When he was a teenager in Edison, N.J., Daniel Miller’s friends used to pile into cars and go to tapings of the incendiary “Morton Downey Jr. Show,” reporting back on developments “to our utter glee.” Miller never went himself, but he was a regular viewer of the seminal trash-TV talk show host and now he and friends Seth Kramer and Jeremy Newberger have directed “Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie,” which charts the stratospheric rise and precipitous fall of one of television’s most controversial, and possibly influential, figures.
One of the more shocking things you learn -- or are reminded -- is that Downey was only on the air for about two years, 1987-89, during which he turned his studio into the intellectual equivalent of the Roman Colosseum.
“That seems to be a common response,” Miller said. “But it seems that he tattooed himself on people’s brains. Between his cigarette smoke and his getting in your face, he opened the door for a lot of imitators. When he came along, TV talk was all ‘Donahue,’ and ‘Sally Jesse Raphael.’ Politeness reigned. You wanted to confront some of the people they had on the shows. Downey did.”
But Downey had political guests “so it was more heated. He became a conduit for his audience, the latent anger. And the distrust.”
Given the Tea Party’s shenanigans and the current polarization of the political landscape, it seems a good time to revisit Downey, the son of a famous Irish tenor, a friend of the Kennedy family, and a guy who really -- really -- wanted to be famous. One of the things “Evocateur” makes clear is just how desperately Downey needed to be a celebrity. If he took TV down with him, so be it.
“Downey was good in some respects, awful in some respects,” Miller said. “I grew up in Jersey. You saw people you never saw on TV before Downey."
“Was that a good thing, or a bad thing?” he asked, laughing. “I mean, you never saw people like he had before, unless it was on ‘Candid Camera.’ But it allowed these people a voice. It was really like an early version of social media. Anyone could get up on a soap box.”
There’s always a problem with democratizing media, Miller said, because it results in every argument striving for its lowest common denominator. “On Downey, the issues were dressed down to their simplest elements. But at least it’s not ‘Jersey Shore.’”
Making the film was a “journey” he said, one aided -- or abetted -- by MTV founder Bob Pittman, who had created the Downey show. “He had tapes in storage in the Jersey marshlands,” Miller said. “We picked them up with our U-Haul, 400 hours, plus all the show files, even the producers’ notes -- who they wanted to get, who they couldn’t get. When you go through them you see how increasingly difficult it became to get legitimate guests.”
That’s because, as “Evocateur” shows, Downey went so far over the top that serious people no longer wanted to be associated with him. One of the film’s more revelatory sequences involves Downey’s involvement with the case of Tawana Brawley, an upstate teenager who claimed (falsely, it was later revealed) to have been kidnapped and raped by white men and whose cause was taken up by, among others, activist and current MSNBC host Al Sharpton. “We haven’t been able to get on MSNBC,” Miller noted, without further comment. Downey would have been screaming.
"Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie" hits theaters June 7.