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Hugh Downs, the congenial broadcaster whose thousands of hours on network television included two decades on the ABC primetime newsmagazine 20/20 and nine years as the head man on NBC’s Today show, has died. He was 99.
Downs, who also served as Jack Paar’s announcer/sidekick for five years on The Tonight Show and hosted the game show Concentration for almost a decade, died Wednesday at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona, his family said in a statement.
After getting his start on radio stations in the Midwest, Downs was the announcer on the legendary children’s puppet series Kukla, Fran and Ollie and on the Sid Caesar NBC variety series Caesar’s Hour. Until Regis Philbin surpassed him in 2004, the Ohio native had held the record as the person with the most hours on network television.
“I can be on 10,000 hours and no one will get sick of me because I’m not exploiting a talent,” he humbly said during an October 1997 interview with the Archive of American Television. “I’m just a human being trying to represent other human beings on the other side of the tube. People can tolerate a lot of that.”
Downs had a long professional relationship with Barbara Walters. When he was the Today host in the 1960s, he insisted that Walters, then a writer and producer on the show, be given time on camera. She later joined him on 20/20 in 1979 — not long after her disastrous stint as co-anchor of the ABC Evening News — eventually co-hosting the program with him until his retirement in September 1999.
They also co-hosted the syndicated program Not for Women Only in 1975-76.
Downs was working as an announcer on The Home Show, a weekday morning program starring Arlene Francis, when he was asked to join The Tonight Show in a similar capacity. He and Paar started on the late night program, then broadcast live from the Hudson Theatre in New York, in July 1957.
At first, only Downs’ voice was heard on the show, but soon, “after I had done the announcing, [Paar] would, out of loneliness, I guess, ask me to come over,” he recalled. “He would occasionally have some question and turn to me for the answer. He began to call me ‘a walking encyclopedia.’ Red Skelton said later, ‘Hugh Downs in the kind of guy who when you ask him what time it is, he tells you how to build a watch.’ ”
Downs would wind up substituting for Paar as host more than any other person — and that came in handy when the comedian abruptly walked off the set on Feb. 11, 1960, right in the middle of his monologue. (Paar was angry that NBC had censored one of his jokes the previous night. Downs had to finish that show, and Paar did not return until about three weeks later.)
Paar left for good in March 1962, and Downs said, “I thought they might ask me to take over the show. But they wanted me to do the Today show. Dave Garroway had left and John Chancellor had done it for a year. They asked me to do the Today show and Johnny Carson to do The Tonight Show at the same time. The wise choice, I think.”
Downs hosted Today from September 1962 until he retired in October 1971. During his reign, it broadcast live each morning (before, most of the show had been taped the previous afternoon, and Downs joked it should have been called Yesterday), went from black-and-white to color and did more live remotes.
“That was a rather glorious epoch for me,” he said.
After actress Maureen O’Sullivan left as the latest in the line of “Today Girls,” Downs suggested that Walters get time on camera. “They said, ‘But she’s a writer,’ ” he recalled. “She was there when I came on; she wrote and produced the segment that welcomed me to the program. I said I think she would do well. They grudgingly let me put her on once a week for a short time and then twice a week and then pretty regularly.”
Downs joined 20/20 for the newsmagazine’s second-ever installment after the first had gone horribly wrong, with ABC News chief Roone Arledge firing the original hosts, Esquire editor Harold Hayes and Time art critic Robert Hughes.
“It took us about a year to begin to get off the runway, two years to be airborne into any kind of respectability, and about five years to begin to dominate the time slot,” he said of 20/20.
Hugh Malcolm Downs was born in Akron, Ohio, on Valentine’s Day in 1921. As a youngster, he and his family moved to a farm outside Lima, Ohio, and in 1939 he landed a job as an announcer and newscaster on a Lima radio station for $12.50 a week, working seven days a week. He aspired to be a network announcer in the mold of Harry von Zell (The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show).
“There was a tendency to think that an announcer was a rich guy who threw his golf clubs in a high-powered car and motored out to the links, but it wasn’t like that at all,” he said. “There was no glamour, it was hard work.
“Now when I look back, I wonder why I stayed in it. It terrified me so. I had the worst case of mic fright of anyone I even had read about. My blood turned to ice water and my knees to jelly.” He was worried that the audience would hear the sound of the script shaking in his hand.
After he became program director and had his salary doubled, Downs left for a similar post at a Detroit radio station in 1940. He once broadcast from a dance hall that was hosting bandleader Xavier Cugat and his bongo player, Desi Arnaz.
Downs then took an NBC Radio staff position in Chicago following a year in the Army and did his first television work (on an experimental station) in 1945.
“I thought [TV] was a gag, a gimmick like 3D movies. I thought it would go away,” he said. “I had no idea that the tail would eventually wag the dog and treat me much kinder than radio did.”
Downs hosted a 15-minute evening program out of Chicago, but that was canceled and replaced by a show featuring a piano player from Milwaukee named Liberace. Around this time, he also was the announcer for the TV soap opera Hawkins Falls and for Kukla, Fran and Ollie, created by Burr Tillstrom.
Downs was lured to New York in April 1954 to announce for The Home Show. Created by Pat Weaver (who a couple years earlier had launched Today), it featured stories about cooking, fashion and home maintenance.
For the 1956-57 season, he served as the announcer for Caesar’s Hour and even got to participate in some comedy skits. In 1958, he began as host of the game show Concentration, in which contestants matched puzzle parts to win prizes, and kept that gig (even while hosting Today) through January 1969.
After he was succeeded by Frank McGee at Today, Downs stayed busy writing books and teaching at Arizona State University before he agreed in 1977 to host Over Easy, a daily PBS show about aging that netted him a Daytime Emmy.
Downs also hosted another PBS series, Live From Lincoln Center, and reported for/narrated numerous network news documentaries, including one of the first about the space race, in 1955.
He also had a playful sense of fun and guest-starred as himself on such TV comedies as The Jack Benny Program; Car 54, Where Are You? (in the episode “Catch Me on the Paar Show”); and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.
In 1998, Arizona State named its communications school The Hugh Downs School of Human Communication.
Downs had been living in Arizona with his wife, Ruth, whom he married in 1944. She died in 2017. Survivors include his children, Hugh and Deirdre; his brother, Wallace; and two grandchildren.
Duane Byrge contributed to this report.
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