Near the conclusion of the entertaining, provocative new documentary, “Évocateur The Morton Downey Jr. Movie,” Bryant Gumbel, shown in an archival clip from the 80s, wonders if Downey’s wild TV show is a one-off or the tip of a wave. Gumbel was on to something but underestimated–the Downey Show proved to be more like the eerily exposed ocean floor before the overwhelming tsunami. Although Joe Pyne hosted an often confrontational broadcast in the 60s, it was Mort whose “talk show with a hockey audience” opened jagged airwaves for Beck, Hannity, O’Reilly, Springer, Limbaugh, et al.
Filmmakers Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger (partners in Ironbound Films) were teens stuck in the suburbs when Downey premiered in October 1987 and the show, “confrontational, uncensored, and hilarious,” was a perfect fit. They became instant fans.
Downey, abrasive, abusive, without any filters (but not without calculation), “understood performance” and played the angry populist on TV, says MTV-originator, and executive with this show, Bob Pittman. In a clip from Nightline, Downey tells Ted Koppel that his show “is a platform for the American who has been unheard by his government.” Downey was prescient, realizing that unleashed rage=unlimited ratings.
Believed to be a blue-collar hero, even in his ubiquitous preppy Oxford cloth shirts, chinos, tassel loafers and navy blue blazer, Downey fascinated his audience with his blindingly white set of choppers (inspiration for his mouth that roared logo), endless cigarettes (what dates the show most is watching Mort smoke–non-stop–on his set) and they ferociously cheered on his antics. Highlights (so to speak) of the show in the documentary: Mort threatening to puke on Ron Paul and letting Al Sharpton (years before he evolved into a respected politician and MSNBC host) get knocked around on the set in a (Tawana) brawl(ey) during a commercial break. And Downey’s off-set adventures, pre- and during his show years, are skillfully integrated into the documentary by the filmmakers using original, inventive animation.
Downey’s over-the-top persona bled into his life and after faking a knife attack on himself, claiming he’d been slashed by skinheads, his show was canceled, in July 1989. He died of lung cancer in 2001.
At the height of Mort mania, USA Weekend assigned me to shoot a cover story. I made a trip to the Downey Show set and offices at WWOR in Secaucus (*the last two words in the headline rhyme in that city). Two weeks later we spent several hours shooting in my studio using red seamless, gelled redder. Downey was instant-on, immediately in character, fulfilling my photo editor’s wishes. And then we took non-loudmouth portraits on white.
Shooting on his set was crazy–as producer Bill Boggs describes the show in the film, it was “a passion play on TV, even if it was fake”–but it was also really fun. And unlike on most other sets, no awkward blimp (a sound-proofing box that the camera goes into) required. No one would notice the noise of the shutter in the roar of Downey, his guests and the audience.
Downey was, as it’s said in the documentary, “a nice guy who pretended to be a right-wing maniac.” Morton Downey Jr.’s politics were likely significantly to the left of those of “Morton Downey Jr.” While he was growing up, his famous Irish tenor and movie star father (for whom he was named and with whom he had a slow-burn rivalry, like another father and son with a shared name and a retreat in a coastal town in New England, Bush 41 and Bush 43) had a house in Hyannis near the Kennedys and the families were long-time friends and Mort continued to be in contact with Teddy in adulthood.
“Évocateur The Morton Downey Jr. Movie,” will open Friday, June 7 in New York at Quad Cinemas 4, in Queens, Long Island, New Jersey and Los Angeles, and expand nationally in June and July.