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Morton Downey Jr.’s show differed greatly from his father’s (a famed Irish tenor). It was a throwback to the confrontational talk shows pioneered by Joe Pyne and Alan Burke in the late 1960s.
The Morton Downey Jr. Show began on 12 October 1987 as a live evening talk show on the New York/New Jersey superstation WWOR, and the ultra-conservative, chain-smoking host quickly acquired a cult following, especially among young men, for his loud, abrasive style and his penchant for insulting his guests (on one show in January 1988, Downey wrapped an American flag around his butt and told his Iranian guest to kiss it).
In May 1988, the show was syndicated nationally and enjoyed a brief reign of popularity, as did its foul-mouthed, belligerent, self-promoting host.
Debates were conducted like street fights, and the studio audience – nicknamed ‘The Beast’ – behaved like a mob. One television critic called it “the Dante’s Inferno of talk shows”.
On one of the more notorious shows in 1988, a fight broke out between black activist Roy Innis (who was also involved in an altercation on Geraldo) and outspoken black minister Al Sharpton.
Another bizarre incident occurred offstage in 1989 when Downey claimed to have been attacked and beaten by skinheads in a San Francisco airport men’s room, though no corroborating evidence was ever produced.
Inevitably, audiences soon tired of the style, and the show vanished quietly fourteen months after its national premiere. In February 1990,
Downey filed for bankruptcy, and he spent the rest of his career hosting poorly rated cable shows or mid-market drive-time radio before resurfacing on the national stage as a penitent anti-smoking activist after being diagnosed with lung cancer in 1996.
He died from lung cancer and pneumonia on 12 March 2001. He was 68.