ATLANTA – Nick Charles, the former taxi driver who became CNN’s first sports anchor and served in that role for nearly two decades, died Saturday after a two-year struggle with bladder cancer, the cable network reported. He was 64.
He died peacefully at his New Mexico home, his wife Cory, a CNN International producer, told the network.
Nicholas Charles Nickeas grew up in Chicago, working late-night jobs in high school to help his family, according to CNN. He eventually went to Columbia College Chicago to study communications and drove a taxi to help pay his tuition.
He was still driving taxis in 1970 when he landed his first gig with WICS in Springfield, Ill. That’s when he adopted the name Nick Charles at the urging of his news director, the network said.
Charles left Springfield to work at WJZ-TV in Baltimore and WRC-TV in Washington and then began at Atlanta-based CNN on the network’s first day on June 1, 1980.
He made his name before a national audience teaming with Fred Hickman for almost 20 years on “Sports Tonight,” a daily highlight show that battled with ESPN for viewers. Charles became such a popular TV personality that Topps put his face on a trading card, CNN reported.
“We just clicked from the very beginning,” Hickman told CNN. “In television, you always have personality conflicts. Nick and I never had one. Nick and I have always had a tremendous relationship.”
Hickman said Charles was a “great inspiration” to him, and described his former colleague as a “tremendous storyteller.”
“He could literally do a story about a horse and make you think this horse was like a person,” Hickman said. “He could take boxing and turn it into something poetic.”
Charles told CNN recently that boxing was “one of my loves,” whether reporting on Muhammad Ali’s later years or covering the ear-biting incident involving Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield.
From 2001 to 2010, he worked as a fight announcer for Showtime and Top Rank, according to The Baltimore Sun. In his final months, Charles told Sports Illustrated that he wished he could be involved in one last fight. Upon reading this, HBO executives invited him to Atlantic City to call a fight between two featherweights.
“The HBO people told me it was the most joyous fight call they had ever heard,” Charles told the Sun in April.
With his well-coiffed, curly black hair and sharp-looking suits, Charles brought GQ-like style to CNN’s broadcasts. But he also was known as a skilled interviewer who related easily to subjects while not being shy about asking tough questions.
“I think when people look back on Nick in years to come, they’re going to remember — the hair,” former CNN sports anchor Jim Huber quipped to the network. “He loved that hair. It used to just drive us crazy. But in all seriousness, I think they’re going to look back on one of the great sports journalists of all time.”
CNN Worldwide president Jim Walton said Saturday that Charles helped put CNN on the map.
“He brought intelligence, style and heart to his work — qualities that translated to our company and inspired those of us who were fortunate to work alongside him,” Walton said. “His passing is a loss to CNN, to the sports world and to the fans and friends everywhere who were with him to the end of his extraordinary life.
In recent months, Charles served as an inspiration to many as he openly discussed his battle with cancer, with which he was diagnosed in August 2009. He made video diaries for his five-year-old daughter Giovanna to see in years to come.
“I’m a forward looking person but also a living-in-the-moment person,” Charles recently told CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta. “So I wake up everyday expecting to have a good day. It may sound trite, Sanjay, but life as you get older is about 20 per cent of what happens to you and about 80 per cent how you react to it.”
Gupta’s special report, “Nick Charles: No Regrets, Lessons from the Fight,” will re-air at 7:30 a.m. Sunday.
Charles also is survived by three grown children from two previous marriages.
In an interview in March, he told the network his message was to “never give up on life” even though it’s imperfect and filled with huge adversities.
“People won’t remember who you are or what you said. It’s really about: Are you going to be remembered as a good person?” he said.
“That’s victory to me. That’s success.”