Talk-Show Pioneer Morton Downey Jr. Dies

ByABC News

March 13, 2001 -- Once the biggest mouth on television, Morton Downey Jr. has been forever silenced.

The lung cancer the former talk-show host has been suffering from for years, said daughter Tracey Downey, "has taken its toll."

Downey, whose controversial late 1980s TV show paved the way for the Jerry Springers of the world, died Monday afternoon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 67.

A one-time heavy smoker, Downey kicked a 50-year habit in 1996 to become an anti-tobacco activist, but by that time it was too late.

"The family is very grief stricken and shocked right now," said his daughter. "He was a wonderful man and wonderful father and he is going to be deeply, deeply missed."

Downey, who was often seen with a cigarette dangling from his mouth on his show — and would sometimes blow smoke in the faces of his ideological foes — had been suffering from numerous respiratory and lung illnesses. In recent years, Downey underwent a series of operations for the treatment of his lung cancer.

Groundbreaking TV Show

The Morton Downey Jr. Show, which debuted in 1987 and lasted just two years, was groundbreaking for its time — and, for a moment, wildly popular.

On his show, Downey — whose symbol was a huge, open mouth — would taunt his guests, shout at them and subject them to his often hostile audience of extremely loyal fans.

Downey justified all the yelling on his show, saying many Americans grew up in households were yelling and confrontation were common.

"I think anyone in this country who's been raised in an Irish family, in a Jewish family, a Spanish family and Italian family has been raised around yelling," he once said. "And confrontation... you know, and we're used to it — it's not something foreign to us."

His show paved the way for many of today’s circus-atmosphere talk shows, such as Jerry Springer — but Downey kept his distance from today's shows, saying he didn't do "sleaze."

"There were times that I did things that were a little sleazy, but Ididn't do shows on my neighbor's collie dog having sex with myneighbor's wife," the Associated Press quoted him as saying.

Downey also hosted a talk show on CNBC for one season.

From Kennedy Consultant to Infomercial Pitchman

More recently, Downey has been seen on infomercials, and has served as a spokesman for the American Lung Association.

"I'm Morton Downey Jr., the so-called television tough guy," he says in one public service announcement. "You know something, I knew cigarettes would never hurt me. Wrong. Now, I've got lung cancer and I could die."

On his Web site, Downey — who had a decidedly conservative bent on his show — said he was a campaign consultant to Robert Kennedy.

Downey has also made numerous appearances on talk shows himself, and played bit parts in films and television shows. He was also a songwriter.

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