Growing up underground in the ’60s on the Lower East Side, one of my frequent haunts used to be the Charles Theatre on 12th Street and Avenue B—long ago demolished. In the narrow auditorium, with a balcony that could hold as many as 500 people (but usually did not), double and triple bills filled entire afternoons with Bergman, Truffaut and other rare foreign and independent films. At night there were occasional live performances of music, comedy and drama featuring East Village avant gardists. It was at the Charles that I was introduced to one of my early counterculture heroes, the playwright and filmmaker Robert Downey Sr.
He directed a string of absurdist, surreal, comedic, taboo-busting films that defied studio conventions and influenced a rebel wing of American movie making. Alongside another rebel, the documentarian Kenneth Anger, whose Scorpio Rising (which had an extended run at the Theater for the New City) revealed in 1964 an unprecedented cinematic view of gay and biker underbellies of the age. Downey produced unbridled comedy and satire; he made underground film an alternative to the mainstream, which bled into the mainstream.
Until recently, I hadn’t seen a Downey Sr. film for a couple of decades. Then I found Downey’s masterpiece Putney Swope online (recently, Criterion began streaming some of his greats). I also watched Netflix’s documentary “Sr.”, a candid telling of Downey Jr.’s loving relationship with his dad and namesake, who died in 2021, three years after they began filming. The doc follows the progress of the film’s gestation, as well as the simultaneous making of an undefined new Downey Sr. film-within-the-documentary. It is a praiseworthy undertaking that gives Downey Sr. his due as a pioneering satiric artist and humanist movie maker while giving Downey Jr. an opportunity to shower deserved warmth and respect upon his pop (aka “a prince,” as he was known).
I’ve never met Jr., but Sr., who I did get to know some 20 years ago, had impact on my life long before and after we were introduced. Having brief opportunities to speak to him in person and on the phone was such a gift, and I am disappointed that I did not include our encounters in my recent memoir. I even interviewed him for Scenario magazine, published by PRINT. He taught me that comedy was born of the cuts and edits that are endemic to great film. When I last saw him 10 years or more ago, he was making a film about ALS, which took the life of his second wife, Laura Ernst. It was a powerful statement, with hints of wit shining through all the sadness.
Before meeting Sr., I saw the aforementioned Putney Swope four times in one week at the Charles. Sr. was the consummate New York underground movie man, working at a time when film (and to a lesser extent, video) were the hot auteur media for the burgeoning below 14th street art scene. Putney Swope, which was selected by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2016 (Scorpio Rising was accepted in 2022), was among the first undergrounds to get distribution outside of the underground ghetto, which enabled Downey Sr. to make more—but no less risky—films with better production values. Of these, Pound, his first color film that takes place in a dog pound, with human actors playing the roles of dogs fated to be euthanized, was one of his most biting and funniest (and where Downey Jr. makes his first onscreen appearance, as a puppy). He followed that with Greaser’s Palace, which was a twisted Christ story featuring Alan Arbus as a zoot-suited savoir.
I originally met Downey first when I was 17 years old. He had come by the New York Free Press office on West 72nd Street and Broadway, where I was art director, to look at renting the space that we were going to leave for an office downtown. Tall, imposing and heroic, I thought then that I had to know him better. A meeting didn’t happen for another 10 years. In the meantime, he kept an office atop the Bleecker Street Cinema in the West Village (now gone), given to him (rent-free) by its manager, Stan Gottlieb, who later became a friend of mine and ran the film division of Screw magazine, where I was also art director. In return for his generosity, Stan was given key roles in various subsequent Downey films—and got roles in non-Downey projects, like the satiric Cold Turkey and The Anderson Tapes. Stan’s consumptive physique was just what Downey needed in his repertory of misshapen characters for films like Greaser’s Palace and Pound. Stan eventually turned his bit roles into a career as a serious character actor, culminating in a network TV version of the Hot l Baltimore. You can pick Stan out, the cadaverous-looking one, in a few clips shown in the doc.
“Sr.”, the film, is a perfect evocation of Downey’s incredible talent. Even in the throes of Parkinson’s disease, which we witness slowly consuming his physical entity, he retains his sense of self, capacity for irony, an artist’s passion and fundamental humanity, which I was fortunate enough to experience. Generosity underscores this film; the access to Sr. that Jr., who is producer, allows the viewer to have, lets us know the real man, not just a celluloid transparency. Avoiding sentimentality, the love between father and son is so palpable and true.
And I can vouch for that, too. During the lunches Downey Sr. and I had, he often talked proudly about how much respect he had for Jr. as an actor; how Sr. felt it was his fault for Jr.’s near-fatal addictions. Ultimately, the film shows how lucky both were (are) that their relationship stood the tests of trial by human error with such grace, kindness and redemption.