By now, Downey, 35, is well acquainted with trouble. In and out of courts since 1996 for drug possession and failure to take court-ordered drug tests, he was packed off to prison in August 1999 to serve a three-year term. Released after only one year and vowing, "Enough is enough," the actor landed a plum role as Ally McBeal's love interest, Larry Paul. "What sets Downey apart," USA Today's TV critic Robert Bianco wrote recently, "is the way he holds the camera, the active intelligence that shines through his eyes." Credited with reviving the FOX show's sagging ratings, his gig was expanded from 8 episodes to 10. Out on $15,000 bail with a Dec. 27 court date, Downey returned to the set last Tuesday. "Nobody is closing the door on his coming back for future episodes," says Chris Alexander, media relations manager at FOX.
It may have been Downey's need for rest from his TV schedule or his lack of anyplace in particular to go—he has been separated since 1996 from his wife, Deborah Falconer, 35, with whom he has a son, Indio, 7—that prompted the actor to check into a spa over the Thanksgiving holiday. When police arrived at the $400-a-night room around 8 p.m., Downey was red-eyed, unkempt and by him-self, though there were female toiletries and clothing, including a Wonder Woman costume. Asked to identify his companion, Downey responded, "It was Wonder Woman." That, says Sergeant Anderson, "just blew me away." Police say a photo album she left behind suggests the woman may be a model or actress.
As police searched the room, recalls Anderson, "it was obvious that Mr. Downey was under the influence. He was talking fast and following us around all over the place." In the closet, Anderson says, he found a prescription-drug bottle inside a tissue box. "What's that?" he asked. "Those are my pills," said Downey. Opening the bottle, Anderson found a plastic bag containing white powder. "What's this?" the officer demanded. "I think it's speed," Downey answered. After police uncovered two more powder-filled plastic bags, Downey was arrested.
Slipped out of the resort through a back exit that avoided the grand foyer, Downey cooperated with police as they booked him at the station house and insisted on drawing blood for a drug test. "I'm not going to fight you guys," he said. "But I'm not consenting to this." In a videotaped statement for the police, he said, "They arrested me again. At least this time I'm not guilty." Then he was locked in an 8-by-10-ft. cell, where he spent the night on a concrete slab covered with a 3-in. cushion. At 6:30 the next morning Downey was released on bail and driven home to the small place he shares with two men in Hollywood, near Indio's school.
Where Downey lands next is a crapshoot. His mother, actress Elsie Downey, 66, hopes the court will be lenient. "I've always felt that Robert should be in a hospital and get some very, very good psychological help," she says. James Stilwell, who runs the rehab program Downey attended prior to his prison tour, says, "It's no surprise this happened, and it's not the end of the world. Relapse is part of the recovery process."
Confronted with the prospect of more time behind bars, Downey offers a poignant perspective. After his arrest, Downey asked if he could smoke a cigarette. Tartly, an officer scolded that rules could not be bent just because he was a movie star. "I'm not a movie star," Downey responded quietly. "I'm just a guy with a drug problem."
Michael Fleeman, Meg Grant and Ulrica Wihlborg in Los Angeles and Eric Francis in New York City