Quick: Do you know who sat in Rush Limbaugh’s radio-host chair before the big dittohead? Three local filmmakers — Red Hooks’s Seth Kramer, Cold Spring’s Daniel A. Miller, and Yorktown Heights’s Jeremy Newberger, all from the Garrison-based Ironbound Films — certainly do. The three were fans of the controversial Morton Downey, Jr. long before they knew each other. Recently, they made a documentary about the firebrand talk show host. Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie will have its premiere on April 19 at the Tribeca Film Festival, which will also host three other screenings of the movie. I spoke with Newberger about the project.
What made you want to do a documentary about Morton Downey, Jr.?
Myself, Seth, and Daniel all grew up in the suburbs of Long Island and New Jersey. All three of us watched The Morton Downey Jr. Show back in1987 and 1988. We had all been fans, but we never really talked about it until we were looking for an idea for our next film. We started remembering and recollecting these things, and it snapped that it was the perfect story to tell. Morton Downey, Jr. was a precursor to the kind of talk that happens on radio and television today.
It turns out, a lot of local personalities wound up in the film.
We spent a good deal of time trying to figure out who had the tapes of the show. It turned out, Bob Pittman, who was the executive producer and creator of The Morton Downey Jr. Show, had them. He was the creator of MTV and he’s the CEO of Clear Channel Communications, and he’s also a Westchester guy. We interviewed Sally Jessy Raphael, and she also lives in Westchester. And Mort’s writer, Jim Langan, is the executive editor of Hudson Valley News.
Was Bob Pittman supportive of the documentary?
He was — he gave us all of the show tapes. When we met with him, we hit him with a really developed pitch. We spent a lot of time trying to track the tapes down, so we really knew what we wanted the documentary to be. We didn’t want it to be a “Best Of” — we didn’t think that would serve as an interesting documentary. Instead, we wanted to show how this kind of populist personality was created. I think we reminded Bob Pittman of his own youthful spirit.
Before you delved into your research, what were your memories of The Morton Downey Jr. Show?
I watched a lot of episodes. I rememberd arguments about Israel and Palestine, and lots of arguments about the racial divide. I remember Al Sharpton being on the show, and in particular one memorable skirmish he had with Roy Innis. The show was spring training for a lot of people in the political theater today, and that’s the first place I heard a lot of names, like Al Sharpton, Gloria Allred, or Alan Dershowitz.
After you started your research, did you find anything you didn’t expect?
One of the biggest surprises was that we learned that Morton Downey, Jr.’s father and President Kennedy’s father were best friends. They were neighbors, and he basically grew up with the Kennedy family.
For one of your previous films, The Linguists, you had to travel to all of these remote locations. What were the biggest challenges of this film?
The Linguists was definitely a challenge of endurance. For this film, the obstacles were mostly finding people and scheduling. But almost everyone we contact was either willing to talk to us, or waiting for our call on some level.
What did the documentary make you realize about the kind of media personalities there are today?
It showed us that, every 10 to 15 years, this kind of populist entertainer turns up, like a Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Back. They’re embraced by the culture at large, and it’s fascinating, but it’s hard to sustain this level of fervor and they usually crash and burn or do something that makes their advertisers stop advertising them. We’re just seeing that with Rush Limbaugh now. We tried to capture that kind of in-your-face style in our documentary. We tried to make it every bit as entertaining as the show was.
Why is Tribeca the best festival for this debut?
Morton Downey, Jr. was a New York/New Jersey show, and it became popular in the Metro area before it went national. We figured this was bringing him back home to New York.
For more on Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, visit www.mortondowneyjrmovie.com.