I met the filmmaker Robert Downey Sr., (A Prince) in 1959. We were in the Broadway production of the Civil War drama “The Andersonville Trial,” which featured George C. Scott and Albert Dekker as opposing attorneys and Herbert Berghof as the ex-commandant of the infamous Civil War prison camp. I played one of several witnesses at the trial, an ex-prisoner of the confederate camp. The cast of about 15 included to non-speaking roles, two guards in uniform carrying muskets standing by the entrance to the trial room over at stage left. The young tall gangly one was Robert, whose vision even then was not so much to act but to write and direct movies, films that would bring to cinematic life his jumbled, oddball, comedic observations of life.
Watching “The Andersonville Trial” night after night during its six-month run he conceived his own Civil War story: a Yankee soldier is shot and wounded and when he wakes he finds himself wandering in present-day Manhattan. He stops passersby asking directions to get off this strange island and back to his base camp. Bob told me he borrowed someone’s camera and stole some film. He sneaked his Andersonville Trial costume and the musket out of the theater and the next day with a couple of pals following him with camera and mic he set out to accost perfect strangers with his personal dilemma and and seek their advice. He was making his first movie.
Most of the people he interviewed didn’t give him the time of day, of course, quickly moving away from this nut with the funny looking gun. But surprisingly there were others who were intrigued by his predicament and even offered their advice. Nuns he approached were quick to express their concern for his plight and offer him their sympathies.
In his wanderings around the various boroughs he came upon Grant’s Tomb and stared at it in shock and consternation. “They got Ulysses” he seems to be saying. And in the Bronx he does a giddy jig in front of Yankee Stadium, believing he’s found his company headquarters.
I got a phone call from Bob the night before he shot that scene: “I’m going to walk onto the field during the game tomorrow and have a scene with Moose Skowron at first base.” “Oh my God, Bob, whatever you do don’t take the musket with you. You’ll get shot!”
Happy to say, he heeded my advice. But he got his shot and Moose Skowron lives on in “Balls Bluff.”
Shortly after completing his Civil War fantasy, he started work on another short film, a political satire called, for some obscure reason, “Babo ’73.” He phoned to tell me he had lined up the eccentric Greenwich Village actor/writer Taylor Mead to play the lead part -the President of the United Status – and asked me to play his left wing advisor, Chester Kittylitter. By this time I had seen and enjoyed a cut of his first film so I happily agreed to join on. I figured if nothing else, it would be a barrel of laughs and of course it was. It was a romp.
Robert continued making short films and later-but not that much later – he got the backing to make his first feature film. By this time he was married and had a son named Robert Downey Jr.
This film – a clever satire of the black – white dichotomy in America as seen through the prism of Madison Avenue advertising world – was called “Putney Swope.” It opened at a first run the movie theater on Third Avenue and, much to everyone’s surprise, including Bob’s, was an immediate hit. Bob phoned me shortly after the movie opened. “Jimmie, I can’t believe it. They’re lining up for blocks to see my movie!” He sounded both thrilled and bewildered at this sudden change in his life, this new appreciation of what he was doing, not only by the film industry but by movie fans as well.
The success of “Putney Swope” led to more financial backing for Bob and spurred him to write and eventually film his second feature, a comedy called “Pound.”
“Pound,” which was shot all around town, but primarily in the west side of Greenwich Village, opens with a shot of a variety of stray dogs being rounded up by the authorities and take into a cold, prison-like facility which fills them with dread and stirs them to make their escape.
Bob shot actual dogs being led through the entrance to the pound, but once inside (Voilà!) they were real people, actors who could physically reflect the disparate qualities of the various breeds – a bald Chihuahua, a sexy female poodle, a shepherd with a German accent, a tall and lean greyhound, and so on.
Bob even had a role for his son, now about four years old and cute as a button. Robert Downey Je. made his film debut playing an adorable puppy. His one line in the film is a question posed to the Chihuahua (a very bald Larry Wolf )- “Do you have hair on your balls?”
Bob, probably realizing he shouldn’t stay within the confines of an ugly dog pound for the entire movie, added a sub-plot featuring a sexually frustrated young white man who roamed the city murdering amorous young white couples and then taunting the police by phoning them pretending to be black. He became known in the media (and in Bob’s screenplay) as The Honky Killer.
Bob cast me in the part and for one summer back in the early 60s I raced around Manhattan with both the rifle and revolver popping off young amorous couples – young amorous white couples, that is.
Soon after my scenes were shot, the film was completed and edited (Bob told me the editing, not the shooting was the fun part of filmmaking for him) and opened over on third avenue movie house where it had a moderately successful run.
After that Bob went West to shoot his epic western “Greaser’s Palace,” and I went to Spain to shoot my Western, a Frank Perry film called “Doc” starring Stacy Keach and Faye Dunaway. Our careers had suddenly diverged, and Bob and I not only did not work together again; we didn’t even see each other for many, many years.
Then, about two weeks ago, I opened the Calendar section of the LA Times and there was a picture of Robert Downey Sr. and Robert Downey Jr. with an accompanying article about an upcoming retrospective showing of Robert Downey Sr’s films.
On Saturday night of that week they would be showing both “Pound” and “Greaser’s Palace.” I hadn’t seen either movie in over 40 years. My wife, Els, had never seen them.
I called her at work with my exciting news, and she immediately set about getting us tickets for the two films: “Pound” for obvious reasons, and “Greaser’s Palace” because a very dear friend of ours, Allan Arbus, who died this year, had a featured role in that film.
Above all it was a chance to meet up again with my old pal and colleague, the inimitable Robert Downey Sr.
In the crush of fans and acolytes that wasn’t easy, but it came to be thanks to the efforts of my beautiful dear wife, Legs Collins.