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.