Morton Downey Jr. _ 'Mort the Mouth' _ dies in Los Angeles

Tuesday, March 13th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Before Jerry Springer and Jenny Jones, there was Morton Downey Jr., a growling and opinionated TV talk show host who shocked viewers from behind a haze of cigarette smoke.

America, he once told The Associated Press, saw him as ``a loudmouth who gets in trouble just like they do, who's had problems just like they had, someone that they can identify with a lot more than someone who's squeaky clean.''

Downey, who reigned over ``Trash TV'' in the 1980s and tried to clean up his act for a return, died of lung cancer and other respiratory problems, his family said Monday night. He was 67.

``The family is very grief stricken and very shocked right now,'' one of Downey's four daughters, Tracey Downey, told KABC-TV. ``He was a wonderful, wonderful man, wonderful father. He will be deeply, deeply, deeply missed.''

A chain smoker for years until losing a lung to cancer, 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 in the 1980s.

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.''

Downey was the son of popular singer Morton Downey and his dancer-wife, Barbara Bennett. He pursued a number of professions including businessman, author, radio host, singer and songwriter, composing such hit surf-rock songs as ``Pipeline'' and ``Wipeout'' in the 1960s.

But it wasn't until the 1980s that he became a household name with ``The Morton Downey Jr. Show.''

Debuting in the New York City area in 1987, it became a hit almost immediately and was syndicated nationally the following year.

In its heyday, he was known as ``Mort the Mouth,'' the host who mocked his sometimes bizarre guests as ``slime'' or ``scumbucket'' and argued frequently with members of his studio audience, dismissing liberals in particular as ``pablum pukers.''

One show erupted into a fist fight between civil rights advocates Al Sharpton and Roy Innis.

Years later he 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 Downey's critics pounced, calling it a publicity stunt. They noted he had been in San Francisco to promote his show when it happened.

A few months later, the show was canceled.

Five years later, Downey launched a comeback with a new show, titled simply ``Downey.'' It met with less success, and Downey acknowledged he had toned it down.

In a 1995 interview with AP, 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 and be 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 murdered ex-wife of O.J. Simpson.

Downey also acknowledged that he was proud of many aspects of the original show, crediting it for paving the way for shocking programs by Springer and others.

``Everyone says, `Well, Springer's doing your show now,''' 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 Americans fed up with what politicians in Washington, D.C., were doing with their tax money.

``It isn't the rich people who come up and say, `Oh, Mort, you're just great,''' 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 appeared as an actor 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.''

Downey said he was introduced to cigarettes at age 11 as part of a hazing ritual in military school.

``They tied me to a chair. They took wire hangers and whipped you until you learned to inhale,'' he said. ``That was part of hazing.''

For a time, he was a member of the board of the National Smokers Alliance, a group promoting the right to smoke.