every song, and that was where a lot of the young folks from the newspaper went for frosty ales after work. Soon after arriving in town, Robert Downey Jr. found that was the cool place to hang.

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The bar regulars soon realized Downey had some major problems. Not only did he like to get drunk and stoned but he liked everyone around to notice just how drunk and stoned he was. His head would bob as he sat at the bar, he would reel across the room as he went to the john, then he would stop and gather himself before reeling across the floor again. He appeared to crave attention even more than he craved drugs.

One night I sat down at the bar and next to me was Robert Downey Jr. He was only slightly drunk/stoned, for a change. He immediately struck up a conversation. He asked me about me, a subject at which I will go on at length. He smiled at my stories. He appeared genuinely interested. He basically seemed like a good guy, particularly for a Hollywood type who had almost exclusively played punks at that point in his career.

He also was one of the saddest people I have ever met. In the coming years I would see critics say Robert Downey Jr. could portray sadness like no other. That was not a portrayal. He is sadness.

I once wrote an article for which I interviewed drug counselors regarding what people are seeking psychologically when they get loaded. A couple of the counselors said many drug addicts and alcoholics feel uncomfortable in their own skin, and the only time they reach comfort is when they get high or drunk. That comfort is what they constantly seek, knowingly or not.

My cousin who died an early, drug-related death, always seemed uncomfortable in his own skin. So does Darryl Strawberry and so does Steve Howe, but I only know about those two from what I've seen on TV. No one I have ever met seemed as uncomfortable with himself as Robert Downey Jr.

Some folks like to blame Downey's addictions on his father introducing him to drugs at an elementary school age. I am convinced the personality of Robert Downey Jr. would have found drug addiction anyway.

Yet I liked him and so did my friends. The next time I came into the bar after our first conversation he asked me to sit down and bought me a beer. As shallow as I am, I liked him for more than that. We had another pleasant conversation. He was only slightly drunk, but the night was young and things would change.

While he was in Savannah, Downey's movie "Less Than Zero" was playing in theaters. Downey played Julian, a sweet but unhappy guy who found heaven in a crack pipe. One night Downey staggered across the bar, stopped and smiled a stoned smile at me and/or my friend Paul, a newspaper photographer who had gotten to know Downey better than I would. He then tried to get into the entrance to the bathroom but missed, bouncing off the wall. He drunkenly smiled at us again.

Paul looked at him, looked at me and said, "Life imitates art."

Some of my friends went to Downey's luxury hotel suite later on such nights, where illegal and unsavory things would occur, according to their reports. I never went. As much as I liked a good time in those days, I didn't want to go there, literally and Ricki Lake figuratively.

I was not surprised when Downey's drug problems came into the public spotlight during the last decade. I was not surprised that he seemed to like the attention of being Hollywood's unrepentant drug addict.

The question is what do we do with all the Robert Downey Jr.'s of the world, who feel best about themselves when they are under the influence. Some say the answer is Alcoholics Anonymous. Some say the answer is Jesus. Some say the answer is teaching the person to love himself. One of those, or a combination of all of those, actually might be the answer. I don't know.

I do know that simply giving up on such people, millions and millions of such people, is not the answer, especially after you have seen the sadness in their eyes up close.

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