Long before he was hauled in front of a judge for the first time, in l996, Robert Downey Jr. was never big on self-restraint. "Our friends would dare us to streak, and he'd get buck naked and run right down the beach," says childhood friend Anthony D'Eugenio of their days together at Santa Monica High. "He once jumped into our friend's Volvo, and even though he didn't know how to drive, he backed up into a car and went forward over a curb. He did it for the attention."

Downey never outgrew that boyish exuberance, but any resemblance to Peter Pan is purely coincidental. On Feb. 5, Downey, 34, hit the six-month point of his three-year sentence behind the sand-colored walls of the state prison in Corcoran, Calif., where the onetime Oscar nominee is doing time, essentially, for being unable to give up drugs. "I try to embrace it, but it's prison—it's miserable," Downey says in a phone call with PEOPLE. But since entering Corcoran, Downey has passed all his random drug tests. "He's doing great," says prison spokesman Lt. Johnny Castro. Well enough to joke, as a recording interrupts his conversation to note that his phone call is originating from a prison, "They need to let you know what kind of pariah you're dealing with."

But friends worry that his drug habit is as indestructible as his sense of humor. "It's like I have a shotgun in my mouth, and I've got my finger on the trigger, and I like the taste of the gunmetal," Downey told Lawrence Mira, the Malibu municipal court judge who sentenced him to prison after years of warnings. "He loves being on the edge," says Loree Rodkin, Downey's manager from 1983 to 1990. James Toback, who directed Downey in three films, including Black and White, which was shot in 1998 and is due for release in April, says Downey can't separate acting from acting up. "His compulsiveness and his recklessness and his desire to flirt with death are central to his powers as a liberated creator," says Toback. "He's not afraid to die." Downey, too, has hinted at a brief future. "If you don't kill yourself, something else inevitably will," he told Detour a year ago. "No one knows how to do it better or get it done quicker than yourself."

Now, Downey—who is hopeful that lawyers will be able to free him very soon as a result of what may have been judicial errors made during his sentencing procedure—says he has turned the corner. "I'm feeling a little nostalgic," he says, "and I see myself—and a lot of my issues—as being stuck in the '80s a little bit. So I want to quote Donna Summer: 'Enough is enough.' "

Few personified the '80s as much as the doomed, can't-get-enough doper Julian, the character Downey played—some would say lived—in 1987's Less Than Zero. And like Julian, Downey started young. At age 8, the Manhattan-born son of underground filmmaker Robert Sr. has claimed, he was offered his first marijuana joint by his father, who had already gotten him hooked on movies by giving him a part in the 1970 film Pound when he was only 5. When Robert Jr. was in junior high school, Robert Sr., 63, split with his actress wife, Elsie, 65, and moved to L.A. with his son and daughter Allyson, now 36 and a sometime actress. Soon pot wasn't enough for the boy, and by his teens he was doing cocaine and drinking heavily. "Nothing really took him over the edge," remembers D'Eugenio, 34, who is the co-owner of a nightclub in Beverly Hills. "It just started from a young age and then continued."

Acting was the best way to show off, and on the high school stage, "everybody noticed how talented he was," says D'Eugenio. At 17, Downey dropped out of school and moved back to New York City to bus tables and go to auditions. Another high school pal, Ramon Estevez (middle brother of Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez) would visit and watch Downey drink himself into a stupor. "It wasn't just a couple of drinks; it was abusive, falling-down, blackout-type drinking," says Estevez, 36, who adds that in 1994 he saw Downey guzzle an entire bottle of hard liquor. "He took the lid off and threw it away."

At 18, Downey won a part in 1984's Firstborn and soon moved in with costar Sarah Jessica Parker, who would remain his girlfriend until the early '90s. His substance abuse, he told Playboy in December 1997, "was just confounding for her. But...there was a surprisingly high percentage of normal days as well. I love her and I always will, and I'm glad she found someone [her husband, Matthew Broderick] she's happy with."

Carousing didn't hurt Downey's career, though, and he moved on to parts in 1985's Weird Science and 1986's Back to School. Then came Zero, a film about degenerate L.A. hipsters, for which Downey seemed almost too perfectly suited. During a press tour about that time, says Rodkin, "Robert went down to the lobby for cigarettes and disappeared for four days." Rumors of Downey's drug habit could have cost him his role opposite Mel Gibson in 1990's Air America when the whispers reached the director, but Rodkin told him—falsely—that Downey was in London doing postproduction work on another film. In reality, Downey was in rehab in Arizona. "I felt like I was lying for a living," says Rodkin, who adds that Downey then paid her back by firing her.

In 1993, Downey wed Deborah Falconer, 34, a model and an aspiring singer, six weeks after the couple had met at an L.A. party. Downey reached a career peak just weeks later when he earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor with his uncanny portrayal of Charlie Chaplin in Chaplin. His son with Falconer, Indio, was born that September, but within two years Downey's drug use was escalating again; he would be in and out of rehab clinics at least six times. In April 1996, he and Falconer separated, agreeing informally to share custody of Indio, and Downey's habit began spinning out of control. He snorted and freebased cocaine and smoked "black tar" heroin. By summer he had hit bottom: Police who stopped him for speeding in Malibu found heroin, cocaine and an unloaded .357 Magnum in his car. Three weeks later, Downey wandered into a Malibu house he thought was his own and passed out on a child's bed; he was charged with being under the influence of drugs. Just four days after that arrest, he bolted from a detox center, where he'd been sent by court order, and was later placed on three years' probation. Simply put, Downey was told he had to keep off drugs or face jail time.

Downey stayed clean for a while. "Before I ever had a speeding ticket or a jaywalking ticket," he says now, "I was as vehement about seeking help as any person. To me it was always something I was struggling with and the most important thing for me to try to do." He took regular drug tests during the filming of his exceptional performance in 1998's Two Girls and a Guy. "He came to us a few weeks out of rehab," says-producer Michael Mailer, the son of author Norman Mailer, "and was utterly committed. We would shoot 12 to 14 hours a day, and at the end of each day he would pee in a cup. He didn't complain about it once."

But in September 1997, a few months after wrapping Two Girls, Downey skipped a court-ordered drug test and in December began serving what would add up to 113 days in an L.A. county jail. Downey didn't like it inside—he suffered a gash in his face after he reportedly had failed to pay protection money and was furloughed to receive plastic surgery—but his dislike of the experience did not prove corrective. Shortly after his release, Toback recalls, Downey casually said, " 'If I have to go back to jail...' I almost passed out. I said, 'What do you mean, if? Why would you have to go back to jail?' He said, 'Well, you know, I handled it.' "

Handling himself was another matter. There were encouraging signs early last year while filming director Curtis Hanson's February release Wonder Boys. "He showed in every way that my confidence in him was well-placed," says Hanson. But by last summer he had relapsed. "He was at one of our mutual friend's for three nights, day and night, just wasted," says a friend. "He has no money, basically. He'd order stuff—food, drugs, whatever—and it would get there, and our friend would have to pay for it." Downey lost his house in Malibu and a Range Rover as he struggled with legal bills, says the friend, who has known Downey since they were teenagers. "I don't think it is the pressure that drives him to use," the friend adds. "He doesn't have any pressure. He just parties."

At Corcoran, Downey has one compelling reason to stay clean: It keeps him from being housed with the prison's more violent inmates. Instead, the actor shares a white concrete cell with three to five other men at the dormlike California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility, a 750-bed structure set in a remote farming area. The day starts with a 6 a.m. wake-up call; most inmates spend the day working around the grounds, taking a break at lunch for a sandwich in a bag. Downey must also spend four hours each day in drug counseling. "Don't listen to everything they say," Downey says. "You know: 'Corcoran State Prison and theme park.' It doesn't matter what you put after 'state prison,' it is what it is. [But] I'm not going to put it down." Each inmate is entitled to eight hours of visits a week; both Indio and Falconer have stopped by to see Downey. He has also spent time in Bible study with preacher-to-the-stars Tim Storey, who says he told Downey, "People fail throughout the Bible. Paul failed. Noah failed." Whether Downey is listening is unclear. "[Storey] says things like, 'The bigger the setback, the bigger the comeback,' " Downey told the L.A. Times. "But I get what he means." As for drugs, prison spokesman Castro says use is "very, very low" at the treatment center but higher within the general prison population.

Another source of motivation for Downey is Indio, now 6. At the wrap party for Black and White last fall, producer Mailer says, Downey's son "was sitting on his lap, and Downey was carving his food and feeding him. He was very much a daddy." But Toback adds ruefully, "How sad it is that this kid who clearly, desperately wants him has him only in the most fitful way."

Friends feel much the same way about Downey, but they insist prison won't solve his problems. "Everyone knows that one of the easiest places to get any drug you want is jail," says Toback. Even a leader of the group that runs Downey's treatment program, Chris Geiger, has written to Judge Mira recommending that Downey be placed in community-based treatment—the kind of clinic that hasn't worked for Downey in the past. So far, Mira has ignored the appeal.

Geiger is one of many who have tried to save Downey from himself. Others include Rodkin (who staged an intervention, inviting Parker, his family and a drug counselor to confront Downey about his abuse in 1989), Jodie Foster (who lectured Downey sternly) and Sean Penn (who, Downey said, once broke into his house to haul him off to a rehab clinic). Yet some of Downey's colleagues continue to be blasé about drugs. "If Robert decides that he's a person who's happier when he is on drugs, that's just fine with me," Robert Altman, Downey's The Gingerbread Man director, told Detour. Says Toback: "My recommendation to him was that he go to Amsterdam or Switzerland whenever he wants to get high."

Many people are slow to blame Downey, despite his maddening failure to control himself. "Out of the country and in a different environment, he's without his support system," says his drug counselor and friend Bob Timmins, who believes Downey could keep marching through his 12-step program if he weren't always "disrupted by a movie." But D'Eugenio says the opposite: "Actors have a lot of time off. Between films they sometimes have too much time on their hands." And Downey's mother, Elsie, says of his drug habit, "I don't think it's his fault. We're a dysfunctional family."

It isn't only Downey's vast talent that inspires people to give him so many chances. By all accounts he is a kind-tempered man who has never hurt anyone but himself. "He's soulful, funny, sweet, caring, gentle," says Rodkin. "If Robert was just some jerk, you'd think, 'Yet again somebody else bites the dust.' [But] it's not like that. He is such a great guy." Says Toback: "I really do not know anybody who enjoys creating enjoyment any more than he does."

That's why his friends still hope he can defeat the enemy within. "He recently admitted to me that it was finally sinking in," says D'Eugenio. "He'd been in and out of rehab six to eight times, been warned by the court four or five times, and it just didn't saturate. I think now he's finally taking responsibility." But Downey is aware that he doesn't exactly score big on the trust meter. "It's like the boy who cried wolf," he says. "I'm not going to say what I'm going to do. It's not going to be damage control. You know, there's nothing worse than a reformed anything. I just want my [expletive deleted] life back. Toback sounds a darker note, warning, "There aren't solutions to every problem." For his friend Robert, he hopes that won't be read one day as an epitaph.

Kyle Smith
Meg Grant, Michael Fleeman, Elizabeth Leonard and Leslie Berestein in Los Angeles, Elizabeth McNeil in New York City and Ellen Mazo in Huntingdon, Pa.

  • Contributors:
  • Meg Grant,
  • Michael Fleeman,
  • Elizabeth Leonard,
  • Leslie Berestein,
  • Elizabeth McNeil,
  • Ellen Mazo.