By Danny Peary
When I’d happen upon Morton Downey Jr.’s vile and venomous talk show in the late eighties, I’d have a hard time switching channels. I’d want to hiss, boo, or throw things at the screen, just as you wanted to do when watching the dirtiest wrestler on TV when you were a kid and didn’t realize it was all fake. Now thanks to directors Seth Kramer, Daniel L. Miller, and Jeremy Newberger we again can feel our skin crawl as the right-wing small-screen pioneer with a big toothy mouth is resurrected in their movie, Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie. Surely, the egomaniacal Downey Jr. would have been first to watch CNN at 9 pm on Thursday to see himself in all his splendor. You might want tune in, too, whether you remember him or want to learn what all the fuss was about and how, as one festival programmer said, “the pursuit of fame and fortune over the airwaves can ultimately destroy your soul.” In 2012, I spoke to Kramer (left in my photo) and Miller about their documentary.
Danny Peary: Morton Downey Jr. was one of the most detestable right-wing hosts ever. Have you met people who liked him?
Daniel Miller and Seth Kramer: We liked him!
DP: As a person or as entertainer who persevered?
SK: As an entertainer. We were in high school in New Jersey when he was on the air and off the air two years later, and were fans–we were the demographic. We wouldn’t have voted for him for president and we didn’t follow his lead for political advice, but he had a show that talked about politics and social issues in a way that appealed to high school kids. Everything else on TV where there was political debate, it was all very civil and polite compared to him. He was outrageous and hilarious. He was “screw you” and in your face and it was a real trip to hear politics addressed in that way.
DM: His appeal is that he spoke of politics in very reductionist black-and-white way. In professional wrestling, you have one guy who represents dark and one who represents light and you cheer for one side–it’s easy and it’s fun. And for someone who doesn’t want to process all the nuances around an issue, Downey was entertaining.
DP: From where did his show originate?
DM: It came out of a tiny studio in Secaucus, New Jersey, which we revisit for the film. It still exists.
DP: What was his prime period?
SK: His show was on the air from 1987 to 1989. Before that he was on radio.
DP: Who was Morton Downey Sr.?
DM: He was at one point one of the most famous people in America. He was considered America’s first recording star. He was an Irish tenor. One of the stars of the first RKO film ever was Morton Downey Sr. He was a huge, huge deal and Morton Downey Jr. grew up in and was always trying to escape his shadow. It’s a lot of what motivated him to do what he did.
DP: He was a reactionary and that’s what his fans found appealing but was he sincere or was he smart enough to know what he saying was bullshit.
DM: That’s sort of what our movie investigates.
SK: His father grew up with Joseph Kennedy and Mort grew up around Camelot. He came from a very liberal background. with Bobby and Teddy Kennedy. Then in the eighties on television he was saying liberals were destroying America just like the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs do today.
DP: Do you think one more than the other?
SK: It’s the same: it’s the populist entertainer who serves as the mouthpiece for the everyday man who is being ignored by his government.
DP: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”
SK: That’s right. It’s more like Glenn Beck only because he brought it to television. Mort was in national syndication. I think of Glenn Beck’s dramatics and how his whole body language expressed what he was subscribing is very similar to the Mort phenomenon. They also lasted the same amount of time on national television, about two years and then they were done.
DP: Why do you think this guy who was on radio and television makes a good movie subject that you’d spend a couple of years on?
SK: In our present day, this kind of act, this kind of populist performer, can have incredible influence on and sway over the public.
DK: In a scary way?
SK: I’m not sure if it’s scary, but it is a real way. There are two sides to this. Half of Americans will say it’s scary, it’s propagandistic, it’s terrible for the country. The other half will say that before these guys came around it was all liberal media, and Fox News and Beck and Limbaugh provide a much needed antidote and provide the other side. So we come in and take you back twenty-five years and you see that Downey was doing the same act. So it’s useful and timely film
DM: Beyond his legacy, Downey had fans but went into obscurity. People ask me, “Is Morton Downey Jr. still alive?” or “Is he Robert Downey Jr’s father?” Let me make it clear that he’s now Robert Downey Jr’s father. This film gives you a chance to watch Downey again and to laugh at his shtick. To be honest, he went above and beyond Fox News. You don’t see what he did anymore, you don’t see anyone being that confrontational and it’s fun to watch.
DP: There were guys even earlier than him.
SK: Joe Pine, Wally George. In the movie, we get into how Downey was part of a continuum. Bob Piven created the show as a copy of Joe Pine, who had a confrontational act in the 1960s. Pine was on radio, then television. They wanted to repeat it with Downey for the MTV generation.
DP: You always thought with Pine, George, and Downey that thank god there aren’t enough people believe then. In that case Downey would be scary rather than freak-show entertainment. Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have been around for a long time. Why do you think Downey burned out so soon?
SK: It’s a difficult act where you have to be increasingly outrageous so you can keep your hold on an audience and keep them interested and involved.
DM: Rush Limbaugh is really good at it. But even so he almost blew it by calling the college student a slut. The new guys have perfected the act but even they can get in trouble. Glenn Beck is gone. Soon or later you put your foot in your mouth, and you either keep going or are done.
DP: What I heard about your film is that there are moments when viewers are going to say, “I can’t believe that was on television way back then.”
SK: That is the case. Some of this stuff will make your jaw drop.
DM: He was far more vicious and brutal when attacking a guest he doesn’t agree with than anything you see today. It’s unbelievable.
DP: We remember that his cigarettes were more than a prop, they were like weapons?
SK: He died of lung cancer in 2001. They were such an important part of the act. I think he was trying to take us back to a different, more conservative era, Mad Men-style, which was to play-it straight, tell it like it is, and disrespect women a little bit.
DM: And you blow smoke into the face of someone who doesn’t agree with me.
DP: Did people in Downey’s audience attack him or were they all supporters?
SK: He fought with his audience pretty hard. We interviewed someone who fought with him.
DP: Did you talk to people who had revelations about him, saying perhaps that he was different from his public persona.
SK: Yeah, that’s all in the film.
DP: Did you speak to family and are they proud or ashamed of him?
SK: We spoke to his daughter Kelly Downey. Proud is a little strong. She loved her dad and ‘s very reflective when talking about him. She gives complete insight on what it was like to live with this kind of performer and what it took to keep it up.
DP: Do you think your film is political?
SK: It’s balanced. It deals with politics.
DP: You want people to see something in your movie.
DM: Right. It’s really to delve into the role of the populist entertainer. What does it mean?
SK: What do these guys do? We have industry insiders, we have Sally Jesse Raphael, Richard Bey, and Bill Boggs who were doing the talk show bit at the same time. We get an inside look at what it takes to do this kind of show, and how you use anger to draw into an audience. We have Pat Buchanan, who has been doing it for a long time. We have Herman Cain.
DP: Did you already know everything in your film before you started shooting or did you learn things along the way?
SK: We just knew his public persona. We investigated if his colleagues, his producers, and everyone else manufactured this person. Was he created like a Frankenstein monster to get ratings or is what he said really what he believed?
DP: What does it mean for New Yorkers to see your movie?
SK: Oh, my God, this is great. New York is our home. We lived and worked in New York for almost two decades. And Downey was a New York/New Jersey guy. So we’re bringing Downey back to the city.
DP: Since you began this project has anybody said to you that Morton Downey Jr. is their idol?
SK: No, I’m not sure how we’d deal with that!