I have to admit that ever since news of his death from lung cancer in 2001, I hadn’t given much thought to Morton Downey, Jr. Not to seem unkind, but truthfully, there wasn’t much to think about. Downey’s legacy in television history is so forgettable that the subsequent generation has no idea who he was. If you’ve ever seen “The Morton Downey, Jr. Show” you probably have an idea why.
For 20 months from 1987 to 1989, Downey ran a self-titled TV talk show that was part-riot, part-circus, a little bit Jerry Springer, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and a dash of Michael Moore. What would come of his show would be an example, not for others to follow, but for others to correct upon. Downey’s show was a loud, obnoxious and fairly monotonous platform of screaming and bullying, the format of which (he said) was to give a voice to the silent majority. Actually, it was a textbook case of ratings at any cost – Downey wasn’t shy about this. It was a platform for cheer-leading sensationalistic bad behavior. His audience, comprised mostly of young college kids, behaved as if they were attending a hockey game. Downey screamed in the faces of every kind of guest from vegans to the gun nuts to the KKK and even celebrity guests like Ron Paul and Alan Dershowitz. Famously, he clashed with Al Sharpton over the Tawana Brawley incident, in which the young woman falsely claimed that she was raped left for dead by six white men and then covered in hate slogans and feces. The story would be exposed as a fraud, and it would be the first of several incidents that would bring the show to a sudden stop.
The new documentary “Évocateur: The Morton Downey, Jr. Movie” examines Downey’s brief rise and quick demise from television. This is a professionally-made, talking-head documentary that features interviews with former colleagues, family and friends who try to help us get inside Downey’s head to figure out what drew him to become the screaming meemie of late-night television and what personal demons drew him to television and what led to his eventual downfall.
We learn that he was a bitter man, the son of a celebrated Irish Tenor (whom his son loathed) who was a friend and neighbor of the Kennedys. The junior Downey grew up in the shadow of his old man, even attempting to launch a singing career of his own. His singing voice was competent but unremarkable. His looks weren’t exactly top drawer either. He bore a strange resemblance to Don Knotts. Despite his familial legacy, Downey would become a walking irony. He would make his living destroying his voice, by screaming on television and chain-smoking four packs a day.
Downey would prop himself up as the voice of the angry right-wing Republican, sort of an Archie Bunker with a lectern – even down to the smoking habit and the white collared shirts. His show wasn’t exactly insightful. Fellow talk show host Sally Jesse Raphael remarks that his show was “that prurient excitement of not-nice people saying not-nice things.” His show would turn talk shows on their heads. The common thread of talk shows in the mid-80s was the polite, conversational style of Phil Donahue, Merv Griffin and a newly minted Chicago-based neophyte named Oprah Winfrey.
The difference between Downey and his contemporaries (even Springer) is that they stayed off-stage, letting the audience run the circus. The mistake was that Downey tried to play the role of ringmaster, lion-tamer and lion, and so the show had nowhere to go. His singular quest was ratings and he got them, until the television audience grew tired of the act. The movie doesn’t shy away from the facts of why the show – and Downey’s career – came to an bitter end.
The movie finds some measure of pity for Downey, but it never backs down from the fact that he was the propagator of his own downfall, particularly with the Tawana Brawly incident. After the demise of his show, Downey would try to make headlines
by falsely claiming to have been beaten up by skinheads in an airport men’s room. After that, nothing he could do would peak anyone’s interest, not even an attempt to become the damaged voice of anti-smoking when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. When he died in 2001, the public reaction was barely a whimper. The result of this documentary is the pitiful, but not unmoving, story of a man who built his house on sand and got caught in his own trap.