Editor’s Note: WTOP’s Neal Augenstein was one of Morton Downey, Jr.’s radio and television producers in 1992 and 1993. He says his time there ended when he was “not quite fired, but forced out.”
WASHINGTON – Twenty years after his “comeback” radio talk show left the Washington airwaves, a new documentary on the life of trash TV pioneer Morton Downey, Jr. is set to open.
“Evocateur: The Morton Downey, Jr. Movie” opens Friday, June 7, in limited theaters, on iTunes, and On Demand.
“What was unique about Morton Downey, Jr — he would bring almost a circus quality to his show,” says co-director Jeremy Newberger.
Long before reality TV shows became a staple, Downey’s loudmouthed, cigarette- smoking, antagonistic, theatrical style became the hottest item on the air — and his meteoric star crashed almost as quickly.
Newberger says the film contains “never-before-seen footage of Downey’s behind- the-scenes fist fights and foibles.”
“Mort would blow cigarette smoke in the guest’s face, and throw them off if he didn’t like their answers,” says Newberger. “It was not a peaceful, polite talk show — it was more like a Roman Coliseum.”
Highlights (or lowlights) of the television show recalled in the film include physical altercations, name calling, strippers, raw emotion and agitation.
Downey’s conservative take on politics, abortion, religion fired-up the young, mostly male members in his Secaucus, NJ audience — it was also mostly a put-on.
“Morton Downey did grow up with the Kennedys,” says Newberger. “He worked for the family, and was very good friends with the family.”
However, when he began his radio talk career, Downey found conservatism served him better.
“When he saw the response he was getting, playing up this conservative viewpoint, he started to do better in ratings and get noticed,” says Newberger.
Many of his former producers interviewed in the film agree that while Downey grew more conservative, much of his blustering bombacity was show business.
“There’s no question there was some showmanship,” says Newberger. “It’s hard to imagine someone is that passionate and crazy about the issues they were talking about, without putting on a little bit of an act.”
Downey’s show began in 1987. With syndication came notoriety, magazine covers, and money. In August 1989 he was found in an airport bathroom in San Francisco. He claimed he’d been attacked by neo-Nazis who painted a swastika on his face and tried to shave his head.
With the swastika painted backward, as if he’d drawn it himself in a mirror, and police finding no evidence of an attack, the incident was deemed a hoax.
By 1989, with advertisers fearful of his antics, his show was cancelled. He filed for bankruptcy in 1990.
In 1992 Downey tried to revive his radio career in Washington, D.C. His daily talk show at WWRC gathered no ratings traction, despite his fame.
In 1993, Downey moved his show to Dallas, and began a short-lived television show, “Downey,” that was mostly seen on independent channels.
Downey died of lung cancer in 2001.
“Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie” opens in the New York/New Jersey area Friday, and will be available On Demand and for download on iTunes.
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