November 21, 2017

MORT AND ME


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.

Evocateur: THE MORTON DOWNEY, JR. MOVIE


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.

SALLY JESSE RAPHAEL STAYING AS FAR AWAY FROM ME AS SHE CAN!

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.

SIRIUS LEFT AND MORTON DOWNEY, JR.

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!

WISCONSIN: The State of the Unions


“Fire a couple of rounds of rubber bullets into that crowd. That’ll take care of those demonstrators in Wisconsin,” opined the loudmouth swimmer in the pool at my condo. He’s from the same city as Carl Palladino with the same crude and bellicose manner. “A couple of rounds of rubber bullets will teach ‘em a lesson,” he bellows loudly, bouncing up and down in the pool as if addressing everyone poolside. He’s the same guy who brags about what he’ll do to a burgler with the .45 on the nightstand next to his bed and complains about Obama and the socialists ruining the country. I never respond. I come to swim and relax in the sun.

Among the other comments I’ve heard over the last few days are:

“They should’ve never been allowed to organize in the first place.”
“We need someone to do what Reagan did when he busted the Air Traffic Controllers union.”
“Unions were good at one time but we don’t need ’em anymore. They’ve outlived their usefulness.”

So let’s not pussyfoot around the issue. This isn’t about pensions or healthcare contributions. It isn’t about the deficit or the recession. It isn’t even about the election (although Governor Walker collected endorsements from the Milwaukee Police Association, the West Allis Professional Police Association, the Milwaukee Professional Firefighters and the Wisconsin Troopers Association during his campaign and they are state workers exempt from his new limitations. What a coincidink!).

It’s about an ideology with a goal to destroy unions.

Union leaders conceded to the Governor and legislature’s plan on financial matters last week. They agreed to the difficult concessions required by fiscal hard times. What they will not and cannot concede is the right of their workers to collective negotiation. Without it a union is not a union. It is a fraternal organization.

What Governor Walker proposes is to strip some municipal unions of any right to negotiate ANYTHING other than salary and that to cap even that right to CPI index. In effect even that negotiation is now negligible. He would also allow workers to enjoy the benefits of union membership without paying “fair share” dues. This would essentially contribute to destroying the union (why pay dues when you get benefits for free?)

I watched FOXNEWS Friday and Saturday to understand how this organization would frame this. They did so in their usual fashion: They lied. They presented it as an issue of union intractability on contributing to pension and medical funds even though unions had already agreed to do so. By Sunday this lie became to unsupportable even for FoxNews and they began to reframe. Now the issue was about phoney doctor’s notes and the Tea Party counter demonstration. Although 70,000 turned out to demonstrate against Walker and only 2,000 showed up from the Tea Party they became equal expressions of discontent.

Rush Limbaugh called unionized workers “bottom feeding freeloaders” “using children as human shields”. Who are the real workers of America? “Real Working Non-Unionized People” he proclaimed on Friday, Feb. 18th. He also mocked protestors who compared their political solidarity with those who took to the streets in Egypt complaining that such a comparison could only be made by an ‘idiot’.. Perhaps he will change his mind when he discovers that Republican Paul Ryan was the first to make this comparison on national television. (“It’s like Cairo’s moved to Madison these days,” Ryan said on MSNBC. “All of this demonstration … it’s fine. People should be able to express their way.” Feb 17.) Doesn’t Limbaugh do the minimum of homework before he goes on the air?

What constantly bemuses me is how Teabaggers can become incensed about an employee who spent years on an advanced degree of education receiving a salary of 48,000 a year (with healthcare, pension, vacation etc benefits of $24,000). Yet there has not been one protest against the financial wizards who walked away with hundreds of millions while destroying the American economy…Guides like Limbaugh and Dick Armey and FoxNews point them in the wrong direction at every turn, I guess.

But some unions, the ones who supported Walker politically and help him practically (by hunting down wayward Democrats) i.e. the Wisconsin Troopers’ Association and the police and firefighters’ statewide unions issued statements praising the Governor for recognizing their jobs are more important and thus their unions should be exempted from destruction.

I recognize that some unions have been guilty of corruption. As I stated in previous posts on this site I also favor sensible caps on union pensions and rules that prevent egregious abuses on how those pensions are calculated. But for a movement that derided Rahm Emanuel’s suggestion to ‘Never let a crisis go to waste’ the radicals of the Tea Party are quick to embrace this philosophy. This is not about solving the problem of statewide deficits. From the beginning their rhetoric has been anti-worker, anti-union, strangely recognizing only ‘capital providers’ as ‘THE PRODUCERS’. Capital investment is surely a necessary, central element of the American economy but it is labor that actually accomplishes production so it is an odd way to label the components. FoxNews would have its viewers frame this issue as ‘the unions vs. the taxpayers’, not even acknowledging that union workers pay taxes themselves.

I support the concept that a crisis can provide an opportunity, to learn, to change, to readjust how things are done. But when there is corporate corruption or abuse we don’t attempt to abolish corporations. We attempt to remedy the corruption and abuse to prevent ongoing damage.

As to the Democrats who absconded from the legislature, it may certainly seem hypocritical for those who decried the obstructionism of a Republican minority over the last two years to now applaud the obstructionism of Democratic representatives. But likewise, those that applaud and admire representation that will not yield on core principle (as I often hear Teabaggers assert) should understand the support many give to these 14 representatives. I sent money to support their efforts last Friday.

Surely, elections do have their repercussions and effects. And Walker and Republican legislators were elected in 2010. But they ran on platforms of fiscal responsibility not on promises to obliterate unions entirely. Politifact has a chart of Governor Walker’s campaign promises concerning education. Look at it and tell me which one justifies stripping the union of collective bargaining rights:

http://politifact.com/wisconsin/promises/walk-o-meter/subjects/education/

On the other hand, Obama DID run on a promise to initiate health insurance reform and he did win his election as did Democrats in both houses. Yet Republicans acted like they were surprised when Democrats fulfilled their promise. To Republicans healthcare reform was “rammed down our throats” and they virulently opposed his fulfillment of that promise. If Walker had run on a platform of abolishing unions and then fulfilled that promise one might say he was fulfilling his pledge to the voters. But he didn’t do that.

I should reveal that I am a proud member of three unions. Throughout my years in broadcasting my unions have supported me when I needed support as an actor or a broadcaster. I am such an ardent union member that I have paid my dues to every union twice annually for forty years though I could have taken a leave of absence during those hard times when I was not working. That’s how strongly I feel an obligation to union membership. It’s also true that for many years I made so much money in my profession that I probably had more direct power as an individual negotiator than I did as a union member. But I did not forget how purposeful and important union membership was to my career and my life.

It is undeniable that there are 13 states that prohibit or restrict collective bargaining by teachers and other state employees. It is interesting to note that most of those states have budget SHORTFALLS. A handful of them have deficits of 20% to make up somehow EVEN WITHOUT UNION WORKERS. Its also an historical fact that Franklin Roosevelt, perhaps our most pro-labor president was extremely wary of allowing municipal workers to unionize. Teddy Roosevelt’s most succinct statement supporting labor organization is mute on the organization of public employees: “It is essential that there should be organization of labor. This is an era of organization. Capital organizes and therefore labor must organize.”

Yet it is also an ironic fact that Wisconsin was the very first state to authorize the collective bargaining rights of public employees and workers in many other states fought hard over years to follow in securing that right. That was in 1959, more than fifty years ago when Eisenhower was president. It is a right with more history than the right of interracial marriage, integration of public enterprise, the right to counsel in a courtroom and a woman’s right to choose.

Madison, Wisconsin was the birthplace of the Sixties Anti-war movement and the subject of a documentary film called THE WAR AT HOME. That movement spread across the country, galvanizing others, energizing millions.

Perhaps the rallying events of the past week will inspire a sequel.

Richard Bey on MSNBC – Interview Discussing Rush Limbaugh

Richard and Steve Malzberg discuss Rush Limbaugh’s drug addiction problem.