Longtime U.S. broadcaster Hugh Downs dead at 99


Hugh Downs, whose congeniality and authoritative manner allowed him to move between the world of games shows and U.S. network news, has died at the age of 99.

Downs died of natural causes Wednesday night at home in Scottsdale, Ariz., said his great-niece, Molly Shaheen.

The U.S. broadcaster hosted the game show Concentration and the ABC News show 20/20 during a radio and television career of more than 60 years.

His television work ranged from Today, NBC’s morning news show, to Tonight, working with Jack Paar. In 1985, the Guinness Book of World Records said he had been on commercial television a record 15,188 hours — a mark that stood until Regis Philbin surpassed it in 2004.

Over more than six decades as a broadcaster, Downs’ television work ranged from Today, NBC’s morning news show, to Tonight, with Jack Paar. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

“I thought TV was a gimmick like 3D movies and it would just go away,” Downs, who had a friendly, low-key manner on the air, said in an interview with the Archive of American Television.

“I had no idea that the tail would eventually wag the dog and treat me much kinder than radio did.”

Downs’ broadcasting career began at age 18 when he auditioned for a radio announcer job on a whim in his hometown of Lima, Ohio.

After serving in the Army during the Second World War, he joined the NBC radio network in Chicago and that led to television announcing jobs, including work on the Kukla, Fran and Ollie children’s show and a soap opera.

I thought TV was a gimmick like 3D movies and it would just go away … I had no idea that the tail would eventually wag the dog.– Hugh Downs

Bigger television assignments lay ahead in New York in the late 1950s: announcer on Sid Caesar’s Caesar’s Hour and announcer-sidekick to host Paar on The Tonight Show from 1957 until 1962.

Downs had a co-starring role in one of television’s most dramatic moments of the 1960s when the emotional Paar walked off the stage during taping in protest of NBC censoring one of his jokes.

Downs, who had known that Paar was going to quit but did not expect a walkout, was called upon to fill in for the rest of the show.

In 1958, Downs became the host of Concentration, a new daytime NBC game show that tested contestants’ memory and ability to solve a picture puzzle.

The show was a quick success and Downs was host for 10 years, continuing with the job even after he became an anchor on NBC’s Today morning show in 1962.

In 1958, Downs became the host of the game show Concentration and continued as host for 10 years, including after becoming an anchor for Today. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Downs spent 11 years on Today, many as co-anchor with Barbara Walters, and interviewed scores of celebrities, politicians and other newsmakers. 

Multiple Emmy wins 

He joined ABC’s 20/20 in its second week on the air in 1978 and was reunited with Walters, who became his co-anchor.

He also contributed special reports to the show, including one on his double knee replacement surgery and others on medicine and geriatrics, a field in which he had a long-running interest.

Each week he signed off the show by saying, “We’re in touch, so you be in touch,” before leaving the show and network television in 1999.

In his later years, Downs was seen on television in an infomercial for a book promoting health secrets.

Downs won Emmys for his work on Today in 1970, for hosting PBS series on aging, Over Easy, in 1981 and Live From Lincoln Center in 1991.

Downs’ interests included music composition, aviation, astronomy and space exploration. He served as chairman of the National Space Society, a non-profit organization that promotes space exploration.

Among the several books that he wrote were an autobiography, Yours Truly, Hugh Downs; A Shoal of Stars, his account of sailing a 65-foot ketch across the Pacific; and Thirty Dirty Lies About Old Age.

Downs was predeceased by his wife, Ruth. They had two children.



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