March 26, 2001 12:00 PM

One day last week, Morton Downey Jr. asked his wife, Lori Krebs, to bring their daughter Seanna, 7, to his hospital bedside. “They spoke for a while, and he said, ‘Bye,’ ” says Krebs. “We always said, ‘See you later.’ I thought, ‘Oh, dear, this is it.’ ”

And so, on March 12, with his daughters from three previous marriages—Tracey, 37, Kelli, 34, and Melissa, 45—at his side, and with Krebs holding his hand, Downey, 68, a former five-pack-a-day smoker, died of complications from lung cancer. He went quietly—something his fans would never have expected. For from 1987 to 1989, Downey was the bellowing voice of shock TV, paving the way for the Jerry Springers to follow. “He was the creator of in-your-face television,” says Larry King. “He would’ve made a great color commentator for the XFL.”

The son of tenor Morton Downey and dancer Barbara Bennett, Sean Morton Downey Jr. was born into a life of luxury that ended with his parents’ divorce when he was 8. After a series of boarding schools he bounced through several careers, including lounge singer and political lobbyist, before moving on to radio.

Downey was a Chicago radio talk show host when he landed his nightly TV show. Characterizing guests as “wimps” or “scumbuckets,” he reserved his greatest wrath for liberal “pablum pukers.” Still, says Sally Jessy Raphaël, off the air “he was as gentle as could be—the opposite of the man on TV.”

After plummeting ratings ended his show’s brief run, Downey embarked on yet another career, acting in a series of third-rate movies. And after cancer surgery on his right lung in 1996, he became a fervent antismoking advocate. In the end, says Krebs, 37, “He went knowing that people who loved him were there. I said, ‘I love you so much.’ ”

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