Eyes bulging, chin jutting, fists clenched against the forces of reason, he came barreling across the country, a radio and TV personality with insults to spare. Bounced from Sacramento to Denver to Chicago, he landed in Secaucus, N.J., in 1987—miraculously, with a nationally broadcast TV talk show. Talk? There was precious little of that. With a picture of a large, gaping mouth as his on-set symbol and a set of clacking choppers as his station-break logo, television’s most abusive host spit and bellowed through every encounter. “Pablum puker!” came the roaring rebuke each time a guest ventured an opinion not shared by the host. “Zip it, fathead!” On the sidelines, an audience that might have preferred a public execution would stomp its approval, screaming “MORT! MORT! MORT! MORT!”
Yet only weeks after its debut, The Morton Downey Jr. Show was a certified hit, recognized even by its critics as the lip-flapping flagship in a late-’80s parade of down-and-dirty, confrontational TV. And for more than a year, Downey, 56, rode that wave of public rage, playing the lout for the cameras but keeping a cap-toothed, smiling distance from his Mad Mort persona.
Things started slipping early this year. With the initial shock value gone, his ratings began to slide. He filed for divorce from third wife Kim Cotton and became engaged to Lori Krebs. The final stumble that caused his fall from the peaks of public fascination came April 24, when Downey announced he had been attacked in a San Francisco airport bathroom by a roving band of neo-Nazi skinheads intent on crayoning swastikas on his face. Police didn’t buy the story—despite Mort’s eager display of his oddly decorated skull. The skepticism hurt Downey, who had already promised station managers he would tone things down. Advertisers continued to yank their support, and on July 19 Quantum Media Inc., which produces the show, and MCA-TV, its distributor, announced they will be canceling Mort’s gig Sept. 15.
By now even Downey realized his offscreen antics had undermined his credibility. “I think I must have looked like one paranoid man totally out of control with my personal life,” he said. “I stepped into my own manure.”
Others took a more expansive view of Downey’s downfall. “He was the first victim of advertisers’ overreaction to special interest groups,” said his show’s executive producer, Bill Boggs. “But he will learn from this experience and come back better.”
For better or worse, Downey plans to come back. He has announced he will produce (at his own expense) five TV specials that will show “a new, less abrasive side.” He has also vowed a kinder, gentler Mort will serve as spokesperson for a syndicated radio spot called America’s Listening. If that turn of the image doesn’t do the trick, he claims he has signed to star in a prime-time sitcom about a country singer with three daughters.
Okay, okay, so he never acted before. As Mort might so winningly put it, “YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT?”