By JERRY BARMASH
For a brief moment in the late 1980s, 55-year-old Morton Downey Jr. found the stardom that eluded him for his entire career. But as quickly as he shot to fame, he burned out.
In a new documentary by Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, and Jeremy Newberger, Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr Movie examines that dramatic rise and fall with the backdrop of trying to duplicate, or to outshine, his successful parents.
The film, being distributed by Magnolia Pictures, was released last Friday mostly to smaller art houses as part of a smaller theatrical presence. However Evocateur, screened at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, is also available now on TV via On Demand and for downloading through iTunes. He anticipates the film will reach Netflix customers in the short term, and ultimately could be shown on cable.
With a direct lineage to politics-themed Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and the trashy Jerry Springer and Maury Povich, Kramer tells Tuned In that the timing was right for Downey’s story to finally be told. He says the three filmmakers are “recovering Mort fans.”
In 1987, Bob Pittman, who founded MTV, approached Downey about coming to television. Downey had begun turning heads as a right-wing radio host, and over-the-top guest. This was the era of kinder, gentler fare, with Phil Donahue still ruling the roost.
“It was like if you gave someone psychotic their own talk show,” Kramer says. “He was the most brutal, abusive host in the history of television.”
The studio audience, known as “the mob,” helped fuel the fire. Many audience members, and even guests, were thrown out by bodyguards.
“What we didn’t know then was that he was actually changing TV in some pretty huge ways,” Kramer says.
Downey’s show, produced at the WWOR studios in Seacaucus, New Jersey, started in October 1987. By early 1988, the show was syndicated nationally, giving viewers a chance to hear such catch phrases as, “Zip It!” and “pablum puking liberal,” and see Downey chain smoke.
As Downey’s project was researched by Kramer and his fellow filmmakers, (a process he says took five years from start to finish), they kept uncovering surprises about their subject.
“He had the weirdest life. The biggest [surprise] is probably he portrayed himself as this blue collar, everyman, a man of the people,” Kramer says. “But in reality, he came from an extremely privileged background. You probably can’t find a more elevated social circle than the one he came from.
“He was sort of like a cultural chameleon, trying to become famous in each successive decade,” Kramer says. “…It was almost like a Zelig or Forrest Gump. He somehow perfectly represented each decade and what you would try to do if you were trying to become a star.”
His star finally twinkled on his self-titled program, where Downey gave the term “in your face” a new meaning. There were the confrontations, the vulgarity, as he mixed it up with the likes of the Ku Klux Klan, Congressman Ron Paul, and recurring guest Al Sharpton, who was representing Tawana Brawley.
Not only is Kramer convinced the trailblazing Downey show wouldn’t be successful in the 21st century, he’s certain it wouldn’t even have made it to air.
“It was a big experiment in television history, sort of like a social experiment in verbal combat,” Kramer says.
Before he landed in New York (or New Jersey), Downey was honing his “skills” on the radio in Sacramento, where he was fittingly succeeded by Rush Limbaugh in 1984.
Kramer says, “It gives you some sense of what kind of audience Downey was appealing to on that station, and the scope of the trend that was then emerging.”
Kramer believes that Downey would have a longer shelf life as a star if he stayed in radio.
“He might have been more legendary.”
A three-time Emmy Award nominee for his work on PBS, Kramer says Baby Boomer documentarians are getting older, leaving the next generation to explore “Awesome 80s” topics. Despite a long history with PBS, a la Ken Burns, Kramer isn’t planning to see Evocateur coming to a public television station near you anytime soon.
“It’s got so much profanity. It’s got nudity”
But Kramer cracks that the movie’s only chance to find a home on PBS would be if the network offered viewers a late night alternative.
Although Downey couldn’t participate, having died from lung cancer in 2001, family members, friends and colleagues told the triumvirate of directors that he would have loved the film, even though it’s hardly a love letter.
“I think that he would see the bad things that we have in the movie, or him not behaving very well at all, and probably be OK with that,” Kramer says. “I think that he would appreciate that three former fans cared enough to look back at him.”
In the end, Downey is portrayed as a tragic character. Kramer feels, “The thing that made Mort successful, which was this incredible rage, this incredible energy, and ability to be a very entertaining loose cannon.” That he maintains, “is the very thing that also guaranteed his downfall.”
Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures