Downs’ career in broadcasting spanned more than half a century. And despite his assertion “I am not a talent, I am a personality,” Downs proved a first-rate interviewer and journalist time and again. His personality was ingratiating and low-key; well into his 70s, his pleasant demeanor made him a welcome guest in the nation’s living rooms. With Barbara Walters, his co-host on both “Today” and “20/20,” he formed one of the most complementary partnerships in television news programming.
Prior to “Today,” Downs made a name for himself as emcee of the quizshow “Concentration” and as sage in residence on the Jack Paar “Tonight Show.”
After early work in radio and TV, Downs moved to New York in 1954 to join Arlene Francis on NBC’s “Home” show, clocking in some 900 hours on the program. In 1956 he became the announcer for “Caesar’s Hour,” starring Sid Caesar, and the following year joined “The Tonight Show.” He also supervised science programming for the NBC network. In 1958 he also became host of the daytime series “Concentration,” a gig he held for several years concurrent with his “Today Show” activities.
In 1960, when Paar walked off “The Tonight Show” in a dispute with network censors, Downs stepped in and saved the day, winning NBC’s admiration in the process. He was rewarded with the anchor spot of the “Today” show in 1962, replacing John Chancellor. He remained for nine years, reaching 12 million homes every morning for two hours.
During that period he also reported and narrated news documentaries and specials such as “The American Wilderness,” the Emmy-winning “The Everglades,” “The Ice People,” “The Great Barrier Reef,” “Survival on the Prairie” and “The First Americans.”
Downs left “Today” in 1971 to pursue other interests, consulting, teaching and writing work. In 1978 he joined ABC, hosting “20/20,” the network’s newsmagazine show. He also did a great deal of reporting, particularly in the early years, on medical breakthroughs and did adventure news segments.
He hosted PBS’ “Live From Lincoln Center” series from 1990-96. He also narrated a number of highly praised news specials including 1990’s “Depression: Beyond the Darkness”; 1988’s “The Poisoning of America,” which won him a second Emmy; “Growing Old in America”; and “The National Cholesterol Test.” He won additional Emmys for hosting PBS’ “Over Easy,” “Live From Lincoln Center: Yo Yo Ma in Concert” and a 1989 interview with Patty Duke on her manic depression.
The Guinness Book of World Records certified in 1985 that Downs had clocked the greatest number of hours on network commercial television (he lost the record for most hours on all forms of TV to Regis Philbin in 2004).
He won numerous awards for his communications and charitable work and served on a number of boards including as chairman of the board of governors of the National Space Society.
In 1960 Downs published his autobiography “Yours Truly, Hugh Downs”; later came “On Camera: My 10,000 Hours on Television.” Other published works include compiled science articles called “Rings Around Tomorrow,” sailing reminiscence “A Shoal of Stars” and several books on aging. He also published a collection of essays based on his 10-minute NBC radio broadcasts, “Perspective.”
Downs retired from TV journalism work in 1999.
Hugh Malcolm Downs was born in Akron, Ohio. He completed only one year of college at Bluffton in Ohio before his family’s Depression-strapped finances forced him to enter the job market. In 1939, after a long search, he landed a spot as an announcer on small Lima, Ohio, station WLOK — at $7.50 a week. Within a year he was program director and earning a princely $25 a week.
He soon moved on to WWJ in Detroit while studying at Wayne U. He would later attend Columbia U. and get a post-Master’s degree in gerontology from Hunter College.
During the war he was drafted into the Army and assigned to the 123rd Infantry. He was part of an experimental basic training program that condensed 13 weeks into four. Like many of his colleagues, he collapsed from exhaustion, was hospitalized and given a medical discharge.
In 1943 he joined NBC station WMAQ in Chicago as an announcer, interviewer and DJ. He broke into television as the announcer for Fran Allison and Burr Tillstrom’s “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” show out of Chicago.
Downs’ wife, Ruth, died in 2017.