Bob Peterson / Getty Images
Robert Downey Sr., a filmmaker and writer who has played a major role in New York’s experimental film scene, died at his home on Wednesday of complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 85 years old.
“Last night, Dad passed away peacefully in his sleep after years of enduring the ravages of Parkinson’s disease.
Downey Sr.’s absurd style and irreverent sensibility came to define his films and plays, balancing anti-establishment sentiments with a playful sense of experimentation that brought about a truly singular era of American cinema.
Downey’s escape movie, Putney swope, is a satirical comedy about a black advertiser who is accidentally appointed president of a powerful advertising agency. The film confuses the way race and power operate in American business at a time when both were under heightened awareness.
“It’s the era of advertising that is becoming a completely ubiquitous and enduring facet of American life,” film critic Bilge Ebiri told NPR. “He recognizes that advertising speaks to all kinds of things in the American subconscious.”
Downey wasn’t afraid to defy convention in other ways, too. In another of his films, 1968 No more excuses, Downey plays a Confederate soldier lost in time. To shoot a scene in the film, Downey walked around the middle of a real live baseball game – without permission – and, in his character, told a player he was looking for the “Yankees.” He ended up in jail for the stunt.
“When we think of underground cinema, experimental cinema, sometimes we have this misconception that everything is highly symbolic, incredibly artistic, filled with deep meanings – and somehow you need a doctorate to understand all of this, ”Ebiri explains. “If I had to compare his movies to anything today, I would say they look like comedy sketches, or even YouTube videos.”
In this way, argues Ebiri, it might be fairer to regard someone like Eric Andre as his contemporary.
Robert Downey Sr. gave his son, Robert Downey Jr., his very first role in the 1970 drama Grind, a film about dogs, played by human actors, waiting to be euthanized at the pound.
In a 2003 interview with Fresh air, Downey Jr. reflected on his father’s artistic legacy. “He was very revered and hailed [as] he’s just, you know, a super innovative guy, “he said.” I knew my dad was something really, really, really special. “