January 19, 2018


A few weeks ago I was in NYC for the premiere of a new movie at the Tribeca Film Festival. ‘EVOCATEUR’ is a documentary about Morton Downey Jr., the volcanic right wing talk show host from the late eighties. Last year in Miami I taped an hour and a half interview for the film. With a movie you never know how things will end up and although I took friends along I warned them that I just might pop up on screen for a brief soundbite. I’d said the same thing to friends before the premiere of ‘Bruno’ and was pleasantly surprised when I turned up in a five-minute scene. On the other hand I worked with Clint Eastwood for a week on ‘Magnum Force’ and was completely cut from the final print (yet I STILL get residuals!). Ya just never know… There were interviews and photos on the red carpet but as we entered the theater one of the producers grabbed my arm and warned: “Prepare yourself. You’re in a lot of this movie.” And surprisingly, I was. I wasn’t one of Mort’s close friends. I didn’t directly work with him. But I did have a good crow’s nest view of his rise and fall.

I knew Morton from Channel 9 where we shared a studio; I hosted PEOPLE ARE TALKING live in the mornings and at night they would push my set back, roll his in from the opposite end and tape his show. We had lunch together the first day he showed up at work and a year and a half later I was in that same cafeteria when word flew through the building he was cancelled. We did go carousing and drinking together a few times and the first time I went to ELAINE’S it was at Mort’s invitation to sit round his table. Shortly after his cancellation I was sitting next to him the night he punched Stuttering John in the face and smashed his tape recorder! (Which oddly is not in the film.) The movie is very well crafted with jaw dropping clips from the broadcast and graphic-novel style animation that pushes the story sublimely beyond reality. Some may have a problem with the use of animation in a documentary but as one who was there, albeit on the periphery, the era did seem surreal and the animation is true to that spirit if not the literal truth. The movie paints an unsympathetic picture of a very troubled man, haunted by Oedipal issues, lashing out at the world. Yet like many out of control celebrities and rock stars there was something vulnerable, wounded and child-like about him despite the bullying, despite the insensitivity to others. And of course, there was charisma, at least for awhile. There is still a theatrical excitement to watching Mort, an electric and thrilling spontaneity. I don’t think we’ll be saying the same about Limbaugh or Beck in twenty years.


The movie draws parallels to modern political media but doesn’t belabor them. On this issue I was quoted in The Daily Beast: “In our culture, we always had one guy who was an off-the-wall conservative, like Mort,” TV host and Downey pal Richard Bey told The Daily Beast. “Back then, people didn’t take them seriously—they were P.T. Barnums of conservatism. But now you have a whole party that is of that ilk. People take our modern versions of this political commentary—Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh—seriously, and even worse, politicians take them seriously.”

It was great to see Mort’s in-studio bodyguard Dave Giegold, who just a few years later held the same job on THE RICHARD BEY SHOW. He looked great and pretty much the same as he did 15 years ago pulling overheated guests apart on air. Sally Jesse Raphael was there too but avoided me like the plague.


As Mort’s career ascends the movie is exhilarating, surprising and energized. As he self-destructs its a sad story and less engaging. I never saw someone rise and crash so quickly in this business. He made Brett Butler’s TV career look like Lucille Ball’s. As I say in the movie: ‘He rose like a rocket and he fell like a stick”. From beginning to end the MORTON DOWNEY SHOW lasted a little over a year and a half.

In the end this is not the kind a car crash that fascinates oglers. Watching Morton, cancer stricken through sagging, dying flesh renounce chain smoking and anger is like watching George Wallace paralyzed in a wheel chair, grasp the hand of his black nurse and renounce racism. Both men saw the light but there’s more painful pathos than satisfaction in seeing someone find it so late, far too late.

The film ends at his funeral, where its noted considering his tremendous popularity and fan base, there is a paucity of mourners. Ironically, ‘MORT’ is the French word for death.

Spoiler alert: The truth about Morton’s alleged bathroom attack by neo-Nazi’s is conclusively revealed by his best friend and its just what you’d expect.

After the movie I spoke with this best friend for a few moments. “Off camera Mort always seemed like a nice guy to me,” I told him. “Generous, friendly, always giving gifts, picking up tabs. It just seemed to me that this whole process overwhelmed him, carried him off like a tidal wave. He couldn’t handle it. Like Lindsey Lohan. Or like a miner who strikes gold after twenty years and blows it all in a night at Miss Kitty’s Saloon & Whorehouse.”

Mort’s best friend seized my forearm and stared at me intently: “You’re wrong, Richard. He was not a nice man. He was not a nice man at all. He was a very, very bad man…and I could tell you stories.”

This was from his best friend.

And as I said, I was only in the crows nest.

For more information about funeral plans, just click here.


Once again I will be filling in for Alex Bennet on SiriusXM Left all next week and Monday, April 2nd. The show is on Sirius XM from 7-10 AM on Channel 127, March 26-April 2nd. Please try to listen in if you can. The number for SiriusXM Left is 1 866 99 SIRIUS if you would like to call in.
And later in the month I will be attending the opening night of a new documentary on Morton Downey, Jr. which is making its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. I have not seen the film but I drove down to Miami last year for a long interview for it. Morton began his show the same time I began People Are Talking. We both shared the same studio at Channel 9; I would tape in the mornings and my set was pushed back for his show at night. Off camera, Morton was generous, funny and wild and back then he was one of a kind. And on-air we all knew Morton was just a joke, didn’t we? Considering Breitbart, Beck, Limbaugh and the other raving right-wingers it might have been one of those odd times when satire precedes the real thing. I believe THE RICHARD BEY SHOW was another example…and coincidentally both shows were created in the same studio!


Remember the McCain ad skewering Obama for being a celebrity without substance? ( SEE HERE ) Isn’t it ironic that the same group that cheered this ad are now cheering their political heroes on Dancing with the Stars, hosting TV shows and joined at the hip with TV and radio celebrities at public appearances? Three of the foremost candidates for the Republican presidential nomination are even on a television payroll as celebrities, some with their own shows–(I know you are but what am I?)…. I’m always invigorated when I arrive in the city and completely exhausted when I leave it. I just flew back to Florida last night…..It could be that the best book I’ve read in a while (and recently I’ve read quite a few excellent books): ROOM by Emma Donoghue. I’m only halfway through it so I’m in one of those states silently praying to the author ‘please, please, don’t blow it in the end’. The chapter I read last night was so special I reread it this morning to make sure it was really that good. It was. Room is wonderfully, almost magically written, thrilling, horrifying and joyous at the same time with characters you will love and believe in (including some that aren’t alive!) And the narrator of the tale is someone you will never ever forget. I implore you to read it…Have you watched kids in a schoolyard recently? They run around in circles, do handstands and cartwheels, scream with hysterical joy, playfight—Its like watching the anarchic release of an explosion! Did we really erupt that wildly when we were that age? I remember punchball and ordered games, standing in line when they blew the whistle. I remember the resentment of order and orientation in elementary school, I just can’t remember that visceral kablooey when it was temporarily lifted…I know we’re all frustrated with Obama, and that woman at the CNBC Q&A expressed what a lot of Americans are feeling but at this point in the Bush administration he hadn’t even invaded Iraq yet!…If you want to really see how stupid pop music is these days read the lyrics on the videos without sound while running on a treadmill. (Take it off! Take it off!)…At least Channel 11 is trying to do something different with local news. All NY local newscasts are generic and the same. In the early nineties I proposed Channel 9 try a different format based upon a successful newscast in Japan. It may or may not work out at Channel 11 but at least the news director at WPIX has the imagination and guts to create something new…On the same topic, anyone remember when you could tell local anchors and reporters apart? Remember when they had personality? Roger Grimsby, Myra Wollinsky, Chauncy Howell, Tom Snyder (even the ill-fated, rape-happy Tex Antoine?). These days most local news people look like they just flew in from Des Moines…If its really YOUR money how come you can’t legally print it, deface it or destroy it? You can do whatever you want with your gold….and why do the days seem so short in Florida?