FORGET HIM NOT: Morton Downey Jr. played the role of the angry man on his 1980s talk show, but it was difficult to tell if the image he created was just an act or the real Mort. (Photo: CNN)
A DOCUMENTARY COMING TO CNN NEXT MONTH REVIVES MEMORIES OF A MAN WHOSE MOUTH ROARED BRIEFLY BUT LOUDLY
‘He was the most vexing TV personality I ever knew’ – book excerpt, below, from JERK: How I Wasted My Life Watching Television by Adam Buckman
By ADAM BUCKMAN
“Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie” comes to CNN Aug. 20.
NEW YORK, July 30, 2015 — A documentary called “Evocateur” evokes memories of a brief time — a little less than two years in the 1980s, as a matter of fact — in which one man turned the TV business on its head and, as it turned out, a portion of the popular culture too.
He was Morton Downey Jr., who is the subject of the documentary subtitled “The Morton Downey Jr. Movie.” It was completed in 2012 and makes its TV debut on CNN on Thursday, Aug. 20, at 9 p.m. Eastern. The film was produced and directed by Seth Kramer, Danny Miller and Jeremy Newberger of Ironbound Films.
The documentary tells the story of Downey’s meteoric rise and fall, framing his emergence as a lightning rod for controversy within the context of his times. As the documentary notes, the combative, confrontational style he pioneered on his locally produced TV talk show has become de rigueur on TV today. But back then, Downey was ahead of his time.
As a journalist on the TV beat both at the beginning of Downey’s TV career in 1987 and at the end of his life in 2001, I have my own stories to tell about a man who was unlike anyone else I ever encountered in the TV business. Here is the story of Morton Downey Jr. and me, excerpted from my book, “JERK: How I Wasted My Life Watching Television”:
Chapter Five: CAVALCADE OF STARS
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Books, TV shows, public appearances, charitable works – these were the kinds of promotable projects for which celebrities or their representatives would get in touch with journalists to arrange interviews.
Read “JERK: How I Wasted My Life Watching Television” by Adam Buckman: Order your copy today — right HERE!
One celebrity topped them all, however, when he called me up to promote something no one else ever tried to get me to publicize: His death.
He was Morton Downey Jr., perhaps the most vexing personality I ever came across in the television business. I first met him in fall 1987 or early 1988, when he was rocketing to fame as the loud-mouthed host of “The Morton Downey Jr. Show” – the most talked-about TV show of its era.
Starting locally as a nightly show in New York City in fall 1987, it went national in May 1988, but then never found the wide audience its syndicators hoped it would. Advertisers judged the show to be too vitriolic and controversial and they stayed away too. As a result, “The Morton Downey Jr. Show” declined and fell as quickly as it ascended. After just one year in national syndication, it was cancelled in early summer 1989. Though the show lasted less than two years, it turned Downey – who was 54 when the show premiered – into the most notorious TV personality in America, however briefly.
May 1988: “The Morton Downey Jr. Show” goes national.
He accomplished this by positioning himself as an attack dog for the right – verbally assaulting (and occasionally physically assaulting) his more-liberal guests. Wildly waving the cigarettes that he became famous for chain-smoking on the air, he would get close enough to his guests to blow smoke in their faces. He railed against liberals and called them “pablum-pukers” – a label that became something of a catchphrase for him. His show was incendiary and so was he. And although he foreshadowed the contentious, partisan television talk-show hosts of today, back in ’87 he was the only one.
Downey had come from radio, where partisan, opinionated talk personalities were all the rage. He migrated to television courtesy of WWOR/Ch. 9 in New York, an independent station that was desperate for ratings during prime-time hours because it was not then affiliated with any network. So the station produced the Downey show in its own studios in Secaucus, N.J., and made headlines almost from the start. In my first story on Downey in November 1987, one unnamed TV executive described the show as “a cross between Ted Koppel and professional wrestling.” The show took viewer phone calls, and members of the studio audience were invited to stand at a podium at the foot of one of the aisles and participate also – when they weren’t leaping from their seats and screaming. “The shouting contributes to the chaotic texture of the show,” I wrote. “In fact, sometimes the program seems out of control,” I continued, demonstrating a talent for understatement.
Morton Downey Jr. on the set of his talk show.
By writing about it, I had also demonstrated my fascination with the show and with Downey himself, and it wasn’t long before I was invited to join him for lunch at 21 on West 52nd Street. He couldn’t have been more charming, which was understandable because he was evidently intent on wooing a reporter to help support his show and promote it into national syndication. He was entertaining, ebullient company – nothing like the persona he adopted for his TV show. I formed the impression that the yelling and posturing he affected on TV was an act. Maybe he really believed the things he said on the show or maybe he didn’t, but like so many other TV and radio personalities who feign anger and spew vitriol on TV and radio, he was not that same opinionated, high-decibel guy in person. Whatever or whoever Morton Downey Jr. really was, that lunch was the beginning of a relationship – not quite a friendship, but something – that would last until his death in 2001, the very death he called me to promote.
From our table at 21, in this former speakeasy’s intimate wood-paneled dining room, Mort pointed to a banquette nearby where he said his mother was sitting when she went into labor on the night he was born in 1932. Was the story true? With Mort, you never could tell. It was certainly possible that back on that December evening in ’32, his mother was gaily enjoying drinks, or at least supper, at 21. She was a dancer and a movie actress named Barbara Bennett, and her two sisters – Mort’s aunts – were movie stars, Constance and Joan Bennett. His father, Morton Downey, was a debonair singer and radio star of the 1930s. Morton Downey Jr.’s career would be a lot less glamorous, but a lot more infamous.
And his career continued for a time after the cancellation of that first notorious talk show. It was near the end of that show’s run in 1989 that Mort began forming the habit of calling me up. In one such call, in June 1989, he phoned to deny that his show was on the verge of being cancelled, even though reports in the TV trade press were insisting that the show would soon be gone. “My obituary has been written before,” he told me then. “I’ve had seven lives, but I still have two more.”
Days later, the announcement came: “The Morton Downey Jr. Show” was dead.
But not Mort – at least not yet.
July 31, 1989: New projects in the works
Just a few weeks later, he held a news conference to lay out his future plans, which included a sitcom pilot and a series of daily radio commentaries. And thus began a nearly 12-year run of future-project announcements from Morton Downey Jr.
Not that some of them weren’t true – at least initially. In the years following the end of “The Morton Downey Jr. Show,” Mort had two shows on CNBC, with the first one – titled “Showdown” – premiering in December 1989, just months after the syndicated show breathed its last. “TV is a crazy business,” he told me when “Showdown” premiered. “A few months ago, they said I was dead. Well, I’ve been dead more times than W.C. Fields,” he said – a Fields reference I didn’t understand at the time, and still don’t.
The CNBC shows came and went. Then came a series of local radio jobs – in Washington, Dallas and Cleveland. They were short-lived. And then it appeared that Mort himself would be short-lived too. After years of chain-smoking, he had lung cancer. He told me the news in another one of his surprise phone calls, which had continued in the years following his TV heyday. The phone would ring and there would be Mort when I least expected him, calling from California where he now lived to tell me about new plans and projects – an upcoming guest shot on a talk show, a new radio gig, a TV talk show, a new Web site. Whether his plans were real or imagined, I loved to hear him talk, though I rarely wrote the items he asked for.
Then came the call in July 1996 when Mort told me in a hoarse voice that he was about to enter a California hospital for surgery to remove part of a lung. “Say a prayer,” Mort said solemnly. “I’m scared stiff.”
July 12, 1996: “Prayers for Mort”
From the way he described his illness and this operation, I wouldn’t have been too surprised to learn over the weekend that he had died on the operating table. Whatever the outcome would be, I didn’t hesitate to write a story for him. This kind of story was a tabloid staple – a story about a prominent personality on his or her deathbed, with a limited, but time-tested selection of possible headlines: “Prayers for Mort,” “Mort’s brave last days,” “Mort’s agony,” and the classic “Mort’s plea: Let me die!”
I went with “Prayers for Mort” for a five-inch story on Mort’s pre-surgery agony, and then followed up with an update the next day reporting that Mort survived the procedure and was listed in stable condition. Apparently, even while recovering in intensive-care, Mort was thinking up new publicity schemes. Just days after his surgery, he suddenly turned up on “Larry King Live” on CNN to announce that he was about to launch a new TV talk show. He also volunteered to come to the assistance of troubled actor Robert Downey Jr., who had been arrested twice in recent weeks on drug-related charges, even though Mort was not related to the actor and it was doubtful they had ever met.
Mort’s proposal to counsel this actor with a similar name was absurd. It was also irresistible, and I leapt at the opportunity to write a story about it, if only to compose a headline like the one the story wound up carrying: “Mort to troubled movie actor: ‘Let’s talk Downey to Downey!’ ”
July 19, 1996: “Let’s talk Downey to Downey!”
Morton Downey Jr. was nothing if not brash. Here he was recovering from surgery in which a third of his right lung was removed and he was attempting to reap publicity from the notoriety of an actor who he didn’t even know, simply because the two of them had the same last name. “If I can help him, I want to do that,” Mort told Larry King emphatically. “We Downeys have to stick together!”
Mort’s announcement that he was about to launch a new TV talk show was even more difficult to swallow than the idea that Robert Downey Jr. would welcome Mort’s intervention in his struggle against drug addiction. Mort said he was offered this new show the night before his surgery. “[The producers] called to say, ‘We’ve given you a two-year contract’,” Mort told King, “which said, ‘We believe you will be alive two years from now’.”
It was vintage Mort – claiming that some unnamed producers would agree to invest millions in a new talk show for a man who has lung cancer. Under the circumstances, it is doubtful such a contract ever existed, though anything is possible. As it happened, a new Morton Downey Jr. talk show never did materialize and his career as a talk show host – on TV or radio – was over.
He still surfaced on other people’s talk shows, though. In January 2000, he showed up again on “Larry King Live,” looking very ill and reporting that his weight had plummeted recently to 112 pounds, though it was then back up to 148 pounds because he was eating a quart of ice cream a day. And he continued to call me to update me on his latest health crises and hospital stays, and also to report on the usual raft of new projects in the works, the majority of which were pure blarney, though sometimes he would surprise me by actually telling me something that was true. I didn’t believe it when he claimed in a phone call some time in 2000 that Fox was developing a made-for-TV movie about his life. To my amazement, this claim turned out to be true, as I learned later when a Fox executive confirmed it for me. (Unfortunately, as happens with so many of these projects, the movie was never produced.)
But by January 2001, Mort was running out of projects to promote, and he was running out of time. He was succumbing to cancer and he had only one thing left he felt he could publicize, and that was his impending demise. He called me to mention it on Jan. 5, 2001 – a Friday.
Not surprisingly, he sounded terrible. His voice was hoarse and raspy. He’d just spent five weeks in the hospital – Cedars Sinai – and the doctors had sent him home, but not before informing him his condition was “irreversible.”
“How grateful I am for the things you did for me while we were here,” he said from his home in Northridge. “And, uh, I just [wanted to] let you know that I had one hell of a great time and I loved you for all you’ve done.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. I had never before received a phone call from a dying man. Nor did I ever think I had done so much for Morton Downey Jr. that I would be deserving of his thanks when the end was near. Well, that was at least one purpose of this phone call – to thank me and tell me he loved me.
He had at least two other things on his mind too – one was his death, of course, and the other was Robert Downey Jr. – again. It turned out the two topics were intertwined. “I gotta get Robert Downey Jr. to make a couple of comments, and that’s where you could help too,” Mort said, speaking haltingly in order to catch his breath and clear his throat.
“A couple of comments about what, particularly?” I asked skeptically.
“I’m thinking in terms of Robert should say, you know, ‘There’s one other Downey in this whole thing. His name’s Morton Downey Jr. and I’m sayin’ a prayer for him, you know, I’m sure he said them for me’.”
“It’s an interesting idea. How does he feel about you?” I asked, playing along even though I knew there would be no way in hell I could contact Robert Downey Jr. and ask him to issue some sort of statement about Morton Downey Jr.
“I think he likes me because when he was on trial, and no one would show up, I’d show up out there.”
“And yet, you’re not related,” I pointed out.
“No, no relation at all,” Mort said breezily.
“You just sort of feel a kinship in a weird way,” I said.
“People think he’s my kid,” insisted Mort, who suddenly began a bout of deep, racking coughs that sounded as if he would pass away right then and there.
“I’m a little taken aback,” I said to him. “I hope this is just good-bye … for now.”
“Yeah, I hope just for now,” Mort said, apparently shaken and weakened by this coughing fit. “And if it isn’t, my dear friend, you know that I do love you.”
He then blurted out, “In true reality, I never hated anyone!” He then began sobbing and was unable to continue talking. We both hung up and I sat there wondering if that was the last time I would ever get a call from Morton Downey Jr.
It was not.
A few minutes later, the phone rang. It was Mort again and he had apparently regained his composure. In a stronger voice than he possessed a few minutes previously, he laid out the primary reason why he called me that day. “What I’m doing now, to be honest, is just ridiculously stupid, but I gotta do it,” he said apologetically. “I’m actually promoting my death – you know, right up to the end – to make sure that everything goes well for my family. I have spent over $300,000 outside of my insurance for private nurses and everything else. … And if I could get you to lead the way for me, I know there’s people out there that, you know, who would hold a dinner or do something that would make it look like I wasn’t broke and everything else.”
As he struggled to tell me what he wanted, I gradually came to understand that Mort wanted me to somehow write a story about his circumstances that would not leave the impression he was broke (which he insisted he wasn’t), but would nevertheless motivate some well-connected reader – perhaps someone also in the entertainment field – to organize some sort of benefit event for him, presumably before he died.
“If I could get someone to say something … ,” he said, meaning a journalist such as myself who would write something about his situation, or some celebrity, such as Robert Downey Jr., for example, to “say something.”
“Not begging for money,” Mort cautioned. “I don’t wanna do that. That’s the worst thing in the world. Nobody likes a loser.”
I asked him, “Is this about keeping your name alive so that there’s potential for making money off of your name after you’re no longer here?”
“Probably that’s it,” he replied. “Probably someone who can say he knew the guy [and] the guy was not a pig.”
I assured him that I did not think he was a pig, and I was sure no one else did either. I told him I’d give the idea some thought, but I knew there was nothing I could or would do to organize some sort of dinner in his honor, much less one that was supposed to raise money for him while not letting on that he needed any. That was an impossible task.
Mort was tiring and the conversation soon ended. “I’m having a little difficult time breathing. Call me at any time,” he said, though I didn’t happen to have his phone number.
“Have a good weekend,” I said to him – my lame attempt to remain upbeat, even though he sounded so sick that I doubted he would survive until Monday.
We said good-bye, and I pondered what he’d said – all this talk about promoting his own death, holding some sort of testimonial dinner, getting Robert Downey Jr. to make some kind of public statement. When I stopped to think about it, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense, and I concluded that Mort was just disoriented from medication, constant pain, and the overwhelming fatigue that must accumulate when one wages a nearly five-year battle against lung cancer. What did he really want that day? With death staring him in the face, it dawned on me that Morton Downey Jr. just wanted to be remembered.
He didn’t die that weekend, but it was the last time I heard from him. He lasted another 10 weekends, dying on Monday, March 12. Two days later, I wrote a tribute column detailing our final phone call and attempting to fulfill what I felt was his last request to me. “I plan on remembering him,” I wrote, “and I’ll miss his phone calls.”
[Excerpted from “JERK: How I Wasted My Life Watching Television” by Adam Buckman. Copyright Adam Buckman 2014 All Rights Reserved.]
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