Mort, Mort, Mort!” The studio audience can barely contain itself. And suddenly, in answer to their chant, 55-year-old Morton Downey Jr. comes bounding onstage. So begins another rabble-rousing installment of the Morton Downey Jr. Show, a television phenomenon with all the wild excitement, visceral kicks and unfettered emotion of an ancient Roman circus. In his eight months on the air, Downey has made a name for himself as a combination talk show host and ideological hanging judge. Whipping his fans into a carefully orchestrated frenzy, Downey rails against such familiar right-wing targets as feminism, abortion and “Pablum-pukers”—known to the world at large simply as liberals. Beg to differ with him? “Bitch! Wimp! Scumbucket!”—he has called troublesome guests all of these. You got a problem with that, pal? “Zip it! Shut up! Get him outta here!” he is likely to bray at the top of his lungs. Given the right subject, Mort is even willing to try a little nonverbal communication. In April he was acquitted of assault charges brought by a gay activist after the two men had a physical collision during a never-aired debate on Roman Catholic doctrine.
Typically, Mort’s audience is all aquiver tonight. The subject is homosexuality and AIDS, and Downey has promised a bombshell. He does not disappoint. “I’m going to introduce you to the brother of a celebrity. He’s going to come out of the closet. He’s an AIDS patient and he’s dying,” he tells the crowd. Then he introduces the unfortunate. “This is Tony. Downey is his last name. He’s my brother.”
Mort’s partisans are, well, mortified. They sit in stunned silence as their champion, heretofore known as one of the most ferocious gay-baiters of them all, throws his arm around Tony, 52, and affectionately tousles his hair. “I love my brother,” says Mort. And the feeling is reciprocated. “I know who he is,” says Tony. “He’s my brother, whom I love very much.”
The show, to be aired this week on at least 34 stations, has given shoot-from-the-lip Downey reason for pause. “Frankly,” he says, “I was concerned my audience would abandon me now because they know I have a gay brother.” The pause is brief. Downey is back in character almost at once. “Then I said to myself, ‘I don’t give a s—.’ ”
Mort was the oldest of four siblings—three sons and a daughter—born to crooner Morton (When Irish Eyes Are Smiling) Downey and Barbara Bennett, the dancer sister of actresses Joan and Constance. Though the Downey children were financially privileged, growing up on Manhattan’s East Side and summering on Cape Cod, the family was emotionally bankrupt. Their father was cold and aloof, their mother an alcoholic. The two divorced when Morton was 9, and the children went to live with their paternal grandparents and other relatives.
As kids, Mort and Tony were polar opposites. “I always stayed in the corner,” says Tony. “Mort was a hellion—always into pranks. Once he locked me and Grandma in the closet for two hours. Another time he said he’d teach me to ride a sled—he tied me to it.”
Tony realized his sexual orientation was different from Mort’s when he was 14. But his initiation—if it can be called that—came earlier. Soon after his 11th birthday, Tony was raped by a relative. For three years the boy was repeatedly attacked, and it was in this brutal manner, Tony believes, that he “learned” to be homosexual. “He was ashamed,” says Mort. “No one in the family would face it. The only one he could talk to was me.” At one point Mort, who comes close to tears as his brother recalls the ordeal, tried to intervene by telling their father. Tony remembers, “He had the s—-beat out of him for saying such a thing.”
By age 18, Tony was frequenting gay bars in New York, and Mort often had to rescue him from potentially embarrassing situations. “Hell,” says Mort, “I bailed him out of so many gay bars he got caught in….I never approved, but he’s my brother.”
In time, the brothers went their own ways. Tony moved out West to sell real estate in San Diego. He was able to hide his homosexuality from his coworkers and from everyone in his family except Mort. “He was always afraid for Dad to know because Dad was so intransigent,” says Mort. “He didn’t want to face the reality. In those days fathers of gay people believed, ‘Gee, there must be something wrong with my masculinity.’ ” The result, says Tony, “is that Dad never knew me. And when you hide yourself from your parents, you’re hiding yourself from yourself.”
At the same time, Mort began his own professional hegira from lounge singer to disc jockey to political lobbyist. In the process he married three times and fathered three daughters. Meanwhile he kept in close touch with Tony. “I knew when he was happy with someone because he’d bring the guy around,” says Mort. “When that person left him, he was lonely.”
Though Mort learned to tolerate his brother’s homosexuality, he never accepted it and tried for years to arrange dates for Tony with women. “He has told me many times,” says Tony, ” ‘I wish you weren’t gay.’ But that’s the way it is. I wish I weren’t an alcoholic, but I am.”
Tony was diagnosed as HIV-positive three years ago. His first reaction was denial. He refused to believe he had AIDS and took five more tests, all with the same result. “I began drinking and drugging heavily,” he says. “I was doing it all.” Although he was able to kick booze, cocaine and Xanax, a prescription tranquilizer, last year, his health had already started to deteriorate. By the time he began treatments with the AIDS-fighting drug AZT early this year, Tony had lost 30 lbs. and was racked by fevers and coughing spasms.
On AZT, Tony has recovered some of the lost ground and says he feels “better and better.” But most AIDS victims have to pay $1,150 a month for the drug that he receives free as a participant in a federally funded research program, and that makes him angry. Angry enough, in fact, to go public with his story on his brother Mort’s electronic soapbox and to appeal for a national treatment program for AIDS sufferers.
“I didn’t realize he had that type of guts,” says Mort admiringly. “If my show is canceled three days after Tony’s segment airs, they can all go f—themselves.” Their brother Kevin, 49, an advertising salesman in Rhode Island, is less thrilled by Tony’s new candor and Mort’s enthusiasm for telling the world. “He’s embarrassed by it,” says Mort. “We were invited to his son’s wedding, but now that all this has become public, we’ve received a telegram telling us not to come.”
No problem. Tony, Mort and Mort’s wife, Kim, will enjoy a quiet weekend at home in Mort’s condominium apartment in Fort Lee, N.J. In fact, Tony will stay with them for a while. For how long? “Till he gets better,” vows Mort.
—By Jack Friedman, with Vicki Balfour in New York