Hugh Downs, who began appearing on television at the dawn of the medium and gained fame as co-host of 20/20, host of Today and as Jack Paar’s sidekick on the Tonight Show, has died.
The Washington Post and New York Times cited a statement from Downs’ family in reporting his death on July 1 at his home in Scottsdale, AZ. The cause was reported to be a heart ailment, and not related to COVID-19.
Downs appeared on air for more than 10,000 hours, which was a record until Regis Philbin eclipsed it in the 2000s. He officially signed off in 1999 after more than a half-century on the air.
Viewers in the 1980s and 1990s got to know Downs during his long co-hosting stint with Barbara Walters on ABC’s 20/20. In her 2008 memoir, Audition, the Post recalled, Walters noted their different approaches but also her fondness for Downs.
“Hugh and I had different personalities and different styles, yet we complemented each other,” Walters wrote. “He was more contemplative and thought of himself as something of a philosopher. His questions during interviews were gentler than mine, but he never restricted me from asking what I wanted. In short, he was . . . one of the truest gentlemen I have ever known.”
Downs began his career when the medium of television was so new that there were only a few thousand TV sets in the U.S. He appeared on shows like Kukla, Fran and Ollie and Caesar’s Hour but soon broke out on The Tonight Show, where he helped create the late-night duo dynamic later cemented by Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon, and Conan O’Brien and Andy Richter. Paar, the Times noted, referred to him as “my Sancho Panza.”
The Tonight show stint would feature a memorable stretch of weeks during which Downs was forced to become solo host after Paar walked off the set over a joke removed from the broadcast by NBC. While the bit, about a “water closet,” would hardly make a censor sweat today, it caused a battle royale betwen Paar and the network. Downs earned admiring notices for his graceful, self-effacing turn as host, putting him on track to get more of the spotlight.
Born in Akron, OH, in 1921, Downs grew up on a farm outside of Lima, OH. He briefly attended Bluffton College in Ohio but had to drop out to help his family during the last years of the Depression. He found work as an announcer at local radio station WLOK. He moved on to WWJ in Detroit and, after a serving in the Army and receiving a medical discharge, he landed at WMAQ in Chicago.
Radio broadcasting was beginning to transition to television, a medium that remained in a testing phase through much of the 1940s. While in Chicago, Downs met Dave Garroway, first host of the Today show, and also began working for Kukla, Fran & Ollie, a puppet show produced in Chicago and then expanded nationally, as was the model in early television.
Garroway’s low-key style was an early influence on Downs. In his memoir, On Camera, he remembered feeling anxious for his first 10 years he appeared on the air.
“At the end of a piece of music, when I was supposed to say something, my knees would shake uncontrollably. My pulse and respiration went up,” he wrote. Fortunately, the fear never showed in my delivery, but it did in my hands. If I had to hold copy, the paper would rattle. As a defense, I learned to lay copy out flat on the desk, or, if standing, to grab my lapels along with the copy, so the paper didn’t move with my hands.”
In 1954, Downs came to New York and got work as a TV announcer. He went on to spend five years on the Tonight Show, leaving when Paar did in 1962 to become solo host of Today, Garroway’s former post. He also hosted daytime game show Concentration from 1958 until 1969.
After a decade on Today, Downs got a call in 1978 from famed ABC producer and executive Roone Arledge, who recruited him to host 20/20. In 1984, Walters joined as co-host. The duo continued until Downs’ retirement in 1999.
Downs married Ruth Shaheen in 1944. She died in 2017. He is survived by their children, Hugh Raymond and Deirdre Lynn Downs; a brother, Wallace; two grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
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