Robert Downey Jr. Modeled His Portrayal of Tony Stark After Elon Musk, One of the Founders of Zip2, Paypal, Tesla Motors, Solar City, and SpaceX

Today I found out Robert Downey Jr. modeled his portrayal of Tony Stark after Elon Musk, one of the founds of Zip2, Paypal, Tesla Motors, Solar City, and SpaceX.

During the planning stages of Iron Man, after Downey Jr. had been cast, director Jon Favreau and Downey Jr. sat down to discuss how to make a really believable Tony Stark character that the audience could connect with.  Downey Jr. suggested that the best way to do that was to go and sit down with Elon Musk, a sort of real life Tony Stark, and observe his various mannerisms, as well as pick his brain on the subject.

After meeting Musk, Favreau was very impressed and Downey Jr. and he decided to go ahead and base parts of the Tony Stark character on Musk.  As Favreau stated: “Elon Musk makes no sense — and that’s the reason I know him. When I was trying to bring the character of genius billionaire Tony Stark to the big screen in Iron Man, I had no idea how to make him seem real. Robert Downey Jr. said, ‘We need to sit down with Elon Musk.’ … Downey was right. Elon is a paragon of enthusiasm, good humor and curiosity — a Renaissance man in an era that needs them.”  The resulting Tony Stark character was then just more or less a more flamboyant version of Elon Musk, with some of the extra flamboyance being inspired by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison.

Musk began his very impressive entrepreneurial career in South Africa.  At the age of 10, he saved up and bought his own computer.  He then taught himself how to program and, at the age of 12, created a computer game called “Blaster” that he managed to sell for $500 to a computer magazine.  His next venture was to use those funds to start an arcade.  However, he was unable to get a permit, due to his age, and so started a home-made chocolate selling business instead, which he ran for a time, selling to classmates.  By the time he graduated, with these ventures and proper investment in the stock market, this resulted in his net worth already being in the several thousand dollar range.

His next venture earned slightly more by the time he sold it.  After earning a bachelor’s degree in Physics and a bachelor’s degree in Economics, he then decided to pursue a PhD in physics and materials science.  However, he became intrigued with the potential of the Internet and decided a window was open to do some incredible things with the internet and so dropped out of the PhD program after only 2 days and started Zip2 instead.  Zip2 was more or less an online content publishing portal and directory, though Musk originally had much bigger plans for it, more along the lines of something like Yahoo, but was ultimately blocked from implementing those plans by other shareholders.  Even so, four years after it was founded, Zip2 sold for $341 million to Compaq’s AltaVista.  Musk was entitled to around $22 million of that $341 million.

Rather than sit around and swim in his new-found vault of money, Musk instead immediately got involved in co-founding a company called, which would later become Paypal when it merged with Confinity.  Three years later, Paypal was acquired by eBay for a cool $1.5 billion with Musk this time being entitled to around $176 million as Paypal’s largest shareholder.

Once again Musk didn’t take a break and this time founded Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), which recently became the first non-government entity to successfully use a liquid fueled rocket to put a satellite in orbit.   Not only were they able to do this, but they also were able to do it at a drastically reduced cost per launch by designing a new type of rocket more or less from scratch.  They also recently were granted a $1.6-$3.1 billion contract from NASA for 12 flights to the International Space Station.

If being the CEO and CTO of SpaceX wasn’t enough, Musk decided to lend his Midas touch to the world of electric cars and got involved with co-founding Tesla motors as the chairman of the board and head of product design.  Today he’s also the CEO.

During this time period, he also helped found Solar City, which is now the largest solar system provider in the United States.  They help design systems for businesses and home use, as well as provide financing and installation services.  They also are involved in creating charging stations in the U.S. for electric vehicles.

So after 38 years on this planet, Musk managed to design and sell a video game; earn two bachelor degrees; help design and sell one the web’s first major online content publishing platforms; helped design and implement Paypal, the world’s largest internet payment platform; helped found what is now the U.S.’s largest solar system provider; helped design a new kind of rocket from the ground up that managed to cut the cost of launching cargo into space by a huge margin, was the first such commercial liquid fueled rocket to put a satellite in orbit, and will now be used by NASA for their missions; and helped design and build the first commercially viable electric car to come out in the last century.  More remarkable than that is he did the latter five things on that list in a span of only around 14 years.  Not a bad base-model for the character of Tony Stark.

Musk actually appears in the movie Iron Man 2 with a brief cameo where he tries to pitch Tony Stark on making an electric jet plane.  This cameo happens during the restaurant scene shortly before Stark goes out and becomes the driver of the Formula 1 car.  In addition to that, the SpaceX headquarters in Los Angeles were used in the factory scenes with Ivan Vanko.

Bonus Facts:

  • Zip2  got its start when Musk managed to convince Navteq that they should let him put their maps online.  After that, he wrote some software using a directory system he had purchased that linked the locations on the maps to the directory.  Essentially, it was now a basic version of the Yellow Pages, but online.  The original website was hosted on a dial-up internet connection in a small, low-quality office that he and his business partners worked and lived in.  The site would run in the day time and be switched off at night so he could work on it.  They eventually received $41 million in funding with the concession that Musk would no longer be the CEO and rather, Richard Sorkin, a Stanford M.B.A. with a good deal of experience, would assume the position.  Rather than make an online directory more akin to Yahoo, Sorkin guided the company into becoming more or less just an online tool of newspapers and other media outlets.  This ultimately resulted in him being removed after Musk led a share-holder revolt.  Sorkin’s replacement then brokered the deal with Compaq shortly thereafter, rather than take the company in a different direction than Sorkin had.
  • Elon Musk was named one of “The World’s Most Influential People” in 2010 by Time.
  • Both electric cars and commercial rockets were industries that were largely thought of as crazy places to invest a large amount of money at the time Musk did so.  In fact, Musk invested so much of his fortune, that at one point he only had a couple million dollars left as a safety net for himself in the bank, with nearly all his money in SpaceX and Tesla, two high risk endeavors.  Tesla particularly had basically failed and could not get external funding in 2007, so Musk had to either commit the rest of his fortune or let the company end. Reducing his funds down to a couple million backfired on Musk when he and his wife got divorced and he, by California state law, was obligated to pay her legal bills, which ran into the hundreds of thousands of dollars per month and lasted over 24 months.  As a result of this, he ended up having to borrow money from various wealthy friends to get him through until he could free up some money elsewhere, such as by selling his McLaren F1 sports car, which is currently the fastest production car in the world, for $1.5 million.
  • During this time, Musk’s monthly bills came to just under $200,000 on average, something he was ripped through the media for, with the media portraying him as a billionaire gone broke, yet still was spending hundreds of thousands of dollars per month on personal expenses.  In fact, his expenses were around $170,000+ going to legal bills, including paying his ex-wife’s legal fees, $20,000+ to his ex-wife to support her and his kids (the extreme amount being a legal requirement), and the remaining few thousand primarily going to paying for the house which he now had given to his ex-wife.
  • Musk’s primary motivation in helping co-found Tesla and founding SpaceX was not money, which is why he was happy to take on the incredible risk to his personal fortune.  Musk considers space exploration to be essential in the survival of the human race.  As such, his original plan in 2001 was simply to use his personal fortune to try to inspire mankind towards this end.  His idea then was to create a Mars Oasis project with the goal being to land and implement various robotically run greenhouses on Mars.  His first step for this would be to launch a Mars rover to try to peak public interest. None of this would likely be profitable, but he hoped it would inspire humanity to try to take the next step.  However, he quickly came to realize that the cost of simply getting a small payload into space was prohibitively expensive, even for him, and so new technologies needed to be developed so that the cost could be reduced to a more workable sum.  He then switched gears and created SpaceX, whose first goal was to create a rocket that would be able to put a reasonable sized payload into space for around 1/10th the typical price, which they have made huge strides towards.  Once that goal is reached, the ultimate goal is to reduce the cost by a factor of 100.  Later, they hope to be able to return to the original Mars Oasis idea and eventually to help humanity colonize Mars and beyond.  As Musk stated: “I’ve always thought that space is important to the future of humanity. I think it’s important that we one day become a space-faring nation, and I just didn’t see that happening by itself. I just didn’t see that from Boeing or Lockheed or big aerospace companies,” Musk said. “So that’s really why I started SpaceX — to really lower the cost of access to space, initially for satellites but eventually for human space travel. And the goal is to one day — although it will take a lot of time and effort — to make space accessible to your average citizen.”
  • He got into the electric car business, despite the incredibly high risk factor, for the same type of reasoning, wanting to help mankind, this time through helping the environment.  He also helped found Solar City, with similar motives.  Although, at least Solar City was and is a reasonably financially sound investment, unlike Tesla and SpaceX which were extremely high risk. Both Tesla and SpaceX have since worked out quite well for him and now seemingly have a very good chance of being huge successes, though Tesla’s future will probably largely depend on the debut of their new Model S and a few other such offerings coming out within the next few years.
  • Another key for Tesla motors will be battery technology.  The current offerings in the Roadster and soon to be released Model S have a respectable range of 200-300 miles on a charge, and charge fairly quickly, but are not as convenient as gas powered cars on long trips.  The cost of the car itself is highly tied into the battery cells it uses, so coming up with newer, cheaper batteries with longer life is essential.  One new technology that’s still in development though and is touted by Musk is something called “lithium-air” which has around 10 times the energy capacity per unit area over the current battery packs used by Tesla.  If these eventually make it to market, that would mean Tesla’s cars could go from 200-300 mile range on a charge to 2000-3000 miles per charge with the same battery area.  Or, of course, they’d more likely just use less battery cells and lower the price of the car drastically in the process.
  • The private jet featured in Thank You for Not Smoking is owned by Elon Musk.
  • Musk originally left South Africa to avoid the mandatory military service.  He explains this isn’t because he has any problem with mandatory military service, but he didn’t like what being in the military in South Africa in the late 1980s would mean for him in terms of the things he would be asked to do, particularly brutally oppressing the black majority in South Africa.  When he and his brother moved to Canada to avoid the issue, it was against their father’s wishes and the two almost never speak today because of it.
  • When Musk dropped out of graduate school at Stanford, he requested a one quarter deferral as he was sure Zip2 would probably fail fairly quickly and would just then be a good learning experience for him.
  • Before making his millions with Zip2, Musk worked such jobs as cleaning out boilers at a lumber mill; log cutting with a chainsaw; and working on a wheat farm cleaning out grain bins, shooting gophers, etc.
  • Right before starting grad school and Zip2, Musk also applied to Netscape, but was never given a call-back.
  • In order to keep himself going during long days of work juggling various projects, Musk at one point would drink eight cans of Diet Coke per day along with several cups of coffee.  Eventually, he switched it so his office now only carries caffeine free Diet Coke and cuts out most of the coffee drinking.
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  • Great article, but the McLaren F1 hasn’t been the fastest production car since 2005 when it was topped by the Koenigsegg CCR, later topped by the Bugatti Veyron, and SST Ultimate Aero. The Bugatti Veyron Super Sport topped them all in June 2010 and is now the fastest with a top speed of 267 mph.

  • “McLaren F1 sports car, which is currently the fastest production car in the world, for $1.5 million”
    That was true until the Konegsegg CCR and the Bugatti Veyron came along.

  • Tony Stark was based on Howard Hughes. Elon Musk? Why’d they have to use him? It was modeled after Howard…so use Howard at least somewhat. 50 years from now no one will care about Elon…and he will still have never have had a decent haircut or a suit.

    • You’re just an oracle… Have passed 7 years since your comment and seems that Elon Musk will have a deeper impact in the 21st Century than Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, combined.

  • Cecilio Decolongon

    Yeah. I thought all along that Stark was based on Hughes. May Musk because of the publicity it can create. If so, then, it is just marketing. I like Stark that is based on Hughes than Musk because Hughes is a lot crazier, though I like Musk also. I’m intrigued why Musk and wife got divorced. Apparently his a perfect guy, good looking, intelligent, charismatic and billionaire.

  • Daven, do more research. Elon didn’t get involved with co-founding Tesla, it was founded by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Luiz: I’m aware of that. However, 8 months after they first incorporated the company, when the company needed funding to actually produce a commercial product, Elon Musk was the biggest of the Series A investors and then the majority controlling investor, which is why he is considered a co-founder.
      You’ll also note, that on the Tesla Motors website itself it lists Elon Musk as “Co-Founder, CEO, and Product Architect”.

  • I am with Drew and Cecilio, it was Hughes. Hughes was the richest man in America in the 40s and 50s, developed aircraft technology, and dated Katherine Hepburn and Ava Gardner. If you haven’t watched the biopic “The Aviator”,

    drop what you are doing right now and do so.

  • Martin Andreas Petersen

    Very inspirational to read more about Musk. I love how he aims to ensure the survival of mankind and ends up revolutionising several industries.

    Re: Howard Hughes; yes he is the model for the comic book iron man, but clearly not the inspiration for Downey’s depiction.

    • I’m with you! As a fan of both Game of Thrones (HBO) and A Song of Ice and Fire (GRRM), there’s a BIG difference between the books (or Comic book, in this case) and the TV show (or Movies, in this case!).

      Howard Hughes may have been the inspiration for the original comic books, but the movies are NOT the comic books – they are only *based* on the comic books. And the movie Tony Stark was apparently modeled on a more modern rich guy than Hughes (ie: Elon Musk). That’s why there’s a dozen other things that are also different between the comics and the movies. It also makes sense that a modern-day movie would look to a modern-day billionaire as a model for how modern-day rich guys act. Howard Hughes was strange enough in his own time, but to model a 2000’s Tony Stark on a 1930’s rich guy would still leave a bunch of gaps that need to be modeled by someone more modern anyway!

  • Pfft. Elon Musk. Does Elon musk hold the record for the fastest aircraft built by a person, not a corperation. Because Howard Hughes does. This is the very embodiment of the Iron Man suit. Lets see Elon tackle a title like that. In the year 2000 40% of satellites were put in orbit by Hughes Aircraft. In fact DirecTv was started by Hughes Aircraft. Hughes aircraft developed the 1st guided air to air missile as well as numerous advancements for computer aided flight. He was even the brain behind the modern hospital bed, which he had a hand in later in life due to being hospitalized so much.

    Its like the man never stopped thinking and creating trying to make things better.