Years before reality TV and today's conservative political pundits, we had Morton Downey, Jr., whose The Morton Downey, Jr. Show in the late '80s was Jerry Springer, Geraldo, The O'Reilly Factor and Jersey Shore all wrapped up into one, giant hoagie.
On May 21, Cinefamily screens a montage of the show's clips, as well as the L.A. premiere of Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, a documentary by Jeremy Newberger, Daniel A. Miller and Seth Kramer that looks at the late talk show host's rise and fall, and how he gave folks like Gloria Allred, Ron Paul, Alan Dershowitz and Al Sharpton (and his feathered hair) their first national forum.
From 1987 to 1989, Downey, Jr.'s show was a mix of politics, social commentary and trash TV. A self-anointed every-man's mouthpiece and four-pack-a-day smoker, Downey, Jr. lacked the diplomacy of Donahue and Oprah, turning episodes on everything from race relations to drug legalization to strippers into obscenity-filled shouting matches in front of an audience of equally hostile “loudmouths,” his big catchphrase being, “Zip It!” He turned “unleashed rage into unlimited ratings,” then-CBS reporter Meredith Vieira says in an old news clip. Death penalty opponents, neo-Nazis, televangelists, pro-wrestlers, vegans — everyone wound up in the hot seat.
“What appealed to me was all the screaming and yelling about current events,” says Newberger, who'll be hosting a post-screening discussion at Cinefamily. “It was the opposite of your social studies class. There was no civil discussion. It was an open debate about issues that you had heard of, but you hadn't seen argued in this veracity and in this passion. He was a very charismatic, angry guy. He wasn't afraid to have these kinds of confrontations in front of an audience of rogues.”
Newberger and his co-directors, all fans of the show as teens, sat through some 400 hours of footage, which is owned by show creator Bob Pittman (also co-founder of MTV, now CEO of Clear Channel). The documentary includes interviews with Downey, Jr.'s daughter, Kelli, the show's staff, former guests and fellow talk show hosts Richard Bey and Sally Jessy Raphael, nearly all of whom argue that Downey, Jr.'s ambition was rooted in daddy issues.
Morton Downey, Sr. was a popular radio and TV crooner dating back to the '30s. In an attempt to achieve similar success, Downey, Jr. tried his hand at a recording career starting in the '50s. In fact, before becoming a right-wing convert, he was a liberal and friend of the Kennedys whose family lived next door to the Kennedy compound in Massachusetts. He even published a book of poetry.
Downey, Jr. hosted a string of radio gigs across the country in the '80s, during which he was fired for using a racial slur. Thanks to Pittman, in 1987, he landed his own talk show, which was taped in New Jersey. The following year, it went national.
“It seemed like he was always vying for his father's love,” Newberger says. “Luckily, by age 55, he stumbled into this persona and started to get the same kind of audience that his father had, which seemed to be a big 'F U' to the old man.”
One topic the talk show host would visit ad nauseam was the Tawana Brawley case. In 1987, the New York teen accused a group of white men, including New York prosecutor Steven Pagones, of rape. A grand jury found the story to be a hoax. Pagones, who's included in the documentary, sued Brawley and Sharpton, her biggest supporter (and frequent show guest), for defamation. To date, neither Brawley nor Sharpton have made apologies on the matter. Not surprisingly, both declined to be interviewed for the movie.
“We [the directors] were joking around that we might be the one media opportunity that Al Sharpton has turned down in his entire illustrious career,” Newberger says.
In an strange twist mirroring Brawley's story, Downey, Jr. was accused of staging his own publicity stunt when, in 1989, he claimed he was attacked by skinheads in a San Francisco airport. After low ratings, reduced advertisers and one too many bizarre guests (remember the double amputee who played the keyboards with her tongue?), the show was cancelled.
“If he had not gone off the deep end,” Newberger says, “it might've stood a chance. The problem was, he couldn't maintain that level of intensity. As a result, it led to his downfall. He pushed it too far. “
After a few failed comebacks in radio and TV, Downey, Jr. was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1996 and had one of his lungs removed. Ever the showman, he even appeared on Larry King Live the day before his surgery. He died in L.A. in 2001.
One wonders what Downey, Jr. would've made of something like 9/11 if his show had existed some two decades later.
“He probably would've made quite a stew with that story,” Newberger says. “But it's hard to know. He kind've starts and dies with the late '80s.”