The producers of the Today show and 20/20 (yes, I read that in Babwawawa’s voice) better be working on an entire tribute episode to legendary news anchor Hugh Downs right now. If tomorrow’s episode of Today doesn’t open with Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb bowing down to a Hugh Downs statue, then the show should be canceled! Hugh Downs died yesterday at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona. He was 99.
If it felt like Hugh Downs was on television since the beginning of time, that’s because he was, practically. In 1984, Hugh got the Guinness World Record for the greatest number of hours on network commercial television. At that time, Hugh graced TV screens for 15,188 hours. Regis Philbin took the title from him in 2004.
Hugh worked as a radio announcer and served in the United States Army before making his television debut in 1945 on what was then WBKB-TV in Chicago. From there, he used his warm velvety voice to be the announcer of several shows including The Home Show, Sid Ceasar’s Ceasar Hour, and The Tonight Show, which he was the announcer for from 1957 to 1962. Being the announcer of The Tonight Show made Hugh Downs a household name and probably helped him to slide into a hosting role.
Hugh started hosting the game show Concentration in 1958 and continued to host it until 1969.
While hosting Concentration, he hosted Today. Hugh hosted Today from 1962 until 1971. Today is where the future dynamic news duo of Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters was born. Barbara was a reporter on Today before becoming a host. Here’s a clip from 1963 of Hugh and Barbara reporting on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Hugh worked with Barbara again on the short-lived talk show Not For Women Only. He was also a panelist on To Tell The Truth. And then came (read this in Babwawawa’s voice, it’s the only way) TWENTY TWENTY!
20/20 made its debut in 1978, and after getting shit reviews, ABC quickly re-tooled it and brought Hugh Downs out of semi-retirement to be the sole host. When Hugh joined, 20/20 became a classier news show. Barbara Walters joined the show in 1979 and became a co-anchor in 1984. They co-hosted the show until Hugh left in 1999. Since I was a child of the 80s and 90s and also a 65-year-old woman trapped in the body of a gay boy, I loved watching 20/20 with my mom, and Hugh and Barbara became my Friday night memaw and pepaw. Hugh was the epitome of a smooth, yet stern, calmness and Barbara Walters was glamour wrapped in magnetism. Case in point:
And Friday night wasn’t officially over until they told us, “We’re in touch, so you be in touch.”
ABC News also dropped this little tidbit that proved Hugh was class personified:
He showed his principled side again in 1997, when he took a vacation day on “20/20″ rather than be part on a show that included an interview with Marv Albert after the sportscaster was caught in a lurid sexual assault scandal.
Hugh won two Daytime Emmys for hosting Over Easy in 1981 and for executive producing Live From Lincoln Center in 1991.
After leaving 20/20, Hugh continued to work here and there including playing himself on The Family Guy.
Beyond bringing us the NEWS THAT MATTERS, Hugh was also into science and space and was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame at the San Diego Air & Space Museum in 1984. And Arizona State University in Tempe named the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication after him.
Hugh was married to Ruth Shaheen from 1944 until her death in 2017. They had two children together.
Rest in peace, Hugh Downs.