Hugh Downs, whose broadcasting career spanned a century, dies at 99
He was a host on ABC’s “20/20” for 20 years.
July 2, 2020, 11:26 PM
8 min read
Hugh Downs, the omnipresent broadcaster whose career spanned more than half a century, including 20 years on ABC’s “20/20,” has died at age 99.
Downs died on Wednesday in his home in Scottsdale, Arizona, according to a statement from his family.
“I hope I’d be remembered as a guy who tried to do some good and who was, most importantly, honest,” he said in 2002 during an interview with his former “20/20” co-host Barbara Walters. “I can’t see any greatness that I would be remembered for, but if people think kindly of me, I’ll be happy at that.”
Downs became a friendly and familiar face during his thousands of hours on television between the 1950s and 1990s, during which he worked on NBC’s “Today” and “Tonight” shows, the game show “Concentration,” “20/20,” PBS’ “Over Easy” and “Live from Lincoln Center,” as well as on dozens of commercials.
For years, Downs held the Guinness record for most total hours on commercial network television, until Regin Philbin broke his record in 2004, according to the Associated Press.
Downs had also written books and worked in radio. His first job was as an announcer for a small radio station in Ohio. He moved into TV shortly afterward and in 1954 joined NBC, where he eventually met Walters, who was working as a writer at the “Today Show” show at the time.
By that point, his reputation had grown to where he would approve any commercials he was assigned to read in an effort to avoid misinforming the public.
“My loyalty was with the person tuning in,” he said, according to AP. “It was expedient. If I lost my credibility, what use would I be to a client?”
Downs began hosting “20/20” in 1978, and was joined six years later by Walters.
“For more than two decades, Hugh told the stories that he wanted to tell,” Walters said in 2002. “Everything from visiting both the North and South Poles to conversing with a gorilla, to swimming with sharks to training for a mission in space.”
Downs retired from “20/20” in 1999.
Following his retirement from the TV newsmagazine, Downs continued to author books, including his 2002 book “My America: What My Country Means to Me, by 150 Americans from All Walks of Life.” The book featured descriptions from 150 people about what living in the U.S. meant to them after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“I had the thoughts that Americans reacted in a way that might be interesting to gather the thoughts of some people of some visibility and many walks of life,” he told Walters in 2002.
He said he discovered that “we are not a country of despair… Some people wrote in rage, some in grief. But the common thing was nobody was despairing. Americans tend to be on the optimistic side and with justification, I think.”
That same year, according to Walters, Downs had his first great-grandchild.
“I can imagine Hugh as the male Auntie Mame, taking his great-grandchild scuba diving, hang gliding — all of the adventurous things Hugh himself did,” she said.
Downs was married to Ruth Shaheen from 1944 until she died in 2017. He is survived by their two children, Hugh Raymond and Deirdre Downs, two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, according to The New York Times.