On this day in 1987, Less Than Zero, a movie about a group of wealthy young friends in Los Angeles in the 1980s starring Robert Downey Jr., Andrew McCarthy and Jami Gertz, opens in theaters. Based on a 1985 novel of the same name by Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero told the story of Clay (McCarthy), a college freshman who returns home for Christmas break to discover that his former girlfriend, Blair (Gertz), is involved with his flamboyant, drug-addicted high school friend, Julian (Downey). At the time of the film’s release, Downey had already battled his own addiction to drugs and developed a reputation as a Hollywood bad boy. The dark-haired actor’s substance abuse problems later generated numerous tabloid headlines and landed him in jail on several occasions; despite this, he managed to continue to turn in acclaimed performances in a variety of movies.
Robert Downey Jr. was born April 4, 1965, in New York City. As a child, he appeared in a string of movies directed by his father, an avant-garde filmmaker whose credits included Putney Swope (1971). After dropping out of high school to purse acting, Downey rose to fame in the 1980s with a stint on TV as a Saturday Night Live cast member from 1985 to 1986 and roles in such movies as Weird Science (1985), Back to School (1986), The Pick-up Artist (1987), Less Than Zero and Chances Are (1989). He received a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of the world-famous comic actor and filmmaker Charlie Chaplin in the director Richard Attenborough’s 1992 biopic Chaplin. Other credits include Soapdish (1991), Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993), Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994), Two Girls and a Guy (1997) and Wonder Boys (2000), which co-starred Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire and Frances McDormand.
During the second half of the 1990s, Downey was arrested multiple times on drug-related charges, entered various rehab programs and served time in jail. After being released from jail in 2000, he landed a recurring role on the TV show Ally McBeal; his stint on the show ended, however, after he was arrested again in 2001. Put on probation, Downey later staged another career comeback with appearances in such films as George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) and A Scanner Darkly (2006). In 2008, he played millionaire-turned-superhero Tony Stark in the critically acclaimed box-office hit Iron Man. That same year, Downey also co-starred as a multiple Oscar-winning actor who has surgery to make himself look African-American for a role in a big-budget war movie in Ben Stiller’s comedy Tropic Thunder.