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Hugh Downs, iconic TV host, dies at 99

Dennis McLellan and Stephen Battaglio, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Hugh Downs, a television pioneer who became one of the medium's most enduring, likable and reassuring presences in a five-decade career that included serving as Jack Paar's late-night announcer-sidekick, and hosting the NBC's "Today" and ABC's newsmagazine "20/20," died Thursday at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz.

A family member said the cause of death was heart failure. Downs was 99.

In a broadcasting career that began in 1939 at age 18 when he landed a job as an announcer on a 100-watt radio station in Lima, Ohio, Downs moved into television as an announcer for the NBC-owned station in Chicago in 1950.

More than three decades later, the Guinness Book of Records certified that Downs held the Guinness Record for on-air national commercial television time, with nearly 10,000 as of 1985. His total of more than 15,000 hours was surpassed by Regis Philbin in 2004.

At the time, that included five years on the "Tonight" show, 10 years hosting the game show "Concentration," nine years hosting the "Today" show, four years hosting "Over Easy" (the PBS series about aging in America), and the first seven of his 21 years hosting "20/20."

Downs, who won Emmys for his work on "Concentration," "Today" and "Over Easy," began his long run on ABC's award-winning "20/20" in 1978, alongside Barbara Walters, when he took over as host a week after the show's disastrous premiere with dual hosts (Harold Hayes and Robert Hughes). He stepped down in 1999, when he was 78.

 

Downs had also been called in to host "Today" after his predecessors on the program -- Edwin Newman and John Chancellor -- failed to connect with viewers as a replacement for Dave Garroway. Downs' presence turned the fortunes of the NBC morning franchise around, forming one of the most popular "Today" teams with Walters and Joe Garagiola.

"Hugh had the easiness that made people comfortable in the morning," former NBC News president and ABC News executive Dick Wald said in a 2011 interview. "His wide range of interests gave him a little bit of knowledge about almost everything under the sun; and a general pleasant demeanor that made everybody feel comfortable. He was really the everyman of that business."

At the beginning of his television career at the NBC affiliate in Chicago, Downs was the announcer for the classic "Kukla, Fran & Ollie" puppet show and the soap opera "Hawkins Falls." He moved to New York City in 1954 to announce NBC's "The Home Show," a new morning program starring Arlene Francis.

Downs went on to be the announcer for the last season of "Caesar's Hour" on NBC before Paar tapped him to be his announcer for the debut of the network's new "Tonight" show in 1957.

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