Morton Downey Jr. was the son of Morton Downey (duh), a singing star of the 1930s, and Barbara Bennett, an actress and sister of two more famous Bennett actresses, Constance and Joan. He grew up in rarefied circumstances, playing with Kennedy children (they lived next door supposedly) and, being the scion of Hollywood royalty, he went directly into his fathers line of work. But his singing career didn't catch and he stumbled into radio at some point in the sixties, not accomplishing much of anything. Well into his fifties, he somehow decided to move into the 'shock talk' world, with a show on WWOR from Seacaucus New Jersey, which was experimenting at the time with 'rebranding' itself as a more controversial station. (Howard Stern had a quite hilarious, quite cheesy show on the network in the early 90s, before his radio show went national). Downey Jr. chain-smoked, blew smoke in guests faces, encouraged on-air assaults, screamed abrasive insults at guests and in general created an atmosphere so stenchy that one felt like showering after watching the show. So why did I enjoy it so much? Because--and this is the theme I keep coming back to with these broadcasters--I couldn't wait to hear what he was going to say next, which is the sine qua non of the broadcasters craft.
Downey Jr. gained fame quickly and lost fame quickly. It's hard to reconcile his classy upbringing with his quite repulsive persona, though who knows? So many of these guys were just putting on an act--Grant was always portrayed as being gracious and quiet off-mic as has Stern. But there was a strange reaction against Downey Jr. that others didn't suffer. Somehow he wore out his welcome in a way that the others didn't and he was flushed down the celebrity toilet by the mid-nineties. Cigarettes and cancer did the rest, with Stern giving him airtime late in his life. He used it to expound on the dangers of smoking, finally finding something positive to promote.
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