ROBERT DOWNEY SR.: FAREWELL TO AN UNDERGROUND FILM LEGEND

When Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope was released in 1969, America didn’t know what hit her. A surrealistic satire, the film hit all of America’s sore spots: racism, consumerism, political and corporate corruption, and Downey became a hero to the college crowd. In 1973, CBS (what were they thinking?!) commissioned Downey to adapt David Rabe’s anti-Vietnam War play, Sticks and Bones, as a TV movie. At first, CBS refused to broadcast the resultant film. Now it’s a cult classic. Cliff DeYoung, who starred in the film, spoke with PKM’s David Stewart about working with Downey.

 Robert Downey Sr. died two months ago at the age of 85 from Parkinson’s disease. Apart from his namesake being recognized as one of the top-grossing actors in Hollywood, Robert Downey Sr. was the epitome of anti-Hollywood. Born Robert John Elias, the New York native served in the army at 15, became a Golden Gloves boxing champion, and Off-Off Broadway playwright in his early twenties. With a passion for European film and the Bleeker Street Cinema being his home-away-from-home, Downey picked up a camera shooting experimental films throughout the 1960s.

Downey’s first feature was Babo 73, a Dr. Strangelove-styled satire with Taylor Mead as the witless President of the ‘United Status’ loaded with stolen shots outside the White House. The film earned Downey a Guggenheim fellowship, leading to a steady stream of offbeat movies that shook the Underground film scene with the same artistic fervor and expressionism of his contemporaries, John Cassavetes and Brian De Palma’s pre-Hitchcockian satires (Greetings!, Hi, Mom!). It was Putney Swope, the 1969 comedy about a token Black ad executive flipping Madison Avenue on its head with zany products and commercials, that made Downey Sr. the toast of New York independent cinema.

Robert Downey Sr and Paul Thomas Anderson talk about Babo 73, with clips from the film:

“He was a very hot director because his films were so strange,” said Cliff DeYoung, actor, musician and friend of Downey’s.  “With Putney Swope, I’ve never seen anything like it; but it was funny, it was out there, it was loose, and the cast looked like they were having fun!” (Typical scene: A mock TV advertisement showing a go-go dancer in a garbage-strewn back alley, who stops in mid thrust to say, “You can’t eat an air conditioner”). While Putney Swope was playing at the Bleeker Street Cinema, DeYoung was in the Broadway production of Hair. Downey Sr. loved theater as much as he loved film, and most of his casting decisions were based on who was on stage. Shelley Plimpton, mother of Martha Plimpton, was cast in Putney Swope after Downey attended a production of Hair.

The trailer for Putney Swope (1969):

As the Seventies unfolded, so did the creative outlets for Downey to explore. In particular, he was commissioned to direct a TV movie version of David Rabe’s controversial 1971 Tony Award-Winning play, Sticks and Bones. Written by Vietnam veteran David Rabe and produced by The Public Theatre’s founder, Joe Papp, Sticks and Bones is the story of the Nelson family (Ozzie, Harriet, and Ricky), the typical American family trying to adapt to their son David coming home from Vietnam blind and bitter at the world around him. In the end, the family convinces David to commit suicide. The dark comedy earned rave reviews on Broadway, but angered those in the audience.

Downey’s first feature was Babo 73, a Dr. Strangelove-styled satire with Taylor Mead as the witless President of the ‘United Status’ loaded with stolen shots outside the White House.

Cliff DeYoung was in the play for its seven-month run at the John Golden Theatre and remembered audience members leaving the theater in disgust over the play’s ending. As Cliff remembers from his home in Los Angeles, “George C. Scott famously got up and said, ‘Fuck this!’ and ran out. Although, he didn’t get to the show until the very end.”

“Putney Swope” a film by Robert Downey 1969

When he was offered to play the blind David rather than the plucky, guitar-picking Ricky, DeYoung faced a challenge that would shape his career. As he recalled, “I thought it was a very strange choice of Bob Downey doing David Rabe. Rabe was a particular guy, very structured and neurotic about getting everything right and here’s Bob who’s all over the place, so I was glad. I loved Putney Swope. I went into see him about playing the younger brother that I played on Broadway and something clicked. He said, ‘Okay, well let’s try some improvisations…let’s do this weird thing…can you sing a little, can you dance?’ All that. But something clicked there and he said ‘Okay, this guy is a little out there as I am.’  You know, we’ve done the play a long time and I think Bob was worried because it wasn’t his writing- his usual thing- that he was going to get stuck in that. When Bob and I were in the room, we just clicked. I asked him, ‘When am I going to hear back about the role?’ He said, ‘No, you’re the guy that’s going to play Danny.’ Which was weird because I usually wait weeks and weeks; they keep you in suspense. “

With Putney Swope, I’ve never seen anything like it; but it was funny, it was out there, it was loose, and the cast looked like they were having fun!”

Shot in upstate New York, the production of Sticks and Bones was a mixture of Robert Downey’s signature surreal humor and a sharp critique on the Vietnam War’s effect on the home front. Downey and Joe Papp changed the names of the Nelson family for the film version and took away the few humorous lines from the play to make a serious made-for-TV-drama. However, one scene that encapsulated Downey’s dark humor was a montage of a coming home party with Cliff DeYoung trying to kick a football, play tennis, and attempting to play his brother’s guitar before the party takes a stark turn as Sly and the Family Stone’s “Family Affair” playing on the soundtrack.

For DeYoung, working with Downey was a freewheeling process of improvisation. “There was one time that I did smoke a little weed before shooting and got a little wild out there that I started taking my clothes off. He (Downey) had to stop me from getting naked because they couldn’t film that. But he thought that was pretty good that he had to stop me from going too far where it was usually him going too far.”

Robert Downey Sr via Creative Commons

Anne Jackson and Tom Aldridge, who reprised his Tony-winning role for the film, played the naïve parents frustrated over their son’s stories of the atrocities he experienced and the Vietnamese prostitute who keeps haunting the house. But Downey’s humor shifted into professional decorum when Jackson and Aldridge were on set. As De Young recalled, “When we got to shooting some of the more serious scenes in the film, if Anne Jackson and Tom Aldridge were involved, Bob got a little more serious. It wasn’t so off-the-wall, he wanted to make that really scary and so did I. So, we choreographed this single-camera shot of Tom yelling at me, hitting me, and the cameraman got it. Then, for some reason, Bob wanted to do a close-up on me, which I thought it was pretty effective.”

He (Downey) had to stop me from getting naked because they couldn’t film that. But he thought that was pretty good that he had to stop me from going too far where it was usually him going too far.”

Scheduled for broadcast on March 9, 1973, CBS pulled Sticks and Bones from broadcast as the optimistic news of the POW’s returning from Vietnam led to an uproar between the network, Joe Papp, and Bob Downey. As DeYoung remembers, “Tom Aldridge made a sign and picketed the network for a couple of days after CBS refused to show Sticks and Bones.”

Ironically, CBS made their mark in the early Seventies with controversial programs like All in the Family or a key episode of Maude where Bea Arthur decides to have an abortion. Despite addressing racism and Roe v. Wade with a laugh track, CBS buried Sticks and Bones until August of 1973 with a disclaimer advising viewer discretion. Advertisers were too hesitant to buy airtime, so the film ran only one time, commercial-free. The film has since found its way onto the internet.

Robert Downey returned to feature filmmaking with his sporadically shot 1975 film, Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight before butting heads with Warner Bros. over the forgettable 1980 teen comedy, Up the Academy.

Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight, full film:

Downey maintained a presence on-screen with plum roles in films like William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in LA and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, which featured an explosive nod to the firecracker scene in Putney Swope– minus the cocaine, Alfred Molina’s speedo, and “Sister Christian” blaring on the stereo.

making a movie with Bob was like rock n’ roll. It wasn’t like the theater, it wasn’t like any of that Stanislavski internal acting stuff, it was all out there, you know?

For DeYoung, Downey’s presence behind the camera was the equal of Jim Morrison or James Brown at the microphone. “I was telling Bob, ‘Let’s get into the psychology of this guy (Daniel)!’ I spent eight months downtown on Broadway watching Drew Snyder do it. Then Bob said, ‘You know what? Fuck that. You’re an actor, you’re a human being, and you’re the character already. You do what you’re going to do’. I said, ‘Wow! Okay!’  No one had ever said that to me. I was 24 years old; nobody had ever said that to me before. I had been in a rock n’ roll band where we smoked a little pot, went out on stage, and played crazy. [Editor’s note: DeYoung was a member of the LA-based psychedelic band, Clear Light, whose lone album was engineered by the Doors’ producer, Paul Rothchild]. For me, making a movie with Bob was like rock n’ roll. It wasn’t like the theater, it wasn’t like any of that Stanislavski internal acting stuff, it was all out there, you know? His attitude was ‘Whatever you got, just put it out there and I wasn’t to see it. If you go too crazy, we’ll take you to the hospital.’”

Robert Downey Sr and Robert Downey Jr. via Creative Commons
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