As the Summer of Trump threatens to turn into the Year of Trump, CNN couldn’t have timed the TV premiere of Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie any better. The documentary, released theatrically back in 2012 and just now finding its way to TV, details how the bombastic right-wing Downey shot to fame as a talk-show superstar in the late 1980s — and then, just as quickly, faded away. Airing tonight at 9 and 10:54 p.m. EST on CNN, the film includes interviews with a slew of familiar faces from the era, including commentator turned GOP presidential contender Pat Buchanan, CNN’s Larry King, and a talk-show titan whose career probably merits a documentary of its own: Sally Jessy Raphael.
Before Oprah Winfrey transformed TV, Raphael — she of those iconic red glasses and common-woman demeanor — paved the way for the idea of a woman hosting a topic-driven daily talk show. For nearly two decades, starting in 1983, the veteran broadcaster was one of a handful of hosts who dominated daytime TV, personalities so familiar to viewers they needed only one name: Phil. Oprah. Jerry. Ricki. Maury. Geraldo. Sally. While Raphael reluctantly dipped her toes into tabloid waters toward the end of her run, her show — not to mention her personal politics — couldn’t have been more different from Downey’s shtick. And yet, because the TV universe was much smaller then, Raphael was actually friendly with Downey, both personally and professionally. Earlier this month, Vulture called her up to talk about her relationship with her late colleague, what it was like hosting a daily show in the golden age of daytime talk, and the deep sense of disappointment she feels over her extended absence from TV.
So, let’s talk about the movie. How well did you know Morton Downey Jr.?
I knew him very well. Not my best friend, but we would go to dinner several times a year, I guess.
How did you meet him?
I met him before he ever was that person that they’re doing this documentary on. I went to look for a job in Connecticut, at some station. I don’t know which one it was because I probably applied to every station on the face of the Earth — certainly every one within spitting distance — and he was a disc jockey at the station I was applying to. He came out and he said, “Yes?” Stations didn’t have a lot of help in those days. “Can I help you?” And I said, “Yeah, yeah, I’m looking for a job.” So he said, “Okay,” and he invited my husband and me out to dinner, and we talked broadcasting and radio. And that’s how I got to know him.
What was your impression of him then?
He’s very hard to explain. Both him and the two people who were really the two that made that form of television — Joe Pyne and Les Crane — were from upper-middle-class families, well-educated, good-looking — Morton less than the other two — and very, very much gentlemen. And all of them came from radio. All of them married pretty women. And none of them were like they were on-camera at all. I mean, I’m always talking to people and they say, “You know, you’re exactly the way you are on-camera,” like you put on a face or a mask or something. But none of them were at all like they were when they did a show … I think the guy you [see] on those clips has nothing to do with the real person.
So, as you describe Downey, he seems like this rather charming, nice man. And yet the show he put on TV … was not. His show was sort of the precursor to the talk-radio and Fox News culture we have today.
I notice that [CNN’s] ad says that — not that he invented the format, but that he was the most famous for that shock-TV-jock format. That isn’t really true. As much as I’d like to be nice about it, I think he only lasted about a season and a half, maybe two.
No, you’re correct. His show was only national for about two years. But do you think The Morton Downey Jr. Show, and its toxicity, hurt the culture at all?
Philip Roth had a quote: “The indigenous American berserk.” We’re the only country in the world that has an indigenous American berserk, e.g., Trump and what’s going on now with the Republicans. I don’t think things like that could happen in other countries. Now, there may have been those kind of shock guys in other places. I’ve lived abroad a good portion of my life; I think I would have met some of them. The only other place it could exist would be England, but they do that on paper. He was an early Trump, an earlier Howard Stern and Don Imus and Rush Limbaugh. The point was not to give information, was not to inform. The point was to challenge. Did that hurt society? Nah.
Why do you think this kind of shock jock thrives in conservative culture? The left has Rachel Maddow, but she doesn’t thrive by being loud or outrageous — quite the opposite. There’s no modern-day liberal equivalent of Morton Downey Jr. or Bill O’Reilly.
Well, I’ll give you another thought. When you and I were just naming all of these people, there wasn’t a woman among them. There’s never been, to my knowledge, a woman shock jock. I’d like to think that’s because women are too caring, too polite, too mindful of others. And I’d like to think that Democrats are the same: too caring. They wouldn’t go for that. There’s also nothing particularly shocking about what Democrats are in favor of — caring for others, being global. It isn’t as shocking as, “Let’s close down Planned Parenthood.” They don’t have a platform that you could particularly yell about. It’s just common sense. That’s a very self-serving answer, but that’s my answer.
So, let’s talk about you. Why do you think you struck a chord with your show? Why did you become so big and such a staple of TV and daytime?
We didn’t have cable until a certain point. It was a clear field. What do you call that thing on the computer where you look up something? It’s all wrong about our show.
Yeah, Wikipedia. Wikipedia has more mistakes about me than just about anyone, and I found that you can’t correct them. It’s your blanking life, [but] they don’t want to hear it. It has almost everything about the show wrong. Anyway, we started in 1982. In ‘83 we went national. Now, at that time there wasn’t cable, or it wasn’t to the extent that it is, so it was pretty easy to get ratings. People had the five stations, and it didn’t really matter how good you were or not.
You’re being a bit modest. Even then, you didn’t stay on the air for decades just because viewers didn’t have a lot of choice. You, and your show, appealed to people for a reason. I think it was because you were just pretty relatable as a host.
It’s everyman. It’s being everyman, and also being open enough to let the world in. So if your life is pretty much as middle-class as mine was, and you’re not ashamed to say you’re looking for a job in every station in Connecticut — it’s a certain amount of allowing yourself to be vulnerable, and a certain amount of people relating to you because of that. I do think that I have a good sense of timing. But none of that has gotten me rehired.
Early on during Sally the show was pretty uncontroversial. You did some outrageous shows, as Phil Donahue had done and as Oprah would do, but it wasn’t that over the top. And then, at some point, the genre took a turn to the more salacious. Two other shows produced by the same company as yours, Jerry Springer and Maury Povich, went very tabloid. And Sally changed, too. Do you have any regrets about that? Did you try to resist the pressure to change?
Oh, God, did I ever. Which is why I think, in the end — why would they keep Maury and Jerry? Because I didn’t want to do that. The worst thing was being betrayed by the producers. The producers told the company, “Okay, we can make her do this. This is the show we’ll produce, and she’ll have to do it.” They kind of did that behind my back because I just didn’t want to do those kinds of shows. And I still wouldn’t want to do those kinds of shows. Not that anybody’s asked me, but that’s what really happened. And when you have somebody who’s really disgruntled but needs the money …
Sally never really went full tabloid like Jerry and Maury, did it? You think that’s why NBC Universal, the producer, decided to cancel you in 2002?
Yeah, exactly. That was part of it. We weren’t doing what I call bad television. It’s easy to do bad television, screaming and yelling. We were doing a lot of health, and we were doing politics. We were doing unruly children. We were doing a lot of makeovers. I probably would’ve gone on trying desperately to change it back to what I thought would work, which is pretty much what Oprah was doing, but NBCUniversal didn’t want to hear it. This is what they wanted, and I wasn’t up to it.
You did do some of the tabloid episodes, though — the “Who’s your daddy?” episodes. Did you wince at those?
Yeah. Every time I would feel unclean.
Were you friendly with Jerry and Maury back then?
Friendly with them? Yeah, sure.
Do you still stay in touch with them at all?
I haven’t talked to them since the show went off the air. You have an amazing change of friends when you’re no longer working.
You haven’t had a regular TV gig since 2002, but I get the sense that hasn’t been entirely by choice.
From 2003 until now has been a waste for me, because I dearly wanted to work. Though, it’s funny you should mention this. If you had called earlier today and I hadn’t opened the mail, I could say I haven’t earned a dime since it went off the air. But I got a check today. I was so thrilled — until I saw that they took all the taxes out of it.
How did you earn the check?
So they’re doing a show starting in September called Crazy Talk, and for one or two of the segments they look at clips of crazy shows, and then they say, “What would Sally say?” And then they come to me. I just did wild lines. They paid me for a day’s work, $1,000. I wound up with $582 after the taxes. So since 2003, I’ve earned $582. I’m thrilled.
You made pretty good money back in the day, I’m sure. Not to get too personal, but you’re okay financially?
I did all right. Nobody today makes the kind of money that Phil made or Oprah made, or even that I made. But there’s no pension in talk shows, and our company never re-aired any of my shows, so there’s no [residuals]. But I’m pretty careful, meaning I’m living on how I invested that — not what I got. I knew show business was a lousy way of earning a living, and I was very careful about investing wisely and being prudent. I didn’t get the red convertible.
Long before you were in TV you were a pretty popular radio host as well. Between the two careers, I’m wondering if there are any moments or shows that stand out for you as your proudest moment?
I got a Peabody for Kent State, in radio. When the story of [the Kent State shootings] came over the wire, I called the Kent State radio station and had an eyewitness for the whole day. I was at a talk station in Miami, and the [owner] allowed me to continue on all day. I was also on the air when Kennedy was assassinated. That was at WNEW-FM in New York, I believe, and I’m proud of that reporting. I’m proud to have done Audrey Hepburn’s last big interview. It was on my show when she was talking about UNICEF, and she died about a month later. What else? Probably the fact that people come up to me — they’re very kind — and they say, “You know, your breast cancer show helped save my life,” or, “You helped my child.” All of that comes together, and it makes me feel that it wasn’t wasted.
What do you mean by “wasted”?
I just wish I had been able to work these last 15 years. If it worked before, why wasn’t I able to do it? That is something I will never understand. When you’ve worked since you were 6, it is in your DNA. You can’t understand why suddenly, after all these years, you don’t have to get up in the morning. That’s what you feel is the waste. Now, at this point, we have health problems. Not me, but in the family. So I’m kind of glad that I have all of this available time, and I live on a semi-farm. Raising tomatoes is pretty rewarding. It really is.