Long ago, gentlemen and gentlewomen of calm demeanor ruled the airwaves. In news broadcasts and talk shows, propriety was the default mode. Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite gave us the facts; Johnny Carson gave us a few laughs; Oprah Winfrey tugged at our heartstrings.
No one threw cigarettes.
Then came Morton Downey Jr. Launched into the living rooms of America in the late 1980s like a gangsta rapper thrown into a square dance — and just as quickly thrown out — the chain-smoking Downey and his eponymous show made him Jerry Springer before Jerry Springer, Bill O’Reilly before Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck before Glenn Beck. In fact, he was more intimidating than these intimidating right-wing icons: a physically aggressive, verbally abusive screamer who evoked felonious punk rocker GG Allin as much as Rush Limbaugh.
Though journalists under 40 may shrug when asked if they remember Downey, no one over 40 can forget him. And “Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie,” which aired on CNN Thursday night, has given us all cause to remember.
One need look no further than the film’s trailer to get a whiff of Downey’s schtick. In a teaser somehow too profane and scary to embed even though it contains footage more than 25 years old, Downey confronted former and future congressman — not to mention future presidential candidate — Ron Paul on Paul’s commitment to legalizing drugs.
“Slime like you in the White House?” Downey screamed at Paul. “I puke on you!”
In another representative exchange — this one with an atheist — Downey came out swinging for Christ. “This is a nation of freedom,” Downey said. “Are you a religion? … Then you have no f—king freedom!”
Sure, it was an act — but a darned convincing one. The son of a pop singer, Downey was in his 50s before he parlayed a patchwork career as a DJ, songwriter and conservative activist into “The Morton Downey Jr. Show.” He took on affirmative action. He took on Scientologists. A four-pack-a-day smoker, he took on anti-smoking advocates.
“Everybody on television was doing the same kind of talk show,” Bob Pittman, president of the company that produced Downey’s show — and the founder of MTV — told The Washington Post in 1988. Pittman called more familiar formats “too polite.”
“If you go into a college dorm, you’ll find people thrashing out issues like Mort does rather than like Ted Koppel does,” Pittman said. “It‘s fun to talk about an issue with passion.”
“I’m more comfortable with this than anything I’ve ever done,” Downey told The Post in 1988. “I feel right at home. I just love it. I accept it as everything else I’ve ever loved; it, too, could disappear.”
It did. Downey’s show was gone before the 1990s dawned.
“The chain-smoking Downey’s crude, high-decibel style and rabid studio audience were, at first, a curiosity to many viewers,” The Washington Post wrote in 1989. “But the act began to lose steam.”
Another problem: Near the end of his show’s run, Downey, um, said he was attacked by neo-Nazis, who allegedly drew a swastika on his face at San Francisco International Airport. The attack was fake, according to airport officials — a pathetic attempt to stir up publicity.
Downey would mount comeback attempts, but his mark had already been made. There was one noteworthy coda: Diagnosed with lung cancer in 1996, he became one of the anti-smoking crusaders he once derided. The fallen star who had autographed cigarettes now denounced them.
“I used a cigarette as a combat weapon, and I never gave much thought to the [chance] that this cigarette would most likely kill me,” Downey said five years before his death in 2001.
The man died six months before Sept. 11 — an event that would undoubtedly have inspired one of his signature rants had he lived to see it. But if Downey is a footnote in the annals of infotainment, he is a footnote with bite.
His goodbye “removes from our lives one of the most abrasive people ever to appear on television,” Rick Kogan of the Chicago Tribune wrote when “The Morton Downey Jr. Show” was canceled. “But do not think that this represents a move toward a calmer clime. Downey whetted people’s appetites for confrontational TV. There will be someone to take his place.”
One need only look to CNN, FOX and MSNBC — among many other news outlets — to see those many someones.