Ten days after he left the Today show forever, Hugh Downs sat in front of his TV set in Carefree, Ariz. watching Barbara Walters and the late Frank McGee and experienced his first withdrawal symptoms. “I’d watch the weather and the news…I was feeling right at home. Then in the middle of an interview I’d think…they should have asked such and such…oh, well I’ll tell them tomorrow. Then I remembered—no, I can’t. Suddenly my loud-hailer had been cut.”
Hugh Downs had just done what almost every male mired in the success syndrome of the American megalopolis only fantasizes about: he had ridden off into the West. “I didn’t want to get up at 4:15 in the morning anymore,” explains Downs simply. “And I didn’t like being chained to New York City. There were other things I wanted to do.” But now, three-and-a-half years later, the withdrawal pangs linger on. He thought momentarily of reapplying for the job after Frank McGee’s death last year, and Hugh, now 54, frankly concedes: “I got used to the nation paying attention to what I said. I do miss that. I knew I would.”
It is not so much the $425,000 annual income, but rather that electronic loud-hailer that he misses. Now that he is only the former Dilettante of the Breakfast Table, his moonlight properties do not seem to be going over so well. His fifth book, Potential: The Way to Emotional Maturity, a do-it-yourself guide to saving civilization, has not made it to the best-seller lists. Two TV pilots—a syndicated Lena Home series and yet another celebrity game show called Foursome—didn’t sell, period.
His latest project is a rather blah documentary film about the barnstorming stunt flyers of the 1920s, Nothing by Chance, which he produced and narrated. It is based on a book by and starring his chum Richard (Jonathan Livingston Seagull) Bach. So far, movie-house owners have been reluctant to book it—particularly now that The Great Waldo Pepper, a fictional feature on the same subject starring Robert Redford, is about to premiere. Sums up Downs disappointedly: “I got used to 30 years of gradually unfolding success. I guess I thought anything new I took up would start out at that level.”
The one enterprise in which Hugh enjoys continued success is the lecture and personal-appearance circuit. He performs anywhere from 50 to 90 gigs a year, always charging a uniform $3,000 per—even for hospital dedications. “I don’t do anything for nothing,” he admits.
Which is not to say he has forsaken his causes. Downs is still an apostle of controlled parenthood as co-chairman of the Citizens Committee on Population and the American Future, and he’s a consultant on communications to the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara. Hugh is also ardently involved in environmental issues, though he retains his contract as a commercial spokesman for Ford Motor Co. This winter, however, he begged off Ford’s hard-sell rebate promotion. “I’ve always tried to project the idea that I do care about what I represent,” he says. One other proposition he has resisted: running for either Arizona’s governor or U.S. senator.
Carefree, his home base, is a sun-dance Shangri-la 40 miles north of Phoenix, where the streets have names like Leisure Lane and Peaceful Place. He and Ruth, his wife of 30 years, were smitten with the desert from first sight in 1968. “Ruth and I have never felt at home in the big city, not the 10 years in Chicago or the 17 in New York,” says Hugh. So they bought some acreage in Carefree, a smogless, unspoiled wilderness near the Tonto National Forest. Their homestead is a rambling 15-room hideaway surrounded by rocks, cacti and a six-foot electric fence. In short, the perfect place for a return to nature, with central air conditioning, five TV sets and rich neighbors.
Dick Van Dyke is just three miles away, and Sen. Barry Goldwater pops in from nearby Scottsdale. Daughter Deirdre, 25, and grandson Sadim, 5, often jet in from L.A. (Downs’s son, Hugh Raymond, 29, is in Nepal researching a book on Himalayan art.) Easygoing Hugh Downs admits that he too is a victim of the generation gap. “Somehow I get along lots better with my grandson than I ever did with my own kids.” Though himself a dropout from Bluffton (Ohio) College, he teaches communications about four hours a month, when he can fit it in, at Arizona State—a schedule he may beef up if his business ventures continue to be unfruitful.
With Hugh’s fans, however, there is no gap. When Downs learned that his house was a highlight of the local sightseeing tour, he coyly painted a different name on his gatepost. After some disgruntled cries from rubber-neckers who thought they were being cheated, the Downs house was taken off the itinerary. Not that the Downses themselves are in residence all that often. They still fly off to New York or L.A. for business or errands—a shopping spree at Halston’s, a special haircut, a dentist appointment. “Actually we don’t spend any more time in Carefree now than we did when I was doing the Today show,” Downs laments, with a practiced smile.