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Morton Downey Jr.
Notable Person of Creole



Great Great grandson of

Morris W. Morris

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 of refugees.

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 year.

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 and others.

“Everyone says, ‘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, 2001.

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