Robert Downey Jr. Pulled Out All The Stops To Prepare For His Chaplin Performance

When I first watched the 1992 Charlie Chaplin biopic, "Chaplin," I didn't know anything about the slapstick comic and actor besides that he was renowned as a legendary figure. But by the end of the first act, I was already drawing connections between the silent-movie star and entertainers of my generation. "Aye, that's Mr. Noodle!" I yelled at the screen during the scene where Chaplin, played by a 20-something-year-old Robert Downey Jr., auditions for Hollywood comedy producer Mack Sennett (Dan Aykroyd). Mr. Noodle and his brother, Mister Noodle, were played by Bill Irwin and Michael Jeter, respectively, during the "Elmo's World" segments on "Sesame Street." Like Chaplin, Irwin began his career as a vaudeville-style stage performer.

The scene where Chaplin performs as a clumsy drunk at the Hackney Empire theater in London reminded me so much of the 1989 dark comedy "Weekend at Bernie's." In other scenes, I saw shades of Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards) from "Seinfeld," and Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean. Needless to say, by the end of the Richard Attenborough-directed biopic, I realized how Chaplin was truly one of the most influential comedy stars in history. Although the movie tanked at the box office and received mixed reviews, Downey Jr.'s performance was lauded by film critics; he earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor and won Best Actor in a Leading Role at the British Academy Film Awards. The accolades were well deserved, as the "Iron Man" star pulled out all the stops to prepare for his "Chaplin" performance.

Robert Downey Jr. wasn't the first choice to portray Charlie Chaplin

Speaking with David Letterman during a 2020 episode of the television host's Netflix series "My Next Guest Needs No Introduction," Robert Downey Jr. revealed that when he showed up for his "Chaplin" audition, the late, great Richard Attenborough yearned for Tom Cruise right in front of him. Imitating Attenborough's British accent, Downey Jr. recalled, "He held up a picture of Tom Cruise to me and said, 'Now isn't that remarkable resemblance? Wouldn't it be amazing if Tom Cruise played [Charlie Chaplin]?'" Taken aback, Downey Jr. wondered if he was in a humility session instead of an audition.

It's not known what lengths the director went to in order tolure the "Top Gun" actor, but when he eventually chose Downey Jr. as his leading man, he received pushback from the film's would-be distributor, Universal. The studio executives weren't sold on the "Weird Science" actor, who had yet to fully break away from his teen idol image. The head honchos instead wanted Robin Williams, or Billy Crystal. The studio was so uncompromising that Downey Jr.'s casting nearly got the movie canceled, forcing Attenborough to find new financiers. After 10 grueling months, he finally secured a deal with Mario Kassar and Andrew G. Vajna's Carolco Pictures, Inc. The setback, however, would prove to be beneficial for Downey Jr. 

Downey Jr. had almost a year to prepare for his Chaplin performance

In a 2013 interview on "Off Camera with Sam Jones," Robert Downey Jr. said Richard Attenborough's struggles with securing financing gave him almost a year to get ready for the leading role. He detailed his preparation in a 1993 interview with the Chicago Tribune. First, he dove head first into the research. "I got some pretty obscure material, too — some of those real dusty ones in the back of the freak shops," he told the Chicago Tribune. He studied as many Charlie Chaplin movies as possible and even printed out images of the actor's facial expressions. "His bag of tricks was so immense from years and years of training on the London stage with the vaudeville acts," he continued.

Downey Jr. had gathered such extensive knowledge about the legendary figure's life that he started questioning the script. During his interview on David Letterman's "My Next Guest Needs No Introduction," he recounted how he expressed his concerns to Richard Attenborough:

"I said, 'Dicky ... This script is a joke. No offense, but it's an episodic. I mean, you're not really getting a sense — don't you know that before he started shooting 'The Kid,' his wife had miscarried and he saw, and that was why he went and cast Jackie Coogan?' and [Attenborough] was like, 'So?' and I was like, "Well, that's deep. That's really good, evocative. That's what people wanna see.' He goes. 'No, no, we're not shooting that.'"

Downey Jr. actually rewrote the script and presented his revisions to Attenborough, hoping the director would come around. But after Downey Jr. read through the script, he said Attenborough looked at him and said, "Right. Anyway, see you on set next Monday." ... Well, at least he tried. Poor Robert.

Chaplin was Robert Downey Jr.'s first Iron Man experience

Charlie Chaplin was a master at body language and physical comedy, so getting that right was pivotal. Robert Downey Jr. worked with two movement coaches who taught him how to take a pratfall and other Chaplin mannerisms. A coach even trained him to play tennis left-handed like Chaplin. "I didn't have to, but it was an opportunity to really go for broke and nail the character as much as I could," he told the Chicago Tribune. "I know the production side often thought the heck with it. You know, when the sun was going down and I was still serving them over to Beirut."

Two dialect coaches trained him to talk like the London-raised Chaplin. His commitment to turning himself into Chaplin reminds me of Vin Diesel's obsession with turning himself into mobster Giacomo "Jackie" DiNorscio for his "Find Me Guilty" performance. Like Diesel discovered, Downey too learned that the impersonation isn't everything. "Sir Richard [Attenborough] wanted more than just an impersonation," Downey Jr. told the Chicago Tribune. "He said it was important to bring Charlie into myself rather than try to just bring myself into Charlie."

Years later, in his interview with "Off Camera with Sam Jones," Downey described portraying Chaplin as his "first Iron Man experience," saying it was his first role in which people didn't immediately believe he could pull off, hence Universal's demands for Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, and Attenborough's yearnings for Tom Cruise. But he told the Chicago Tribune that when he did begin to doubt himself and feel overwhelmed by playing such a massive figure, it was Attenborough who pulled him back out of the dumps. "He'd say, 'Not only can you do this, you were born to do this,'" Downey Jr. said.