HOLLYWOOD, CA–Robert Downey Jr., the emotionally unstable "bad boy" actor who was freed from prison Aug. 2 after serving one year on cocaine and gun-possession charges, has been placed under 24-hour media surveillance, sources reported Monday.

Downey under close <i>Access Hollywood</i> observation at a recent movie premiere.

"This is a critical juncture for this prodigiously gifted but deeply troubled young man. A lifelong drug abuser, Mr. Downey is at great risk of suffering a relapse and, as such, needs around-the-clock supervision," Entertainment Tonight executive producer Andrea Appel said. "That's why it's vital that we keep our cameras trained on him at all times."

Downey, whom doctors have described as "a human powderkeg" in the wake of several nervous breakdowns and his recent jail term, may snap at any time. As a result, he is in need of constant trailing by hordes of reporters, photographers, and TV cameramen.

"Robert Downey Jr. is extremely vulnerable and needs us right now," Access Hollywood associate producer Russell Courtnall said. "If he goes on a 72-hour coke binge, or if he goes a week without sleeping because he's mainlining monkey tranquilizers, or if he's spotted drunkenly soliciting transvestite hookers on Sunset Boulevard after wrecking his car, it will be a terrible tragedy, yes. But if it does happen, he can at least take comfort in the knowledge that his suffering and embarrassment will be shared by millions of total strangers."

The media have rallied in support of Downey, pledging airtime, magazine and newspaper coverage, and even Internet links in their effort to keep him under constant watch. Entertainment Tonight dug deep into its file-footage archives to air several profiles on Downey. USA Today has run six stories about the volatile actor in the past three weeks. And, in perhaps the most impressive gesture of support yet, Fox has offered Downey a recurring role on Ally McBeal, stepping in with budgetary allocations and casting resources to make sure he can be monitored by at least 15 million Americans a week.

"If we could, we'd put him on the air every night," Ally McBeal creator David E. Kelley said. "Unfortunately, we are only one weekly television show."

Concerned photographers surround Downey during a recent trip to a Santa Monica bookstore.

Longtime Downey collaborator James Toback, director of such Downey vehicles as The Pick-Up Artist, Two Girls And A Guy, and Black And White, cautioned that Downey's fragile psyche "could crumble at any moment."

"Robert is one of the sweetest, kindest, gentlest souls I have ever encountered. He can also go through an entire kilo of top-shelf China White faster than you can say 'Jack Robinson,'" said Toback, himself no stranger to the ravages of bacchanalian excess and drug abuse. "I fear that it's only a matter of time before he ends up, at 4 a.m. some Wednesday night, crawling out of a seedy Van Nuys strip club with his pants half off, attempting to convince random passersby to give him a ride to Seattle while teams of LAPD cops try unsuccessfully to restrain his PCP-saturated body."

"When that terrible tragedy does occur," Toback continued, "I only pray that my cameras–or somebody, anybody–will be there to capture it all on film."

Only time will tell whether Downey's recovery is permanent or merely a brief pause before his next plunge into an orgy of headline-grabbing decadence and self-destruction. But one thing is certain: From the National Enquirer reporters who have selflessly penned shocking cover stories to keep public awareness of his plight alive to the late-night TV hosts who have devoted significant portions their monologues to his ongoing battle with his demons, Downey is not alone.

"The outpouring of attention by the media in response to one celebrity's hardships helps us all breathe a little easier," Appel said. "And helps us feel more confident that, should Downey ever return to his dark days of drugs, guns, and hedonistic mayhem, we'll all be right there with him, glued gap-mouthed and wide-eyed to our TVs to bear witness to his pain."