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Hugh Downs, television pioneer at ‘Today’ and ‘20/20,’ dies at 99

Hugh Downs began his broadcasting career in 1938 at the age of 18.
Hugh Downs began his broadcasting career in 1938 at the age of 18.
(Associated Press )

Hugh Downs, a television pioneer who became one of the medium’s most enduring, likable and reassuring presences in a five-decade career that included serving as Jack Paar’s late-night announcer-sidekick, and hosting NBC’s “Today” and ABC’s newsmagazine “20/20,” died Thursday at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz.

A family member said the cause of death was heart failure. Downs was 99.

In a broadcasting career that began in 1939 at age 18 when he landed a job as an announcer on a 100-watt radio station in Lima, Ohio, Downs moved into television as an announcer for the NBC-owned station in Chicago in 1950.

More than three decades later, the Guinness Book of Records certified that Downs held the Guinness Record for on-air national commercial television time, with nearly 10,000 as of 1985. His total of more than 15,000 hours was surpassed by Regis Philbin in 2004.

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At the time, that included five years on the “Tonight” show, 10 years hosting the game show “Concentration,” nine years hosting the “Today” show, four years hosting “Over Easy” (the PBS series about aging in America), and the first seven of his 21 years hosting “20/20.”

Downs, who won Emmys for his work on “Concentration,” “Today” and “Over Easy,” began his long run on ABC’s award-winning “20/20” in 1978, alongside Barbara Walters, when he took over as host a week after the show’s disastrous premiere with dual hosts (Harold Hayes and Robert Hughes). He stepped down in 1999, when he was 78.

Downs had also been called in to host “Today” after his predecessors on the program — Edwin Newman and John Chancellor — failed to connect with viewers as a replacement for Dave Garroway. Downs’ presence turned the fortunes of the NBC morning franchise around, forming one of the most popular “Today” teams with Walters and Joe Garagiola.

“Hugh had the easiness that made people comfortable in the morning,” former NBC News president and ABC News executive Dick Wald said in a 2011 interview. “His wide range of interests gave him a little bit of knowledge about almost everything under the sun; and a general pleasant demeanor that made everybody feel comfortable. He was really the everyman of that business.”

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At the beginning of his television career at the NBC affiliate in Chicago, Downs was the announcer for the classic “Kukla, Fran & Ollie” puppet show and the soap opera “Hawkins Falls.” He moved to New York City in 1954 to announce NBC’s “The Home Show,” a new morning program starring Arlene Francis.

Downs went on to be the announcer for the last season of “Caesar’s Hour” on NBC before Paar tapped him to be his announcer on the network’s “Tonight” show in 1957.

“Tonight” turned Paar into a national TV sensation and made Downs a TV personality in his own right after Paar began asking him to sit on the panel on a regular basis, and he became Paar’s frequent replacement host.

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Their banter before the first guests came out led to Downs displaying his knowledge of music, psychology, astronomy, skin diving and other subjects.

His diverse knowledge amused Paar, who loved to ask him questions and dubbed him a “walking encyclopedia.”

“Tonight,” Paar once joked on air, “Hugh is going to do a medley of famous Supreme Court decisions.”

In a 2001 interview with the Indianapolis Star, Downs said working with the mercurial “Tonight” show host “was like riding a bronco.”

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“And,” he said, “it made almost everything else I did in television seem a little bit tame, because you never knew what was going to happen — and it happened every night.”

That was never more so than on a night in February 1960 when Paar quit the show and walked off the stage the day after NBC censored his telling of a humorous story featuring a “WC” (the abbreviation for water closet) without telling him.

That left Downs to host the remainder of that night’s show.

“Jack frequently does things he regrets,” he told the audience. “but I’d like to think that this is not final — and that Jack will be back.”

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Paar returned to the show 25 days after his dramatic departure, and Downs continued as announcer until Paar left the show for good in 1962 and Johnny Carson became the “Tonight” show host with Ed McMahon as his announcer.

While continuing his hosting duties on “Concentration,” Downs became the new host of the “Today” show in 1962, a job he held until 1971.

Living in Carefree, Ariz., after leaving “Today,” Downs over the next several years narrated a series of environmental and historical specials for NBC, wrote a number of books, did some teaching and became a visiting fellow at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara.

He was hosting “Over Easy” in 1978 when he was asked to step in as host of “20/20.”

Downs’ low-key demeanor belied an adventurous spirit that included learning to scuba dive for “The Home Show.”

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For segments of the “Today” show, he rode a killer whale at Sea World in San Diego, went through training to get his private pilot’s license and drove a Formula A racing car.

For “20/20,” he traveled to the South Pole and participated in an underwater search for a lost Spanish galleon in the British Virgin Islands.

For fun and another challenge, he once sailed his own boat (with his son and a crew) on a five-month voyage across the Pacific.

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The eldest of three brothers, Downs was born Feb. 14, 1921, in Akron, Ohio. His family moved to a farm outside Lima, Ohio, when he was 2 and later moved into town.

After graduating from high school in 1938, Downs entered Bluffton College in Bluffton, Ohio, but he had to drop out after a year for financial reasons and his father suggested he get a job.

He wound up landing a job as announcer at tiny radio station WLOK in Lima, where he initially worked seven days a week for $12.50 a week.

Looking back, he recalled in a 1997 interview for the Archive of American Television, he wondered why he stayed in radio.

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“I had the worst case of mike fright of anybody I ever even read about,” he said. “My blood turned to ice water and my knees to jelly. It never showed in my voice, but I was terrified when I would go on the air.

“Why I didn’t quit, I don’t know. But I was just determined to be a broadcaster, and I got over that after awhile.”

Downs’ wife of 75 years, Ruth Shaheen, died in 2017. He is survived by a daughter, Deirdre, and a son Hugh Raymond, known as H.R., two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

McLellan is a former Times staff writer


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