January 19, 2018

Rivers and a Bey

I interviewed JOAN RIVERS on live television, PEOPLE ARE TALKING, back in 1988. She was delightful, quick and had an easy access to that ability I always strove for, to punch through and actually make a real connection with the viewer on the other side of the screen. To turn live TV into LIVE TV! She was also, I think, the most insecure person I’ve ever interviewed. From the moment she arrived she nervously and repeatedly asked what questions I had, expressed concerns about the format and suggested topics for which she had jokes pre-planned (skiing was one!). By the time she was in make up I put a reassuring hand on her shoulder and assured her I would set her up as the perfect straight man, that she was so good at this and that I wanted her to look her best. She also was an attractive woman in person back then, much more so than she appeared in photos or on TV and when I told her so, she nervously denied it and joked about that.

On air I mentioned that unlike many TV celebrities she was more than gracious and friendly with fans off air. I’d seen her spend time talking with on-lookers, signing autographs, answering questions from fans and in a way that was down to earth rather than self-aggrandizing. I turned to the camera and said to the viewers: “You should know, not everyone is like this. A lot of people seem friendly and gracious on air but they’re not so in real life…” Immediately Joan jumped on it and demanded to know who this was. “Name names. Say it? Who was mean to you?” When I demurred, she insisted. “Oh, come on, don’t be a wimp. The way to get famous if you’re a little fish is to attack the big fish.” I kept refusing. “Look, if you ever want to get out of Secaucus say it. Who was it? They want to know!”. And I blurted out “Regis Philbin!” Someone once introduced me to him at a buffet table and he kind of waved me off. Joan turned to the camera and declared: “Regis! He hates you!!! Why were you so mean to Richard!” Live. On the air. I tried to make excuses for Regis and he certainly deserved them but Joan just kept on: “Tell him the truth! You hate him now! Regis, he hates you!” The audience both in the studio and home loved it. And it was another example of Joan punching through the screen on live television. Afterwards, Regis’ producers called to find out what I was upset about and I apologized profusely and a few months later I ran into Regis again and he was as apologetic I was. He didn’t remember meeting me at all, which was understandable under the circumstances And over the years, he’s always been gracious and personable with me. Even helpful with advice.

Since her death, there have been a lot of reports about how Joan’s drive to work continuously was motivated by a fear that it would all stop at any moment, that she might suddenly lose a way to support herself with her talent. Joan was funny and self-deprecating but she was also fearlessly honest and unguarded. For someone so intrinsically insecure this was a feat of great bravery.

Twice we were competitors. Her radio show aired against the one I hosted with Steve Malzberg on WABC. Her TV show aired against THE RICHARD BEY SHOW on WWOR. And once, we had a row on THE HOWARD STERN SHOW where Joan promoted her show as #1 in the time period (It wasn’t. My show was #2 after the PRICE IS RIGHT and Joan was far behind both shows in the NYC ratings). Two hours later as I prepared to leave home, Howard was still on the radio and I heard him tease: “Richard Bey, Joan Rivers is #1. Do you hear me? She is #1, Richard Bey!” I smiled. Howard had millions of listeners but now he was talking just to me! And now, I’m just one out of the millions who will miss Joan.

Joan Rivers was NOT #1 in our time period. But in so many other ways Joan Rivers WAS #1.


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!

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