But even more important to Downey’s crazy television success in the late 1980s was his canny understanding of America’s blue collar population; he became their fire-breathing spokesman, and there wasn’t a “pablum puking liberal” who could stand up to him.Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, is loaded with great clips of Downey’s glory days.Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, is loaded with great clips of Downey’s glory days, and excellent commentary from several of his friends and producers. The documentary burns with the same over-caffeinated intensity of The Morton Downey Jr Show, and creates a picture of a man so tortured by demons that fame only exacerbates his problems.
His shows were the broadest kind of theater, filmed in Secaucus NJ in front of an audience that more than one TV pundit described as a “hockey crowd.” They were there to see Mort blow down the house. There were some laughs, too. Downey took the format of the old Joe Pyne show and injected it with buffoonery. Still, Downey knew his bread and butter was in violent confrontations with unsuspecting liberal guests. If Downey was at a loss for words, which was rare, he’d have a mullet-haired goon known as “The Secaucus Slammer,” throw the guest out physically.Downey didn’t start out as a right wing rabble rouser.Downey didn’t start out as a right wing rabble rouser. The son of a famous singer – Morton Downey Sr., a tenor of the 1930s known for singing Irish ballads – Downey Jr tried to carve out a singing career and also wrote poetry, some of which is used in the movie to show that he had a better than average understanding of his own psyche. In short, he hated his father’s guts and wanted to be a big shot.
The 1960s saw Downey as a liberal working for Ted Kennedy, and the 1970s saw him as a struggling folk singer. The documentary never quite connects the threads that lead to his rebirth as a conservative, but suggests at least some of Downey’s right wing posturing was an act. There’s some great footage of Downey, still in his folk phase with long hair and a cowboy jacket, speaking through a megaphone at an anti-abortion rally. It’s early in his transformation, but the power he wields is plain to see.There was always the sense that something ugly was about to happen.There were fewer brawls on Downey’s show than in some of the other trash TV programs we’ve grown used to, but there was always the sense that something ugly was about to happen. When things did veer out of control, such as the night Roy Innis decked Al Sharpton at the Apollo Theater, the Downey show dwarfed all imitations to come.
He seemed to be having fun during the early days of his show, but the clips from the end of his run two years later show him looking exhausted. He wasn’t a drug addict, but fame was his drug and it wore him down. After a bogus stunt where he pretended to be attacked by neo-Nazis in an airport bathroom, his popularity evaporated over night. The next thing we knew, Downey had lung cancer. He even turned that into a media event, going on Larry King’s show the night before he was to have a lung removed. Downey died in 2001.
Who knows if he ever beat his demons. But look at the people in Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie. When they remember the man, they can’t help but smile.