Some television personalities succeed by finding exactly the right niche for themselves. Regis Philbin, television’s quintessential morning talk-show host, is one of them.
“Regis is one of the greats of all time,” says David Letterman, the late-night talk show host, who is one of Regis’s biggest fans. “Day in and day out he has the single most entertaining show on television. There’s nobody better than Regis.”
While dozens of other programs in the same time slot have come and gone, “Reege” — or “Big Daddy,” as Kelly Ripa, his spunky co-host of Live with Regis and Kelly likes to call the indomitable 75-year-old — continues to sally forth weekday mornings, coffee cup and co-anchor in hand, to win the hearts and laughs of studio and television audiences with his infectious enthusiasm, spontaneous ad-libs and lively co-host banter.
“He has a tremendous way with people and he has an unusual style of making friends immediately,” says his good friend, comedian Don Rickles. “You never see the downside of him. He’s always up and full of life and fun, which makes him a very lovable guy.”
In fact the Energizer Bunny should watch his back. After almost 50 years in the television business — during which he’s also appeared as a game show host, presenter, singer and frequent guest on other talk shows — Philbin smashed his own 2004 Guinness World Record for “Most Hours On Camera” in September with a new record of 15,662 hours on American television, no batteries necessary.
He’s received numerous awards, including Emmys for outstanding talk and game-show host and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But he firmly cemented his icon status when he hosted ABC’s hugely popular game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire from 1999 to 2002. A clothing line sprung up around his impeccably groomed look while Americans everywhere were playfully intoning his catchphrase, “Is that your final answer?”
Philbin landed in the spotlight at a young age. Born in New York City in 1931, he was an only child named after his Irish father’s alma mater, Regis High School. While the name initially felt somewhat onerous, it turned into a blessing because it was so unusual. He still recalls having a hard time getting a word in edgewise when his mother’s boisterous Italian family was around. But he believes her gift for storytelling influenced his direction in life. He says, “I started out wanting to do exactly what I wound up doing.”
He began his career as an NBC page, and then a television stagehand, before working in early morning radio, reporting from a small news wagon in San Diego. What he really craved, however, was to entertain others. The only problem was, “I just had tons of doubt as to whether I could do it,” he says. He scratched comedian and singer off his career hope list because he didn’t think he was good enough. Nothing quite gelled till the night he watched television host Jack Paar come out and do his shtick. “And I thought, because he was making it so informal — he was just telling a story — I thought, ‘Maybe I could do that.’”
That led to his first television talk show, The Regis Philbin Show, which aired in San Diego from 1961 to 1964. Each show featured celebrity guests and began with Regis talking directly into the camera about current news events or funny things that had happened to him that day — what has since evolved into his signature “host chat.”
He went on to host a number of other talk shows before finally hitting pay dirt in 1975, when he signed on to co-host A.M. Los Angeles with Sarah Purcell (and later Cyndy Garvey). “The ratings were phenomenal,” says Philbin, who by then had finessed his knack for coaxing amusing interviews out of celebrities and connecting with his audience. “We were the only talk show going. This was before Oprah … before Phil [Donahue] could even get located in L.A. We were the number-one talk show in L.A. in the morning with a limited audience.”
One thing he insisted on was no rehearsing before going on air. “I knew that would be a killer. It would have to be live and spontaneous and fun.”
Michael Gelman, his longtime executive producer, says Philbin takes pain not to upstage anyone, co-hosts or celebrities. “He’s very generous,” says Gelman. “He makes the person next to him look fabulous. He props them up. He supports them.”
Over the years he’s outlasted a number of co-hosts including the singer-actress Kathie Lee Gifford, with whom he shared good chemistry and superb ratings for fifteen years on the nationally syndicated Live with Regis and Kathie Lee.
When Gifford left, Philbin went solo for a while, trying out various guest hosts, including the actress Kelly Ripa, who passed the spontaneity test with flying colors. She officially came onboard as Philbin’s co-host in 2001.
Live with Regis and Kelly continues to garner the top-rated spot for a show of its kind, and Ripa says Philbin has proved to be the consummate teacher. He showed her that, “If you go out there trying to get a laugh by trying to play a character, it isn’t going to work,” says Ripa. “You have to go out there and be yourself.” For another, she says, “He is the world’s best storyteller,” praising Philbin’s talent for turning the mundane into the hilarious.
One of her favorite Philbin stories is the one in which he describes going to a Barbra Streisand concert on the wrong night, thereby mistakenly taking someone else’s seats. As the aggrieved couple stared at him from the aisle, Philbin assumed they were fans and waved to them. “And he kept graciously waving to them,” laughs Ripa.
“It endears you to him,” she adds. “I don’t want to say bad things happen to him. But life happens to him in huge quantities. I know that every time he goes out to dinner, he’s not going to find the right restaurant. I know it. I know that every time he’s going to catch a plane, he’s going to lose his ticket and he’s not going to be allowed to board the plane. Life happens to him.”
Television audiences only get to see part of Philbin in action. During commercial breaks, he continues to regale his studio audience with stories and jokes. He loves to press the flesh. When his show was first transplanted to New York from Los Angeles, Gelman says that Philbin would stand by the exit door at the end of each show and shake every hand in the house.
“He’s a born entertainer,” says Gelman. “A lot of his appeal comes from his youthful spirit. He’ll try anything.” That includes performing a tap dance one morning and attempting a yoga headstand the next. “I’ve even had him scuba diving,” says Gelman, who recalls the time he arranged for Philbin to participate in a bungee act with Cirque de Soleil. Philbin complained of tightness in his chest just prior to going on, but insisted on doing his part. Later that day he checked into a hospital for an angioplasty.
Throughout the years Philbin has also hosted Miss America pageants, New Year’s Eve marathons, and other specials, including The Apprentice 2 finale. He followed up Millionaire with Super Millionaire in 2004. This year he hosted the first season of America’s Got Talent.
And for almost 30 years Philbin has also maintained a nightclub act where he’s able to indulge his lifelong passion — singing. In the late 1960s, while playing Joey Bishop’s sidekick on the Rat Packer’s national late-night talk show, Philbin inadvertently talked his way into a singing duet with his childhood idol, Bing Crosby. According to Gelman, he mixed up Crosby’s introduction and said, “Bing, it was always my dream to sing for you,” rather than the opposite.
Crosby took him up on his offer and together they performed "Pennies From Heaven," which led to a record release for Philbin titled It’s Time for Regis. However, he didn’t get another recording offer until two years ago, when he released his first album in 38 years. This collection of pop standards, When You’re Smiling, kicks off with him crooning the seemingly self referential, "You Make Me Feel So Young."
As for his youthful appearance, Philbin chalks it up to regular gym workouts and a little sack of vitamins he takes each day. His longevity in the business has also made him a token of good luck (he is sometimes brought on as the first guest on a new show) and the butt of jokes, especially by Letterman, who once created a list of the Top Ten Things You Hear in a Typical Working Day With Regis. He enlisted Philbin’s producer, Jan Schillay, to start the rundown with, “Yes Regis, for the 10th time, you look fantastic.” But it’s all in good humor, and Philbin is usually in on the joke.
Philbin also takes a lot of ribbing for his inability to cope effectively with technology. Gelman recalls when the host was going to demonstrate how to put together an Easy Bake oven, “and he couldn’t even open the box.”
But that’s okay, because his greatest gift seems to be his ability to pry open people’s hearts. “There are certain things that make me laugh throughout the day,” says Ripa, “and it’s always something that Regis has said. And it’s always something he said at 9:05 in the morning, and at 9:05 at night, I’m still chuckling about it.”
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Regis Philbin's induction in 2006.