Robert Downey Jr. and Mel Gibson Struck Up a Decades-Long Friendship on a Box Office Flop

Once upon a time, Robert Downey Jr.‘s movie career was essentially dead. The actor’s personal struggles frequently got in the way of his acting over the years. Of course, Downey staged one of cinema’s greatest comebacks in the late 2000s. After Iron Man, his fame and fortune grew to the point he could earn $20 million even for a box office disaster such as Dolittle. But his friendship with Mel Gibson started long before all that.

Robert Downey Jr. and Mel Gibson wear suits and pose at at the 25th Annual American Cinematheque Award
Robert Downey Jr. and Mel Gibson wear suits and pose at at the 25th Annual American Cinematheque Award | Frank Trapper/Corbis via Getty Images

Robert Downey Jr. came to Mel Gibson’s defense in 2011

Much like his own journey with addiction, Downey recognized in Gibson a need to wrestle with his demons and rehabilitate his life and career. To that end, the Marvel star has frequently offered his public support for Gibson, even amid so much controversy. Downey even said he wanted Gibson to step into the director’s chair for Iron Man 4. After all, Gibson did win the Oscar for Best Director in 1996 for Braveheart.

Downey doubled down on his support for Gibson when he selected him to present Downey’s honor at the 25th American Cinematheque Awards in 2011. While accepting his award, Downey pleaded with the Hollywood players in the room to give Gibson a second chance. And by and large, this came to pass when Gibson’s World War II drama Hacksaw Ridge received six Academy Award nominations, including Best Director, in 2017.

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The two actors starred in a 1990 action comedy titled ‘Air America’

The actors’ bond didn’t just develop from their shared personal struggles. In fact, Gibson and Downey co-starred in a 1990 action comedy called Air America. Often recognized as one of Downey’s worst movie roles, the film follows a pair pilots during the Vietnam War who get caught up in a drug-smuggling operation.

Air America was a financial flop, earning just $33 million worldwide according to Box Office Mojo. Considering the film’s reported $30-35 million budget, the movie definitely lost Tri-Star Pictures some money. Even wilder, Gibson was on a hit streak at the time having just starred in Lethal Weapon 2 and Bird on a Wire.

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Mel Gibson cast Robert Downey Jr. in a forgotten 2003 movie when no one else would hire him

Downey’s friendship with Gibson went way back. But it wasn’t just nostalgia that motivated Downey to advocate for his friend in the 2010s. In fact, Gibson went out of his way to lend Downey a hand during his darkest point. After Downey finally got sober in 2003, he struggled to re-enter the movie business. And it was Gibson who helped get him back to work by casting him in the musical crime comedy The Singing Detective.

At the time, Downey was considered uninsurable as a movie star. But Gibson stepped up to pay the insurance bond on Downey himself so that he could join the movie’s cast. The Singing Detective turned the tide for the actor, leading to roles in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, A Scanner Darkly, Zodiac, and finally — against all odds — Iron Man.