Contrary to his fragmentation-grenade TV persona, the Morton Downey Jr. I knew was a pussycat. A pussycat o’ nine tails sometimes, but a pussycat all the same.
I got to know Mort – the subject of a new documentary called “Evocateur” — when he was just beginning to develop the obstreperous, outrageous on-air shtick that a few years later would make him briefly notorious.
All you “loudmouths” and “pablum-puking liberals” out there know what I’m talking about. On the nationally syndicated show that he and MTV mastermind Bob Pittman concocted, Mort made Jerry Springer look like a Nelson Mandela and Rush Limbaugh sound like Fred Rogers.
But that’s not what he was like when I did lunch with him several times in the early 1980s. I was the TV critic for The Orlando Sentinel, and he had recently joined the talent roster of WDBO Radio, an old-school CBS affiliate that broadcast a mix of easy listening music, news updates and innocuous chit chat. For WDBO back then, pushing the envelope meant silly stuff like its comic commercials for the “Heinie Winery.” The fake spots typically ended with the announcer delivering a line about the wonders a little Heinie every day would do for you.
Mort fit right in. His nightly program consisted of him playing “my daddy’s records” – his father having been Morton Sr., an Irish tenor who had been a star in the 1920s and ’30s – and engaging in nostalgic chit-chat with listeners who phoned in. It was about as fiery as a meeting of Larry King and Lawrence Welk.
But Mort quickly discovered something that I, having been a columnist at the Sentinel for several years, knew all too well: Central Florida, for all its Disney World fantasy and EPCOT progressivism, was crawling with wing nuts, conspiracy theorists, Birchers and bigots. Many of the same folks who sent their friendly, neighborhood TV columnist scrawled hate mail railing about his affection for pinko-commie network news anchors, people of color, fem-Nazis and “queers” found in Mort…well, if not an honestly sympathetic ear, certainly an obliging, opportunistic sounding board. He played his daddy’s music less and took more calls.
It was about that time that he first invited me to lunch.
I had never laid eyes on the man until that sweltering Florida morning he pulled into the Sentinel parking lot in a Lincoln Continental hardtop. The car was flashy. His suit, when he climbed out to greet me, cigarette in hand, was flashy. And so, especially, were his teeth. I had to force myself not to stare. The man had choppers like the white cliffs of Dover.
To my surprise, considering his ostentation, he did not steer us straight to some posh downtown eatery. He drove to a little, nondescript rib joint in a black section of Orlando that I had passed through maybe once in all the time I’d been at the paper. He grabbed the check when we’d finished off our pulled pork sandwiches and iced tea, but I insisted on picking up the tab. I knew he was out for publicity, and I didn’t want to feel indebted to him.
After that, we always went Dutch. And never once did we dine at any place fancy. Mort loved to eat, and he seemed to have found every good, out-of-the way place in town for soul food, Asian and Cuban.
He quickly gave up on me as a publicity outlet. Radio wasn’t my bailiwick at the Sentinel – it was part of the music beat. And I had what I considered a conflict of interest. I was doing occasional radio spots about TV for a rival radio station.
Political subjects almost never came up, but when they did, we argued genially. No frothing, no name calling. Mostly we talked about music. I had a big album collection and was the kind of record nerd who knew who wrote songs and which artist had been on what label. Mort was if anything more knowledgeable, fluent in not only with the sweet pop of his daddy’s era but with R&B, doo-wop and early rock ’n’ roll.
He’d made some records of his own in the 1950s, and he’d been a DJ. I took him at his word when he told me that he had been pals with legends like Cousin Brucie and Murray the K and that he knew Dion and Jackie Wilson. When he solemnly recalled how he would have died in the crash with Buddy Holly and Richie Valens if he hadn’t turned down that fateful plane ride, I wasn’t so sure.
What I did understand was that Morton Downey Jr. longed to be as famous as his daddy had once been, that he had tried his hand at a variety of media roles without attaining that level of success, that he was still very ambitious and that he was – how to put it? — adaptable.
His Orlando stay was not long. He moved on to a larger radio market – I don’t even recall where — and I lost track of him until he showed up on national TV in the late ’80s seething with fang-flaring indignation, baiting and shouting at his guests. His act – and I believe it was largely an act — was so far beyond even his Orlando radio bluster, let alone his lunch-time pleasantry, and that I wondered if he had been bitten by a werewolf.
At the height of his notoriety — before he apparently went off the deep end — I did a telephone interview with him for my new home paper, the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.
He was just as cordial as ever and was clearly reveling in his national celebrity. He asked how I was adjusting to life in the frozen north and how my kids were doing. Never once did he call me a pablum-puking liberal. Maybe he just didn’t feel the need to state the obvious.