On August 13th CNN is airing Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie. Before the world ever heard of Jerry Springer, before Maury confronted his first baby-daddy and before Geraldo took a chair to the face, the term “Trash T.V.” was coined for Morton Downey, Jr. who would blow smoke in the face of anyone that disagreed with him. At the very mention of his name I would cringe as he possessed no obvious redeeming qualities. He was a chain-smoking bully, he was loud, offensive, opinionated, obnoxious and those were his among his most flattering traits. If you happened upon his show it was impossible not to watch, it was a spectacle, it was raw, aggressive, confrontational and it was apparent that it was off the rails and that anything could happen; it felt like civilization was eroding away with each episode.
When I got the assignment to photograph Morton Downey, Jr. for Time Magazine I was intrigued as I had no idea what to expect other than uncomfortable confrontation. His show had been cancelled some years earlier on the heels of an incident where he claimed to be the victim of a skinhead attack in a San Francisco Airport bathroom (which was believed to be a self induced attack as there were no witnesses and the swastikas etched on his forehead were reversed as if they had been drawn in a mirror). His most recent press was due to his battle with lung cancer which surprised no one as he had been the poster boy for pro-tobacco. The shoot was scheduled to take place at his home and other than a phone number that no one answered, I was given no access to him or any of his people so there had been no communication before the shoot to discuss ideas. We were going in blind.
Unaware of what we would encounter we packed the grip truck with everything we could possibly need. Just as we got on the freeway the truck’s engine started making a wheezing noise and the truck lurched erratically. Being a believer in the Vince Lombardy school of punctuality I decided to keep driving. Unfortunately my truck had other plans and sputtered to a stop on the side of the road about halfway there. After I called for a tow truck I called the number I had been given and this time there was an answer on the first ring. Morton Downey picked up the phone and I explained the situation. To my utter amazement he was calm, seemed genuinely concerned about myself and my assistant and made nothing of the impact on his time; he even offered to come get us himself which, of course I declined. Not exactly the tirade for which I had braced myself .
We had the truck towed back to my studio, tossed the bare essentials into my car and raced to the location. When we arrived we were greeted by a very upbeat, gaunt Morton Downey, Jr. wearing a satin robe with large pink lapels and a pattern of broken hearts. He greeted us and insisted that we sit and catch our breath while he offered us cocktails and insisted we eat some food he had ordered in for us. Who was this guy? I had expected to encounter a dictatorial, foot stomping, pompous, self-centered prick and instead I was being engaged by the most hospitable and charming host I’ve ever photographed. I was dubious of the situation and found myself gauging his every action and word in an effort to determine if his good nature was an act. It quickly became obvious he was just being himself. I lost a little bit of my innocence that day as I realized that the “Morton Downey, Jr.” that I despised was a cartoon he had created, a character like a professional wrestler, a total fabrication.
After a quick discussion we decided to make his reputation for confrontation the theme of the shoot and he vanished to reappear moments later in boxing gear and dress shoes. Considering his reputation and battle with cancer I thought it an apropos statement. As we shot he was playful and silly but this time the clown was self-deprecating and had an innocence, there was no sharp edge looking to draw blood. Was this always who he was or had his struggles with cancer and career softened him into the generous, gregarious man I saw through the lens? The fact that I included the playhouse in the background in the boxing shot is a testament that I was a convert and wanted to give a nod to his sensitive side. When discussing the playhouse he beamed at the mention of his young daughter. Volkswagen had recently reintroduced the Beetle and it was a pretty hot commodity. Even though his daughter was just 5 or 6 he bought one and had it put directly into storage. Weather he was going to be around when she got her license or not he wanted to insure that he was there in spirit.
He turned out to be a great subject and collaborator, he was engaged in the shots and wanted to push the envelope. He had no agenda and was an open book. I had to keep reminding him who the client was as he wanted to get really creative. His show’s logo had been an open mouth with trademark big teeth. He had lost his teeth during cancer treatment and he had no qualms about being photographed without them. This certainly was a Morton Downey with less bite as was apparent by the warm wishes and encouragement we witnessed pouring in from very influential Hollywood and political figures. There was talk of a biopic in development and several A-list actors were vying to play the part of Mort.
As we were leaving, my assistant discovered two $100 bills that Morton had somehow slipped into his pocket as he said “What’s a hardworking photo assistant make these days?” We were both amazed by the generosity and my assistant was so moved by the gesture that he used the money to send flowers as a show of respect to Morton and his wife. Morton lost his battle to lung cancer just about a year after we made these images. To this day when I see a young woman driving a Beetle I wonder if her dad might be Morton Downey, Jr.