Los Angeles - Morton Downey
Jr., 67, was a growling and opinionated TV talk-show host who
shocked viewers from behind a haze of cigarette smoke.
Mr. Downey reigned over “Trash
TV” in the late 1980s and later tried unsuccessfully
to clean up his act for a comeback. He once said he appealed
to fans because he was a “loudmouth who gets in trouble
just like they do, whose had problems just like they had,
someone that they can identify with a lot more than someone
who’s squeaky clean.”
A chain smoker for years until losing
a lung to cancer, Mr. Downey was known for deliberately blowing
smoke into the faces of guests who annoyed him when he was
host of one of the most popular talk shows on television.
After his cancer surgery in 1996,
he became an anti-smoking crusader. Saying he had been “an
idiot” for smoking, he taped public service announcements
and told the syndicated TV show “Extra” that he
hoped he could “undo some of the damage that I did during
all the years that I did television.”
Mr. Downey was the son of popular singer Morton Downey and
his dancer-wife, Barbara Bennett, and grandson of Morris
W. Morris. He was raised next door to the Kennedy
compound in Hyannis Port, Mass. He pursued a number of professions,
including businessman, author, radio host, singer and song-writer.
He taught political science at the University of Notre Dame
and won an award from Pope Paul VI for his work on behalf
But he became a household
name only after the debut of “The Morton Downey Jr.
Show” in the New York City area in 1987. It became a
hit almost immediately and was syndicated nationally the next
In its heyday, he was
known as “Mort the Mouth,” the host who mocked
his sometimes bizarre guests as “slime” or “scum
bucket” and argued frequently with member of his studio
audiences, dismissing liberals in particular as “pablum
puckers.” One show erupted into a fistfight between
civil right advocates Al Sharpton and Roy Innis.
Years late, Mr. Downey
would acknowledge that he probably carried things too far.
“It got out of control because the producers ... wanted
me to top myself every night,” he said in the early
1990s. “If I did something outlandish on Monday night,
on Tuesday night we’d have to think of something even
more outlandish. And after a while, you work yourself toward
the edge of the trampoline, and you fall off. I fell off a
number of times, and I found it very displeasing.”
The effort to top himself
led to perhaps the biggest embarrassment of his career when
he claimed neo-Nazi skinheads attacked him in a San Francisco
airport restroom in April 1989, cutting off his hair and painting
a swastika on his head.
Authorities could never
verify the attack, and Mr. Downey’s critics pounced,
calling it a publicity stunt. The noted that he had been in
San Francisco to promote his show when it happened. A few
months later, the show was canceled.
Five years later, Mr. Downey launched a comeback with a new
show, simply called “Downey.” It met with less
success, and the star acknowledged he had toned it down.
In a 1995 interview
with the Associated Press, he described the show: “No
meanness this time. Just as confrontational, just as tough,
just as opinionated, but everyone else has the right to have
their opinion heard.”
Still, that didn’t
stop him from claiming on one episode to have achieved psychic
communication with the spirit of Nicole Brown Simpson, the
slain ex-wife of O.J. Simpson. Mr. Downey also acknowledged
that he was proud of many aspects of the original show, crediting
it for paving the way for shocking programs by Jerry Springer
‘Well, Springer’s doing your show now,’”
Mr. Downey said in 1998. “That’s not true. I didn’t
do sleaze. There were times that I did things that were a
little sleazy, but I didn’t do shows on my neighbor’s
collie dog having sex with my neighbor’s wife.”
He also said the show
provided a forum for working-class people fed up with what
politicians in Washington were doing with their tax money.
“It isn’t the rich people who come up and say,
‘Oh, Mort, you’re just great,’” Mr.
Downey once said. “It’s the blacks and the ethnics
and the blue collars, those guys with too much hair on their
shoulder blades. They want some answers.”
Born Sean Morton Downey
Jr. on Dec. 9, 1933, the talk-show host grew up in privilege,
attending military school and earning a marketing degree and
a law degree. He also acted in such TV shows and movies as
“Tales from the Crypt,” “Meet Wally Sparks,”
“Revenge of the Nerds III,” “Predator II,”
and the new “Rockford Files.”
His work as a songwriter
included the 1960s surf hits “Wipeout” and “Pipeline.”
He earned several advanced college degrees, studied in Nigeria
and aided Biafran refugees in the 1970s. He worked briefly
for the Justice Department when Robert F. Kennedy was attorney
general. Survivors include his fourth wife and four daughters.
Article taken from the
Metro Section of the Washington Post on Wednesday, March 14,