"I thought TV was a gimmick like 3-D movies and it would just go away. I had no idea that the tail would eventually wag the dog, and treat me much kinder than radio did."
About This Interview
In his three-and-a-half hour Archive interview, Hugh Downs discusses his 50-plus years in television. He talks of his career in radio and transitioning to television in the Chicago market. He recalls announcing for the popular children's show Kukla Fran & Ollie. He speaks of moving to New York to be the announcer for The Home Show, and talks of working as the announcer and sometimes guest on Sid Caesar's Caesar's Hour. Downs tells of announcing and guest-hosting for The Jack Paar Show (aka The Tonight Show) and details Paar's infamous walk out on the program in February 1960. He talks of hosting one of the longest-running game shows, NBC's Concentration, and fondly recalls his days as host of Today. He shares stories from some of his most memorable interviews, including those with Bobby Fischer, Martin Luther King, Jr., and King Hassan of Morocco. Downs also speaks about his work on the news show, 20/20. Bill Tynan conducted the interview on October 22, 1997 in New York City.
Hugh Downs, a venerable and extremely affable television host, is known for telegraphing intelligence, patience, and decency. The Guinness Book of World Records reports that Downs, among the most familiar figures in the history of the medium, has clocked more hours on television (10,347 through May of 1994) than any other person in U.S. TV history.
Downs began his broadcasting career as a radio announcer at age 18 in Lima, Ohio, moving later to NBC Chicago as a staff announcer. In 1957 he became well known to American audiences as Jack Paar's sidekick on the Tonight Show and remained in that spot through 1962. In 1958 he began simultaneously hosting the original version of Concentration, helping to establish his niche of doing more serious and thought-provoking television even within the game show format.
He served as NBC's utility host for many of the network's 1950s and early 1960s news, information, and entertainment programs and added The Today Show to his list of network assignments, replacing John Chancellor who had served for just 15 months as Dave Garroway's replacement on the original Today Show. Downs was the primary host of the Today Show for nine years.
Downs' reassuring, professional manner in the roles of announcer, sidekick, host, and anchor is unrivaled in U.S. television. He has said that he tries to be the link between what goes on behind and in front of the camera and the audience at home, hoping that he serves as an "honest pipeline to the audience." He believes that television works best when a familiar presence is there to help guide viewers in and out of features and stories, however abbreviated that function may be. From 1978 to 1999 he best demonstrated that commitment as the anchor or co-anchor of ABC's 20/20. Downs came out of a very busy retirement to take the 20/20 position when a near-disastrous premier almost kept the show off the air.
His great affability and smooth manner have made it possible for him to get along well with whomever he has been paired with, repeatedly taking the edge off some of the sharper moments with Jack Paar who was well known for his outbursts, tantrums, and eccentricities. Ironically, and inadvisably in the view of some, Barbara Walters took the position across from Downs on 20/20 just after a major brouhaha developed when she was asked to leave her position as the first female network news co-anchor, paired unsuccessfully with Harry Reasoner. But with Downs the chemistry was right and the two worked together successfully since 1984.
Intimates refer to Downs as one of the last "renaissance men." He is a proficient sailor and aviator--even though colorblind. He has composed, published, and had orchestral pieces performed, has hosted Live From Lincoln Center for PBS since 1990, and is exceptionally knowledgeable about science and health. One of his special interests is the U.S. space program. Another focuses on issues surrounding aging, and he has earned a post-graduate certificate in geriatric medicine while hosting Over Easy for the Public Broadcasting Service, the first successful television program in the United States about aging. Always modest, Downs shuns the "renaissance" label, preferring instead to call himself "a champion dilettante."
He is the author of eight books, one an autobiography, one a collection of his science articles (on astronomy and the environment), one an account of a sailing voyage across the Pacific, and five on the subjects of aging, health, and psychological maturity. Downs' public service commitments are also notable. He is currently the Chairman of the Board of the United States Committee for UNICEF, Chairman of the Board of Governors of the National Space Society, and serves as an elected Member of the National Academy of Science, and a past-member of NASA's Advisory Council. He recently received an award from the American Psychiatric Association for his work on an ABC News Special, Depression, Beyond the Darkness, and also received an Emmy for his work on The Poisoning of America about damage to the environment. He was named Broadcaster of the Year by the International Radio and Television Society in 1990. In 1995 he was honored with a special salute ceremony by the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.
HUGH (MALCOLM) DOWNS. Born in Akron, Ohio, U.S.A, 14 February 1921. Attended Bluffton College, Ohio, 1938-39; Wayne State College, 1940-41; Columbia University, 1955-56. Married: Ruth Shaheen, 1944; children: Hugh Raymond and Deirdre Lynn. Began career as staff announcer and program director, WLOK, Lima, Ohio, 1939-40; staff announcer, WWJ, Detroit, Michigan, 1940-42; staff announcer, NBC-Radio, Chicago, Illinois, 1943-54; in television from 1949; chairman, board of directors, Raylin Productions, Inc, from 1960; special consultant to U.N. on refugee problems, 1961-64; Science consultant to Westinghouse Laboratories and the Ford Foundation. Member: Actors' Equity Association; Screen Actors Guild, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists; National Space Institute (president); U.S. Committee for UNICEF (chairman); Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.
1949 Kukla, Fran, and Ollie (announcer) 1950 Hawkins Falls 1951-55 American Inventory 1951 Your Luncheon Date (announcer) 1954-57 The Home Show (announcer) 1956-57 Sid Caesar's Hour (announcer) 1957-62 The Jack Paar Show (announcer) 1958-68 Concentration (emcee) 1962 The Tonight Show (announcer) 1962-72 The Today Show (host) 1972 Not for Women Only (host) 1974 Variety (host) (pilot only) 1977-83 Over Easy 1978-99 20/20 (host) 1985 Growing Old in America (host)
1976 Woman of the Year
1975 Broken Treaty at Battle Mountain: A Discussion (moderator) 1986 Liberty Weekend Preview (reporter) 1986 NBC's 60th Anniversary Celebration (reporter) 1987 Today at 35 (reporter)
Nothing by Chance (documentary; executive producer and narrator), 1974; Oh God! Book II, 1980.