News Column

Morton Downey Jr.: Rise and Fall of a Trash-Talk Pioneer

June 3, 2013

Bill Ervolino

Morton Downey Jr.
Morton Downey Jr.


"Evocateur," the engaging new documentary about the onetime talk- show king Morton Downey Jr., begins with an excerpt from a "Nightline" interview Ted Koppel did with Downey in the late 1980s.

"Just one last question," Koppel says to the then-highly controversial Downey. "How much further can it go?"

The clip ends, ominously, before Downey's reply. But, no matter. Almost anyone who lived through that era knows how drastically the medium changed after Downey's meteoric rise and fall; a two-year run that altered the tenor of TV talk forever and, in the process, gave Americans a skewed view of North Jersey (the show which aired locally on Channel 9, was taped at 9 Broadcast Plaza in Secaucus) that persists to this day.

For those who weren't along for the ride, the documentary -- which opens on Friday with a simultaneous release on iTunes and On Demand -- provides some knowing tour guides. Among them is the former daytime star Sally Jessy Raphael, who describes the Downey show as both a descendent of the 1960's "Joe Pyne Show" and a forerunner of "today's reality television. That prurient excitement of not-nice people saying not-nice things."

The film's other talking heads will be familiar to fans of radio and television chat. Among them: Richard Bey, Curtis Sliwa, Gloria Allred, Joey Reynolds, Pat Buchanan and Alan Dershowitz.

A bully's pulpit

The comedian Chris Elliott, who once did a comic Downey impression - warts and all - on David Letterman's NBC talk show, admits being mesmerized by Downey's onscreen antics; while Dershowitz struggles to explain why he agreed to appear on the show at all.

Talk show veteran Bill Boggs, who served as Downey's executive producer after Downey made the leap from local to national success, also appears in the documentary.

"I lived through it," Boggs told The Record in a recent interview, "and I think the filmmakers told the story well ... except for a couple of things. Some people say Mort was the antecedent to 'The Jerry Springer Show.' That's true and not true. The Springer show is a normal host with crazy guests. The Downey show was, for the most part, normal guests with a crazy host."

Boggs also agreed with the assessment of Buchanan, the Fox News pundit, who says in the film that Downey hooked into an audience that eventually moved on to Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, and Glenn Beck - a hard-working, right-leaning group of blue-collar Americans who always seem to feel (no matter how many Hannitys, O'Reillys and Becks come along) that there is no one speaking for them.

"The thing about Mort," Boggs added, "is that he was a highly charismatic performer who came along at just the right time. He didn't just give opinion, he gave emotional opinion. He would take a viewpoint - and, like a debate champion, he could have taken either side - on issues like feminism, abortion, the military and so on and run with it. We'd bring up an issue, ask what his view was, and then structure the show that way. I don't think Mort ever argued a point that he didn't believe in, although he was capable of doing it."

Many of the show's early guests -- folks like Dershowitz, future presidential candidate Ron Paul and the Rev. Al Sharpton -- were pros who could defend themselves in debates with Downey. Others weren't as resourceful. Downey would corner and humiliate them. And his audience did the rest.

The show, which began in 1987, was taped in Secaucus before a crowd composed, primarily, of North Jersey residents who lionized the host and had no problem bellowing obscenities at his guests.

Downey referred to his studio audience as "The Beast," while former New York City Mayor Ed Koch (seen in another clip in the movie) likened the highly interactive crowd to "a lynch mob."

("The Morton Downey, Jr. Show" was reportedly the first talk show that made its audience members walk through metal detectors. In the documentary, a producer recalls that the confiscated items at one taping included "six knives and some brass knuckles. Who brings these things to a talk show?")

As for Downey's personal life, the film uses extensive footage, photographs, even Downey's own poetry, to paint a portrait of an unhappy child who grew up to be a manic, self-destructive adult. Downey's father, a highly successful vocalist, apparently ignored his son and drove his alcoholic wife, the actress Barbara Bennett, to despair.

Downey's eventual television stardom soothed some of the hurt, according to those close to him. But it also drove him over the edge. At the height of his success, Downey left his wife and their home in Englewood for another woman he tried desperately to impress with gifts, a lavish condo he couldn't afford and, ultimately, the wacky publicity stunt that pretty much ended his show. (After his girlfriend broke up with him, Downey tried to get her back by telling police he was beaten up by skinheads in an airport men's room. She apparently believed him. The rest of the country didn't.)

'Went to his head'

As Downey unraveled, so did his show, which became increasingly ridiculous, scaring off serious guests and advertisers in the process.

In 1989, WWOR pulled the plug on "The Morton Downey Jr. Show," and Downey worked sporadically thereafter, coming back into the national spotlight in 1996 after being diagnosed with lung cancer, the disease the eventually took his life in 2001.

"The fame went to his head," Boggs said. "That and some of the personal things ... always looking for his father's approval. It was sad. I once asked if he thought all the problems in his life were because he thought his father didn't love him. He'd had a few drinks, and he threw his arms around me sobbing and said, 'You're the only one who understands me.' He was definitely misunderstood. A friend ... a one of a kind person, and I loved him."

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