Critics Say His Mouth Needs Washing, but Morton Downey's Talk Show Is a Screaming Hit
updated 04/11/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 04/11/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT
In less than six months, such high-pitched theatrics have earned conservative Downey, 55, a cult following in the nationwide audience within super-station WWOR's reach. With his attacks on the likes of Planned Parenthood, antismoking advocacy and the ACLU, Downey has become the most visible—and easily the most audible—crank in the country. Free tickets to his tapings command a scalper's price of $50 each. Next month MCA will begin syndicating The Morton Downey Jr. Show, sometimes in the 11 p.m. time slot that runs into King Carson's terrain. He's been lampooned on David Letterman and Saturday Night Live. "He's hit a critical nerve in middle-class America," says Brian Bedol, senior vice president of Quantum Media Inc., which produces Downey. "It's like watching somebody tell off the boss."
Not everyone is so enthusiastic. A New Jersey judge, calling the show "vulgar and vitriolic," decreed that Downey must go to trial next week on assault charges pressed by gay activist Andrew Humm. According to show guest Humm, Downey slapped him during a never-aired debate over Roman Catholic doctrine. Downey also faces a suit by two Troma Inc. executives who claim they were injured when Mort, objecting to one of their gory, low-budget movies, had them ejected from the set. Media critics, too, have objected to TV's Prince of Put-downs, labeling Downey everything from "an embarrassment" to "a disgrace."
"I'm me," says Mort endearingly, as he sits in his Fort Lee, N.J., condo, sipping coffee and stubbing out the sixth of 80 cigarettes he will smoke this day. If Downey is the devil in disguise, he's costumed brilliantly—in blue-striped shirt, tan pants and old-fashioned courtesy. Fumbling for a name, he calls to his wife of 11 years—"Mom, come help me out here." The third "Mommy" in his marital parade, Kim, 31, is a woman he unabashedly adores. Daughter Kelli, 21—one of three daughters by two prior Mommies—rushes in and gives him an exuberant "Hi, Dad" hug.
Though his politics and his TV style are as subtle as a meat cleaver, Downey himself is a complex man. Now a reactionary hero of the blue-collared, he was born among the liberal well-to-do. A staunch defender of family values, he came from a violently broken home. A law-and-order fanatic, he once did time in jail.
Given the emotional fractures of his childhood, it's a surprise his seismic contradictions haven't toppled him long since. He was the oldest child of Morton Downey, a crooner ("Wabash Moon," " When Irish Eyes Are Smiling") whose dreamy vocals and cherubic charm made him one of the most popular radio personalities of the '30s and '40s. Downey Sr. spun his success into social status and political influence, numbering Joseph Kennedy Sr. among his friends. Morton Jr. grew up shuttled among four homes—including one on Squaw Island, Cape Cod, which in 1962 served as JFK's summer White House.
His mother, too, was famous—beautiful Barbara Bennett, dancing sister of Constance and Joan. But in 1941, when Mort was 9, Barbara took up with another man. "It was the first time I ever saw my father cry," Mort remembers. "I felt instantly sorry for him, and he instantly told me what a bad person my mother was. I bought it. I had seen her drunk, and I had seen the guy who'd been living with us while my father was on the road."
To gain her freedom to marry Addison Randall, a minor movie-cowboy, Barbara had relinquished custody of Morton, Kevin, Anthony, Lorelle Ann, and an adopted son, Michael. What Bennett, who died in 1958, apparently didn't understand was that she would be permanently separated from her children. "She went to court 18 times to get visitation rights, never mind custody, just to see us," says Mort, "and she was turned down 18 times." Condemned from the bench as a woman who "permitted volatile infatuation to be substituted for mother love," Bennett became a pathetic headline.
The children were sent to Walling-ford, Conn., to be raised by their paternal grandparents, and there Downey, by his own admission a "difficult kid," began a turbulent relationship with his usually absent father. "He had a vicious temper," Mort says. "He had an elephant tusk that was cut into a shoehorn, and when he came home every three weeks or months, he'd ask what we'd done wrong and hit us with this shoehorn."
Even that fragile sense of home dissolved when Downey was sent to military school at age 10. "When vacations came, I never knew where I'd go," he recalls. That floating sensation increased when his father married one of the richest women in America, Margaret Boyce Schulze Hohenlohe in 1950. "In four years," he says, "I went to their apartment maybe four times."
The battles with Morton Sr. intensified. When his father reneged on a bet with him, Mort, then 16, responded by stealing a $78 royalty check. "A few weeks later, I spilled my guts," Downey relates. "He drop-kicked me over a chaise. We were on the 11th floor and my instinct was to rush him and throw him out the window. But I thought he'd land on the sidewalk and not get hurt. That's how afraid I was of my father."
Their relationship became even more strained when Mort, at 18, sought out his mother, whom he hadn't seen in 10 years. "She was an alcoholic; that's what she died of," says Downey, who brought Barbara to live with him following his short-lived marriage to a Westchester debutante in 1954. "I was trying to get work as a singer, and I came home one night and found a note: 'You have to get on your own two feet and you don't need a drunken mother to help you.' " Downey was in Los Angeles when she died six months later, and he called his father for plane fare to the funeral. "It was the only time I ever asked him for money," Mort says, "and he refused."
Sometimes calling himself Sean Downey (like his father, he was born Sean Morton), he knocked around Hollywood. "The name Downey opened doors," he notes, "but they slammed just as fast, because that same name controlled them." Dad's attempts to keep him out of show business reached their peak, according to Mort, when he arranged for his son to be sent to jail for bouncing a check. "Years later he apologized," says Downey, who served 61 days in Mira Loma, Calif.
When he got out, Downey resumed his showbiz quest. Crisscrossing the country over the next two decades, he worked as a singer, disc jockey and political lobbyist. He married for a second time, in 1962. That 14-year union, to Joan Tyrrell, a Playboy Bunny, produced Tracey in 1963 and Kelli in 1967; Mort, who also had custody of his oldest daughter, Melissa, eventually raised all three girls. "Both wives wanted to pursue careers," he explains. "Looking back, I don't see anything wrong with that."
When he met Kim Cotton in 1976, Downey, a vision in blue sequins, was performing at the Red Pussycat in Salina, Kans. "He came over to my table and sang 'After the Lovin' ' to me," she recalls. "I thought, 'Oh, this guy has his routine down.' I also thought he was a lot younger, so when he told me he had children, I imagined these little tiny kids. But they were 9 and 13, and it was terrifying."
Even more alarming to her were Mort's newfound friends—Right to Life advocates. "They were fanatics," Kim says, closing her eyes. Once a "Pablum-puker" himself, Downey had served as a campaign aide to his boyhood acquaintances John and Robert Kennedy. During the '70s, however, he grew disillusioned with Democratic liberalism. He joined the National Right to Life Organization in 1974, quickly became one of their directors and ran as their presidential candidate in 1980.
In 1982, when Downey was working as a lobbyist in Orlando, Fla., Kim spotted an ad for a radio talk show host and urged him to apply. His first show on WDBO included phone guests Jesse Jackson and Jesse Helms. His contentious persona would develop through six cities, including Sacramento, Calif., where he was fired in 1984 for screaming a racial slur at a Chinese councilman. "I don't think he understood what he was saying," says Paul Aaron, then broadcasting director of KFBK. "He's more sympathetic than most Americans to all types of causes."
Michael Lonneke, former general manager of WMAQ in Chicago, where Downey worked prior to his TV show, supports that view. "He had a lot of black callers," says Lonneke, "and there were times when he pulled people of divergent views together."
"He has a great sense of humor—especially about himself," says Mort's stepmother Ann Downey. The last of his father's three wives, she was instrumental in the reconciliation that occurred between Mort Sr. and his children before his death in 1985.
Though alienated from his adopted brother, Michael, Mort regularly sees Kevin and Tony. His sister, Lorelle, died in 1977 in a halfway house for the mentally ill. "She had over 300 shock treatments and a frontal lobotomy," says Mort, who claims Lorelle was not a paranoid schizophrenic, as diagnosed. "In fairness to my father, I think he got bad advice."
Mort's family now includes four grandchildren. He and Kim, who's studying social work, also hope to have a child; feminist-baiter Downey says he'll help with the baby's care.
Despite the televised ranting, Downey's own politics remain unpredictable. "I don't think he's about politics. You tune in to him," says David Letter-man writer Chris Elliott, who often sticks lumps on his face to impersonate Mort. "I find his personality entertaining—and also his moles."
Indeed Elliott, like millions of other Americans, is stunned to find himself Mortified. "I'd like to have dinner with him," he confesses, "but I wouldn't want anybody to see us."