Ironclad Commitment Behind Iron Man’s Robert Downey, Jr

– By Brian Boxer Wachler, MD

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I wouldn’t be sharing this private story if it weren’t for many people across the U.S. and around the world who are experiencing difficult times in their lives right now. I also wouldn’t be able to write this story had I grown up in any city other than Santa Monica.

But as luck would have it, I grew up there in the 1970s and 1980s. Many kids in Southern California, including a number of my friends in school, had aspirations in the entertainment industry. Some would realize their dreams later in life, while others would not. Robert Downey, Jr. is one such childhood friend who did accomplish what he set out to do from a young age. Our childhood friendship and more importantly his story holds an important inspirational message to both adults and children.

While some close to me know what I describe below, I’ve never openly discussed this until now. I share this unpublicized story of Robert because there are many people who are facing challenges, now more than ever, and are looking for sources of inspiration to help them through these difficult times.

I first met Robert Downey, Jr in 1981 when he moved from New York with his mom to Santa Monica to live with his dad. Robert joined my Little League Baseball team, the Angels, when he enrolled in Lincoln Junior High School (or “Lincoln” as we termed it) in Santa Monica where I too was a student. Starting a new school is highly stressful for any child and ranks not far below parental divorce.

I remember the uneasiness and feelings of anxiety when I went from elementary school to “Lincoln.” Even the comfort of my friends transitioning with me to junior high school in no way prevented the scariness of going to a new school: new routine, new buildings, new teachers, virtually new everything. It escalated to a “can’t-fall-asleep-at-night-as-Summer-draws-to-an-end-and-why-can’t-they stop-running-those-depressing-back-to-school-ads-on-TV-and-radio?” experience. I suppose “fear of the unknown” has this effect on many people – children and adults alike.

So when Robert transferred to “Lincoln” from New York and joined our baseball team, I had some insight into how scary it was for him to move cross country and be injected into a new state, new city, new school and new sports team, all simultaneously without knowing anyone. “Uncomfortable” would be a slight understatement. Robert was in 9th grade and I in 8th grade. Usually at this age, one year difference between kids seems like being separated by decades in adult life. I often got along well with kids older than me. How? Most kids thought I was older than I was since I was tall and lanky and my face was framed by a pair of “my-parents-think-these-look-good” teardrop myopic spectacles.

I befriended my new teammate and classmate Robert (actually he went by “Robbie” or “Rob” back then) and showed him the ropes of the new school. I did so, not because he was famous (he wasn’t back then) but because I could empathize with my new Little League baseball teammate being thrust into a new and uncomfortable situation. It’s just what a considerate, understanding kid does. More simply, it’s called “being nice” – and I credit my parents for raising me that way.

What was great about Santa Monica in those days is that kids in the public schools were highly diverse and parental background didn’t matter or bias who your friends were because at that stage no one asked, “What do your parents do?” Kids were friends with kids and played together as kids are meant to do, the way it should be. At the time, I had no clue Robert’s father was a film director.

Our baseball team was certainly a fun bunch and Robert had a wickedly good sense of humor. He gave another teammate the nickname “Slap-Happy-Pappy” during a carpool to practice once. But when it was time for practice and playing baseball games, Robert took this very seriously. He would step on to the field with quiet reserve, focused on doing his best. He followed our coach’s instructions with intense concentration. When he put his mind to something, he did so with great resolve.

He didn’t talk much about acting, I suppose he was just trying to acclimate to a new place. In some aspects I could relate to Robert since I myself was also an outsider like him to a degree. I had many friends in different cliques, but I never was a full-fledged member of any of them since I never cleanly fit into one of the cliques. While I sported the four-eyes brainy look, I wasn’t the type to hang out with the Chess Club kids. While I was an athlete, I didn’t exclusively hang with that group either. In the summers while I boogie-boarded at the beach and rode a pretty rad Dogtown skateboard with that crowd, I didn’t smoke (with or without inhaling) with them. So maybe that’s why it was natural for me to be open to being friends with my new baseball teammate at Lincoln Junior High School.

Robert was nicely dressed, probably a sign of going to school in New York City before he moved out to California. We would eat lunch together at times and often talked about girls and baseball during recess (the time between classes) in the hallways well after the truant recess bell rang. Fortunately, we never got in trouble for being late to class.

We had another teammate on the Angels who too had aspirations to becoming a successful actor. In order to protect his identify, I’ll refer to him as “Dave” (not his real name). Dave and Robert had similar goals and backgrounds. Both wanted to be great actors. Both had a close family member in the entertainment industry. Dave had a famous-uncle entertainer while Robert had a famous-father director. Only one of these kids accomplished his goal and you know who that is. Years ago, after Robert became successful, I thought about the contrast of these two childhood friends and why was one able to achieve his dream? Could I pinpoint a difference to account for the results? While Robert was quiet back then with the ability to turn on his funny side at will, he clearly took things that were important to him seriously, which was quite mature for a coming-of-age teenager in junior high school. He was a hard-worker, embodying the discipline and drive more characteristic of someone many years his senior.

Dave, on the other hand, was constantly trying to be the class clown and seemed more concerned about getting laughs from friends than about taking baseball seriously as all the rest of us on the team did. Perhaps internal drive, self-discipline and mental focus can explain why Robert made it and Dave did not. Ben Franklin said it best – “Hard work is the mother of good luck.” Sure, some actors get a lucky break but without the ironclad mindset of “I will be successful or die trying,” the actor with a lucky break will likely end up being a flash in the pan.

Having this mindset is the key behind so many successful people in any endeavor or occupation, not just acting. Being 100 percent committed to achieving your goal by visualizing and feeling what it’s like to having attained the goal is a well-known, mental training exercise often practiced by many Olympic and professional athletes, too.

The good news is this tool is available to anyone who wishes to achieve something ambitious, regardless of the obstacles and adversity. My patient Steven Holcomb, Olympic gold medal bobsledder from the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, is a prime practitioner of this. I submit myself with humility as another example of this technique. Visualizing with emotion, working hard and making personal sacrifices will enable one to likely realize the results. It may take months, years or decades but staying focused on the goal is vital, as the road to success is littered with distractions along the way. Eliminate the nay-sayers – those “Debbie Downers” who say you can’t do something. Like cancer, cut those people out of your life as fast as you can. They’ll only hold you back and you’ll be the better from it.

Successful people and those committed to success make sure they only have supportive and positive people in their lives. While I don’t profess to know the details of Robert’s personal support system as an older teenager after he moved back to New York in 1982, I suspect there were encouraging and positive influences early in his career that supported him achieving his goals.

I tell this story of Robert not to try to impress – I have many personal celebrity stories that the media would love – but I simply keep them private out of respect, such as me recently helping a well-known A-lister write her keynote speech for her alma mater’s graduation day because all her friends left her high and dry with, “I feel sorry for you” when she told them of her task. The reason I tell this story of Robert and me is for the inspirational message it holds and people are looking for sources of inspiration now more than ever before.

Even though Robert and my lives are very different now, I suspect someday we’ll reconnect again. To me, it’s not about an accomplished eye surgeon meeting an accomplished actor – it’s about tapping into that rare, innocent period in life when two friends were naíve to the world and, most importantly, enthusiastically worked towards attaining a goal – a vital foundation for life, regardless of where one grew up and what one wishes to accomplish in life.