Hugh Downs, a beloved broadcaster who spent two decades on the ABC's 20/20 and nine years as the lead on NBC’s Today show, died Wednesday, his family announced Thursday. Downs, who was 99, died at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona. His official cause of death has not yet been released.
Downs had a rich history on television, also serving as Jack Paar’s sidekick for five years on The Tonight Show and hosting the game show Concentration for almost a decade. Getting his start on radio stations in the Midwest, the Ohio native held the record for the person with the most hours on network television until Regis Philbin broke that record in 2004, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
"I can be on 10,000 hours and no one will get sick of me because I’m not exploiting a talent," he said of his prolific career in an October 1997 interview with the Archive of American Television. "I’m just a human being trying to represent other human beings on the other side of the tube. People can tolerate a lot of that."
Downs began working alongside Paar on The Tonight Show when it was broadcast live from the Hudson Theatre in New York, in July 1957, with Downs initially just doing the announcing work. "After I had done the announcing, [Paar] would, out of loneliness, I guess, ask me to come over," he recalled in the 1997 interview. "He would occasionally have some question and turn to me for the answer. He began to call me ‘a walking encyclopedia.’ Red Skelton said later, 'Hugh Downs in the kind of guy who when you ask him what time it is, he tells you how to build a watch.’"
Downs ended up subbing as host more than anyone else before Paar left the show in 1962. Downs said, "I thought they might ask me to take over the show. But they wanted me to do the Today show. Dave Garroway had left and John Chancellor had done it for a year. They asked me to do the Today show and Johnny Carson to do The Tonight Show at the same time. The wise choice, I think." Downs would then host Today from 1962 until his retirement in October 1971. He was living in Arizona with his wife Ruth, whom he married in 1944, until her death in 2017. He is survived by children Hugh and Deirdre, brother, Wallace, and two grandchildren.