Actor Robert Downey Jr.'s latest arrest for drugs not only scuttled the acting comeback he'd made on TV's Ally McBeal but also nipped a fledgling music career in the bud. Downey was a featured performer on For Once in My Life, the fourth album stemming from the hit series; the 14-song set features one of his original compositions, "Snakes," as well as a duet with Sting on The Police's "Every Breath You Take" and with album executive producer and fellow Ally McBeal regular Vonda Shepard on Bob Seger's "Chances Are."
"When it all happened, when I got the call, I was supposed to do an in-store [appearance] with [Downey] here in Los Angeles," says Shepard, who also performs eight of the new album's songs, including her own "You and Me."
"I had to keep my composure, because I found myself on TV talking about a person I came to be very close with, explaining what happened and why. A few days later it hit me that Robert was in jail, in rehab, he's off the show, he's, like, falling apart. I burst out crying one night, alone, in my house; I hadn't realized how much emotion I had been suppressing. It's really heartbreaking."
Shepard says Downey was "a total trouper" during the recording sessions. "He showed up on time and did well," she says, even contributing his own piano part to "Snakes" when he wasn't happy with what the keyboard player had come up with during the session. "Most people that encounter him just fall in love with him. He's an incredible man."
Downey and Shepard are pictured together on the cover of the disc, which entered the Billboard Top 200 albums chart at No. 34 last week.
The singer says she and Downey have exchanged messages since his arrest but haven't spoken yet. Meanwhile, she's busy wrapping up Ally McBeal's season and planning for a summer tour of Europe while the show is on break.
She says it's still a bit odd having a dual identity as herself and as the anonymous covers singer on the show but reports that both she and the audiences have adjusted to the duality over the years.
"I've been given this tremendous gift, and I've learned how to deal with it," says Shepard, who's also writing songs for her next album of original material. "But at the same time, when I look at other people's careers, the people I feel are my peers — like Sarah McLachlan or Sheryl Crow — I know they don't have the same kind of arrogance thrust upon them that people do to me … wanting to hear the [cover] songs I do on the show. I've embraced that a little more, but I still look forward to those times when they request my originals."