The Surprising Reason Robert Downey Jr.'s 2024 Oscars Win Made History

Robert Downey Jr. has been making movies since he was a child, but he finally made history at age 58 when he won his first Oscar for best-supporting actor in the acclaimed film, "Oppenheimer" at the 96th annual Academy Awards in 2024. Though the veteran actor has graced the big screen since the 1980s, his first part came in one of his father's films in 1970 when Downey was 5 years old, per Biography. Over the decades, he has evolved into one of Hollywood's most versatile and talented actors, collecting accolades for his various performances. Yet, despite two previous Academy Award nominations, Downey had yet to take home the golden statuette. 

Downey finally earned Hollywood's top honor playing Admiral Lewis Strauss, who served as an original commissioner of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1946 under President Harry S. Truman, and then in 1953 under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Strauss served as an Atomic Energy Advisor. Strauss was integral in lobbying for the development of the hydrogen bomb, whereas J. Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called father of the atomic bomb, was against further expansion of such a dangerous weapon. The struggle between the men led, in a way, to each's eventual downfall. Downey spoke to Vulture about the dynamic, saying, "I mean, look, the arc is Oppenheimer's. I was really pleased because in being Salieri to his Mozart ... I think that as much as I admire Strauss for everything he did right, I think like many of us he's also a cautionary tale."

As for the history-making aspect of Downey's accomplishment, he is, incredibly, the first Saturday Night Live alumnus to snatch an Oscar win. 

RDJ's historic win — for a Saturday Night Live Alumnus

Saturday Night Live has been on the air for decades and has done a lot more than simply entertain the nation once a week — it also has pumped out dozens and dozens of quality actors who took their careers to new heights and became household names. Up until now, though, no former SNL cast member has managed to win an Oscar. 

Robert Downey Jr.'s turn on SNL was in the mid-'80s during the show's 11th season — if his time on the show doesn't ring a bell, it's possible you forgot because, as the man himself said, it was "... arguably the worst season in its history" (via YouTube). His friendship with Anthony Michael Hall led him to the sketch show in the first place, and while his time on the screen was relatively short-lived, it likely served as a springboard to getting more roles as he matured and led to his eventual superstardom.

Though Downey was the first to win an Academy Award, he was not the first SNL alumnus to garner the honor of nomination. Other alumni who have received at least one nomination include Joan Cusack, Randy Quaid, George Coe, Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Michael McKean, and Kristen Wiig.

Robert Downey Jr.'s winding road to an Oscar

Though this was Robert Downey Jr.'s first Oscar win, it was his second nomination for playing a real person. In 1993 he was nominated for best actor in a leading role for playing silent film star Charlie Chaplin in the 1992 release, "Chaplin." Then in 2008 he was nominated for a best actor in a supporting role for playing something quite the opposite of a real historical person when he was given the nod for his satirical portrayal of a white Australian method actor named Kirk Lazarus, who was completely invested in playing a Black character called Lincoln Osiris in "Tropic Thunder" — a somewhat controversial role that Downey managed to turn into not only a best supporting actor nomination from the Acadamy Awards, but also from Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Golden Globes. 

Yet for about 15 years, Downey's roles were limited due to his notorious substance abuse issues, which according to IndieWire, made him too expensive to insure for some productions. Downey said in a Netflix documentary that addiction took hold around the time he filmed "Less Than Zero" in 1987, in which he plays an addict, and he continued to struggle with substance abuse until he finally got clean around 2003 (via People). After that, Downey's career reached new heights in success at the box office with his role as Tony Stark in the Marvel movie Franchise, and now, his first Acadamy Award. 

Robert Downey Jr.'s acceptance speech was full of gratitude

In his Oscar win speech, Robert Downey Jr. thanked the many people he credited with helping him get to the moment, including his "terrible childhood and the Academy, in that order." He thanked his wife, Susan Downey, saying, "She found me, a snarling rescue pet, and loved me back to life. That's why I am here. Thank you." He also said of the role, "I needed this job more than it needed me," and credited director Chris Nolan for realizing that and giving him the opportunity. Downey told the audience full of Hollywood Industry moguls and icons, "What we do is meaningful and the stuff that we decide to make is important."

And he didn't forget to shout out his entertainment lawyer, Tom Hansen, whom Downey said had been with him for 40 years, "half of which he spent trying to get me insured and bailing me out of the hoosgow. Thanks bro!" He signed off by acknowledging his three children, saying "This one's for you!"