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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Actor's Challenge: to Stay Clean and Stay Out

August 04, 2000|MIKE DOWNEY

No friendly, Tom Hanks-faced guard personally escorted Robert Downey Jr. from the upper bunk of Cell 17 all the way to the front gate Wednesday afternoon, pausing first so inmate P-50522 could pick up a rumpled suit of clothing or a pay envelope with the 8 cents an hour he'd earned scrubbing pots and pans in the Corcoran State Prison's kitchen. The warden, George Galaza, didn't point the prisoner toward California 99 and say, melodramatically, "Don't ever let me see you in here again," or "You'll be back."

One of the correctional facility's authorities did actually give it a fleeting thought, Downey's lawyer believes, before concluding that a Hollywood-style send-off, even just in jest, probably wouldn't have been in anybody's best interest. Pains had been taken to treat the Oscar-nominated actor like any other no-name con doing time since he was brought to Corcoran on Aug. 25, 1999, shackled at the wrists and ankles. No sense putting on an act for his benefit now.

"So he walked out of there yesterday with . . . ?"

"With his life," Robert Waters said, answering an unfinished question at his Santa Monica law office, the morning after getting his client sprung.

It took 113 days in a county jail and nearly a year in a state pen, but Downey, 35, was finally out--on bail, on a technicality, but at least leaving in one piece from the brutal place where he was sent, a "dangerous criminal" whose single felony conviction was for the possession of 1.49 grams of cocaine. As punishment for being a drug addict, he was put in a 6,000-inmate compound that mass murderers ranging from L.A. gangbangers to Charles Manson also called home.

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His story is still early in the second of three acts, because the actor has to sweat out the next 40 days, during which time the state's attorney general could appeal the motion that led to his release. Then will come the most dramatic challenge of Downey's life to date--staying clean.

Having been hooked in one form or another since childhood, Downey has every reason to live a drug-free life. He has a 6-year-old son who melts both of his separated parents' hearts after a prison visit by asking his mother: "Is Daddy a bad man?" He has a career with nearly 35 films behind him and probably twice as many producers willing to hire him, provided they can persuade an insurance or bonding company to trust him.

Friends have stood by Downey always. Fans, strangers have encouraged him with jail mail and condolences. But a judge impatient with probation violations carried out a threat to teach Downey a lesson, and his cruel treatment of the defendant resonated with anyone who did place victims of drug habits on a par with hardened criminals. "He just doesn't get it," so many would say.

"OK, does he 'get it' now?" was put to his attorney Thursday.

"I believe he gets it," Waters replied. "But I believe he got it in the past, too. Robert only suffered two relapses over the last three years, to my knowledge. For an addict, that is not that unusual."

To refresh memories, Downey was pulled over on June 23, 1996, for speeding and driving under the influence. He pleaded no contest in September to the felony cocaine charge and related misdemeanors--possession of a smaller amount of heroin and an unloaded handgun--and was sentenced to 24-hour rehab facilities. Downey kept skipping scheduled treatments, though, so the judge threw the book at him.

He was freed on bail Wednesday because an appeals court ruled the judge had made a technical error in Downey's sentencing. Waters was amused by one Internet account that made it sound as if he and attorney Ross Nabatoff had just found a loophole, as if "we suddenly woke up this week and said, 'Oh, wait! Robert's been in prison too long!' We've been working on this since Day 1."

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The only Hollywood-worthy element came when Waters began calling bail bondsmen Wednesday to arrange a meager $5,000 in bail and wound up spending hours wading through red tape. Downey ultimately was released, 15 pounds lighter than when he went in and headed directly for the nearest hamburger stand.

Free to come and go, Downey is staying voluntarily at an unspecified after-care rehab facility in Southern California. He was totally drug-free while in prison, Waters has been assured, and helped counsel other inmates.

"Is he going to be working on anything?" a fan of Downey's film work inquired.

"Yes," his attorney said. "He's going to be working on keeping out of prison."

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Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to: Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com

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