A huge loss comes to American TV with the passing away of Hugh Downs, the genial, versatile broadcaster with more than 15,000 hours on news, game and talk shows, at the age of 99.
One of the most familiar faces on TV from the 1950s to 1990s, Downs was recognized by “The Guinness Book of World Records” for having logged more hours in front of the camera than any television personality until Regis Philbin passed him in 2004.
Announcing his death, Downs’ great-niece, Molly Shaheen confirmed that he died of natural causes at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona, on Wednesday.
Downs had NBC’s “Today” and “Tonight” shows, the game show “Concentration,” co-hosted the ABC magazine show “20/20” with Barbara Walters and the PBS series “Over Easy” and “Live From Lincoln Center” under his belt.
“I’ve worked on so many different shows and done so many shows at the same time,” Downs said in a 1986 Associated Press interview.
“I once said I’d done everything on radio and television except play-by-play sports. Then I remembered I’d covered a boxing match in Lima, Ohio, in 1939.”
On Twitter Thursday, CBS News political correspondent Ed O’Keefe noted: “He retired from ‘20/20’ in 1999 and died at age 99 in the year 2020. Sweet symmetry. Rest easy, Hugh Downs. One of the best.”
Beginning of the Career
Downs began his broadcasting career in Ohio at the age of 18 as a $12-a-week announcer on a small radio station.
At first look, the television appeared to him just a gimmick, but Downs quickly realized “it was probably a juggernaut, and I’d better be in on it.”
He was an announcer in Chicago, which was a television incubator in the 1950. In 1954, he went to New York for “The Home Show.”
In 1961, Newsweek described him as “a gluttonous reader with a first-rate brain that he keeps curried and exercised like a prize poodle.”
More Than an Anchor
In a prescient signature sign-off at the end of “20/20” Downs would tell his viewers: “We’re in touch, so you be in touch.”
His reputation was such that he even won the right to approve any commercial he was assigned to read.
He was famours for striving to keep dubious claims off the air. A fake news warrior from much before it even became a term!
“My loyalty was with the person tuning in,” he once said. “It was expedient. If I lost my credibility, what use would I be to a client?”
After one of the guests on “20/20”, the sportscaster Marv Albert was caught in a lurid sexual assault scandal, he showed his principled side again in 1997, when he took a vacation on the same day.
“I’m interested in science, the environment, medicine and certain personalities,” he said.
“I just do the stories I want to do. I don’t want to be just the anchor.”
Scientific Man of Sports
Downs had a particular interest in science, once launching into a monologue on the Paar show on the science underlying water-skiing.
His interest in problems of aging — he even earned a postgraduate degree in gerontology — was highlighted in his PBS series “Over Easy” as well as many of his “20/20” pieces.
“We all suffer in our culture from the idea … that youth was the big thing,” he said.
“There has been kind of a loss of respect for older people, and we lose gleaning wisdom from older people,” he added.
His work on “20/20″ also showed his adventurous spirit, like the time he rode a killer whale, and even swam swim near a great white shark.
There was also a hazardous expedition to the South Pole in which one participant nearly fell to his death.
Downs began his work as Paar’s second banana in 1957, after a stint as host of NBC’s “The Home Show.”
In a highly publicized incident in February 1960, Paar stormed off the air in a dispute involving network cutting a Paar “water closet” (toilet) joke the censors disliked.
Downs won praise for calmly telling the audience “I’d like to think this is not final” and keeping the live show running until signoff time.
Meanwhile, Downs began his nine-year run as host of the “Today” show. Walters was a “Today” colleague for part of that time. She admired Downs and praised his generosity and collegiality.
Originally Written By Epic Dope
He expressed his views modestly in the 1995 book “The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1920-1961”: “In a way the less talent you have or deploy, the less chance you have of overexposure.
That may be why I have been on network television more than anybody in the world.”