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Charting The Career Of The 'Evocateur' Of Talk


Morton Downey Jr. was the loudest mouth on television. He treated guests like guys on the other side of the wrestling ring - bullying, hectoring and blowing smoke in their faces.


SIMON: The cigarette smoke, as it happened, that would ultimately kill him of lung cancer in 2001. Morton Downey Jr. was the biggest name in television in the mid-1980s, featuring onstage brawls between guests before Jerry Springer did. He was both reviled as obnoxious and hailed as a new wave in media. But his star burned out in just two years. The story of Morton Downey Jr.'s rise and fall is told in a new documentary, "Evocateur: The Morton Downy Jr. Movie." Seth Kramer is one of the film's directors and joins us now from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

SETH KRAMER: Oh, it's a real pleasure. Thanks.

SIMON: What made Morton Downey Jr. stand out in the media world of the 1980s, which is Phil Donahue, the first stirrings of Oprah, Ted Koppel on "Nightline," etc.?

KRAMER: TV back then - and I can remember it, I mean, I was a teenager - was really dominated by this kind of strange 1950s-era politeness, especially regarding these shows that talked about culture, politics, social issues. So, Downey came on the scene, and by design, Downey's show just threw a brick through that window. He was the complete opposite. He was almost obscenely abusive to his guests.


SIMON: Couple of the groups you keep going back to in the film include a group of guys who were teenagers like yourself then, watching Morton Downey Jr. at night. What did you see?

KRAMER: I actually grew up in a liberal home, so I couldn't really identify with Downey's politics. But one thing that really appealed to us was we saw an audience packed with people who looked and sounded just like us. I'm a Jersey guy, so when someone says, ay, yo, cuz, you got a problem with that, you know, I'm right there. I know exactly what that's about. And he brought these people...

SIMON: Hold for just a moment. This is NPR. Hey, cuz, you got a problem with that? I have to do the voiceover. Go ahead.

KRAMER: So, I won't do that again, I promise.

SIMON: No, no, no. Go ahead, please.

KRAMER: I've lost my Jersey...

SIMON: We like people who speak Jersey on this show. We just have to make it comprehensible out in Oregon. But go ahead, please.

KRAMER: But, you know, America - this was one of the novelties of the show too. It's like, you know, today we have shows like "The Jersey Shore," but at the time, you know, America, I don't even think they knew this Jersey guy existed, and now here's a room filled with these, you know, guys with their shirt unbuttoned with the gold chain, the, you know, girls with the giant hair-sprayed hair. It was such a riot.


KRAMER: It was almost like interactive media in the days before Facebook. It gave guys like me an opportunity to speak out.

SIMON: Morton Downey, Jr., I gather, didn't grow up bullying and hectoring people, near as you can tell. Came from a nice family.

KRAMER: Yeah. That was one of the big surprises in making the movie. I spent, like, you know, four or five years just saying, oh my God, you've got to be kidding me, like, over and over and over again what we discover. He came from one of the most affluent families in America at the time. It was a show biz family. His mother was a dancer - one of the famous Bennett Sisters - and his father was, like, he was a singer, he was a movie star, one of the most famous people in the '30s and '40s. They lived in a house in Hyannis Port next to the Kennedy compound. So, Mort actually grew up knowing all the Kennedys.

SIMON: Morton Downey Jr. tried to catch on in a lot of different ways before he came into this show, didn't he?

KRAMER: Yeah. You know, he's almost like a Forrest Gump character, just like a really mean Forrest Gump or an angry Gump. But he had this sort of social chameleon quality where he would adopt a role befitting the era.


KRAMER: In the '50s, he tried to be a crooner, you know, almost like an Elvis singer. You know, later on, he became a Kennedy supporter and a poet. After that, he tried a lounge singer act then a singer-songwriter. We actually have a photo of Downey wearing bellbottoms. Nothing seemed to stick until in the '80s when he tried to become a right-wing radio host, and that was great timing for him.

SIMON: Forgive a descent into pop psychology, but was he trying everything he could to become more famous than this father?

KRAMER: People who knew him best said that, and apparently he was very, very upfront about that. He wanted to be more famous than his dad. And, you know, he sort of reached that goal at the tender age of 55, and then told people he was more famous than his dad.


SIMON: One of the other groups that you show in this film, you keep going back to, are producers who worked on "The Morton Downey Jr. Show." What did they think they were doing?

KRAMER: You know, Bob Pittman was sort of like the wizard pulling the strings. Today, Bob Pittman is the CEO of a little company called Clear Channel. He really wanted to rattle things up. He wanted to shake up the talk show world, make something that directly appealed to people in my generation, the MTV generation. And I think the other producers were along for the ride. Some of them were actually a little disgusted. I think some of them had a hard time looking in the mirror at night.

SIMON: Do you ever wonder if Morton Downey Jr. hadn't stepped on the stage if it might have been someone or something else?

KRAMER: I think these guys come around every generation or so. In fact, Morton Downey was apparently not Bob Pittman's first pick for the show. So, quite literally, you know, Bob was looking for a Morton Downey, not necessarily the Morton Downey. But he found him and that's what we got.

SIMON: I want to get to the Tawana Brawley case and the fact that Morton Downey Jr. was in many ways responsible for making the Reverend Al Sharpton a national figure. In 1987, a young teenager - I believe she was 15 - Tawana Brawley accused six white men, including police officers, of raping her. A grand jury found none of this was true, didn't they?

KRAMER: That's correct.

SIMON: But what happened on "The Morton Downey Jr. Show"?

KRAMER: You know, there came a point in that show - and the producers talk about - where they had trouble booking serious guests. 'Cause guests caught on, you know, oh, I get it - I go on the show, I get my head ripped off in front of a cheering crowd of teenagers. I'll take a pass, right?

SIMON: Or some, like Alan Dershowitz would say here's my number.

KRAMER: Right. Alan Dershowitz, Gloria Allred. I mean, there were people who were ready for this kind of verbal combat. And Al Sharpton was one of them. And I remember this watching it. Downey really gave Sharpton this national platform, and the two men developed a sort of friendship to prop up the story.

SIMON: It's important in this section of the film, I found myself remembering, that this is a story - a fraud - that hurt real people. And you have Steven Pegones, who was assistant D.A. in Duchess County, who was accused by Tawana Brawley of raping her. Turns out not to be the case, and he talked about how hard it was to talk to this daughter about that.

KRAMER: Right. You know, it'll probably come as no surprise that when we asked Steven Pegones what it was like to watch Sharpton and Downey accuse him of raping a teenager, that that was a difficult thing to go through. So, that's, like, obvious. It's extremely worthwhile to see him relate that story anyway, because you really get a sense that this is something that you never, ever recover from. I think the look on his face and in his eyes and voice, he is still suffering from - you know, these shows, they're fun and games for a while but they have serious consequences every once in a while. They really hurt someone.

SIMON: In the end, how do you wind up feeling? Was it all an act?

KRAMER: You know, we asked this question of everybody who knew him: you know, did you really believe this, that the liberals were destroying America? And people just looked at us almost like we were crazy for even asking that question. I believed a little but not really. Well, he wasn't very political. It's an act. It's show business, kid. And, you know, the reason that I sort of tie Downey to the people who are doing this act today is I think it's a healthy way of looking at the Sean Hannitys, the Glenn Becks and even the Al Sharptons. You know, regardless of what they really believe, it's an act designed not to enlighten to you but to rile you up and make you angry, and that's about it.

SIMON: Seth Kramer, one of the directors of the new documentary, "Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie," which will be opening in a number of theaters this month. Thanks so much for being with us.

KRAMER: Thank you. It was a pleasure.


SIMON: You know who that is, that's Morton Downey, who is Morton Downey Jr.'s father singing "Thanks a Million." And a reminder, you can follow WEEKEND EDITION on Facebook and on Twitter: NPRWeekend and I'm @NPRScottSimon - all one word. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THANKS A MILLION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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