Regis Philbin — ge­nial TV host, per­son­al­ity

San Francisco Chronicle (Sunday) - - OBITUARIES - By David Bauder David Bauder is an As­so­ci­ated Press writer.

NEW YORK — Regis Philbin, the ge­nial host who shared his life with tele­vi­sion view­ers over morn­ing cof­fee for decades and helped him­self and some fans strike it rich with the game show “Who Wants to Be a Mil­lion­aire,” has died at 88.

Philbin died of nat­u­ral causes Fri­day night, just over a month be­fore what would have been his 89th birth­day, ac­cord­ing to a state­ment from his fam­ily pro­vided by man­ager Lewis Kay.

Celebri­ties rou­tinely stopped by Philbin’s epony­mous syn­di­cated morn­ing show, but its heart was in the first 15 min­utes, when he and co­host Kathie Lee Gif­ford — on “Live! with Regis and Kathie Lee” from 1985 to 2000 — or Kelly Ripa — on “Live! with Regis and Kelly” from 2001 un­til his 2011 re­tire­ment — ban­tered about the events of the day. View­ers laughed at Philbin’s mock in­dig­na­tion over not get­ting the best seat at a res­tau­rant the night be­fore, or be­ing hen­pecked by his part­ner.

“Even I have a lit­tle trep­i­da­tion,” he told the As­so­ci­ated Press in 2008, when asked how he does a show every day. “You wake up in the morn­ing and you say, ‘What did I do last night that I can talk about? What’s new in the pa­per? How are we gonna fill that 20 min­utes?’

“I’m not gonna say it al­ways works out bril­liantly, but some­how we con­nect more of­ten than we don’t,” he added.

“One of the greats in the his­tory of tele­vi­sion, Regis Philbin has passed on to even greater air­waves,” Pres­i­dent Trump said in a tweet. “He was a fan­tas­tic per­son, and my friend.”

Af­ter hus­tling into an en­ter­tain­ment ca­reer by park­ing cars at a Los An­ge­les TV sta­tion, Philbin logged more than 15,000 hours on the air, earn­ing him recog­ni­tion in the Guin­ness Book of World Records for the most broad­cast hours logged by a TV per­son­al­ity, a record pre­vi­ously held by Hugh Downs.

“Every day, you see the record shat­tered, pal!” Philbin would tell view­ers. “One more hour!”

He was host of the prime­time game show, “Who Wants to Be a Mil­lion­aire,” briefly tele­vi­sion’s most pop­u­lar show at the turn of the cen­tury. ABC aired the fam­ily­friendly pro­gram as of­ten as five times a week. It gen­er­ated around $1 bil­lion in rev­enue in its first two years — ABC had said it was the more prof­itable show in TV his­tory — and helped make Philbin him­self a mil­lion­aire many times over.

Philbin’s ques­tion to con­tes­tants, “Is that your fi­nal an­swer?” be­came a na­tional catch­phrase. Philbin was even a fash­ion trend­set­ter; he put out a line of monochra­mac­tic shirts and ties to match what he wore on the set.

“You wait a life­time for some­thing like that and some­times it never hap­pens,” Philbin said in 1999.

In 2008, he re­turned briefly to the quiz show for­mat with “Mil­lion Dol­lar Pass­word.” He also picked up the Life­time Achieve­ment Award from the day­time Em­mys.

He was the type of TV per­son­al­ity easy to make fun of, and easy to love.

When his son Danny first met his fu­ture wife, “we were talk­ing about our fam­i­lies,” Danny told USA To­day. “I said, ‘You know that show Regis and Kathie Lee?’ And she said, ‘I hate that show.’ And I said, ‘That’s my dad.’ ”

Yet Philbin was a fa­vorite of a younger gen­er­a­tion’s ironic icon, David Let­ter­man. When Let­ter­man an­nounced that he had to un­dergo heart surgery, it was on the air to Philbin, who was also there for Let­ter­man’s first day back af­ter his re­cov­ery.

Let­ter­man re­turned the fa­vor, ap­pear­ing on Philbin’s show when he went back on the air in April 2007 af­ter un­der­go­ing heart by­pass surgery.

In the 2008 in­ter­view, Philbin said he saw “get­ting the best out of your guests” as “a spe­cialty. … The time con­straints mean you’ve got to get right to the point, you’ve got to make it pay off, go to com­mer­cial, start again. Play that clip. Say good­bye.” He gave his desk­top a de­ci­sive rap.

“And make it all con­ver­sa­tional.”

Regis Francis Xavier Philbin grew up in the New York bor­ough of the Bronx, the son of Ital­ian­Ir­ish par­ents and named for the Ro­man Catholic boys high school his dad at­tended. He went to Notre Dame Univer­sity, and was such an en­thu­si­as­tic alum, he once said he wanted his ashes scat­tered there.

Af­ter leav­ing the Navy in 1955, Philbin talked his way into a meet­ing with the sta­tion­mas­ter at KCOP­TV in Los An­ge­les. He got a job park­ing cars, then pro­gressed into work as a stage­hand, courier, newswriter and pro­ducer of a sports tele­cast. When its sports­caster didn’t show up, Philbin filled in.

Philbin got far more on­air ex­pe­ri­ence in San Diego in the early 1960s, when KOGO­TV be­gan pro­duc­ing “The Regis Philbin Show” for a na­tional au­di­ence. The pro­gram of mu­sic and celebrity in­ter­views was taped two weeks be­fore each air­ing. It was can­celed af­ter four months.

In 1967, Philbin was hired as the an­nouncer and side­kick to comic Joey Bishop on his net­work show. When he heard that he was go­ing to be fired be­cause of poor rat­ings, Philbin tear­fully an­nounced he was leav­ing on July 12, 1968, walk­ing off dur­ing a live broad­cast. He re­turned three days later af­ter let­ters of sup­port poured in.

He and Bishop had bad blood: Bishop called Philbin an “in­grate” for walk­ing off dur­ing a salary dis­pute and later bad­mouthing him.

Philbin’s se­cond wife, Joy, was Bishop’s as­sis­tant.

Af­ter three years of com­mut­ing to St. Louis each week for a lo­cal Satur­day night show, Philbin be­came a star in lo­cal morn­ing tele­vi­sion — first in Los An­ge­les, then in New York. In 1985, he teamed with Kathie Lee John­son, a year be­fore she mar­ried for­mer foot­ball star Frank Gif­ford, and the show went na­tional in 1988.

Philbin’s “sar­cas­tic play­ful­ness” en­dears him to fans, Good House­keep­ing mag­a­zine wrote in 2000.

“He’s the lit­tle guy protest­ing the in­jus­tices of life, from crime waves to pa­per cuts,” the mag­a­zine wrote. “The rant­ing is punc­tu­ated with Kathie Lee’s fa­mil­iar cry of ‘Oh, Reege,’ ut­tered some­times in sis­terly sym­pa­thy and some­times in teacherly ad­mon­ish­ment.”

The gentle bick­er­ing and eye­rolling ex­as­per­a­tion in Philbin and Gif­ford’s on­screen re­la­tion­ship was fa­mil­iar to any­one in a long­last­ing re­la­tion­ship.

“No ar­gu­ments, no harsh words in all this time,” Philbin told a theater au­di­ence in 2000. “Well, there was the time I didn’t talk to her for two weeks. Didn’t want to in­ter­rupt her.”

Gif­ford left the show in 2000. Af­ter a try­out pe­riod for a re­place­ment, soap star Ripa (“All My Chil­dren”) filled the slot.

The same hus­tler who parked cars in Hol­ly­wood worked just as hard to land the job on “Who Wants to Be a Mil­lion­aire.”

“I begged my way on,” he told Peo­ple mag­a­zine. “There was a short list, and I wasn’t on it. I called my agent, and we made a full as­sault on ABC in L.A.”

The au­di­ence re­sponded to Philbin’s warm, comic touch in the role. He later jok­ingly re­ferred to him­self as the man who saved ABC. It wasn’t com­plete hy­per­bole: ABC was suf­fer­ing in the rat­ings be­fore the game be­came a smash suc­cess. Forbes re­ported that two­thirds of ABC’s op­er­at­ing profit in 2000 was due to “Who Wants to Be a Mil­lion­aire.”

Philbin ap­peared to love every minute of it. Even the ul­ti­mate ar­biter of hip, the MTV Video Awards, asked him to make an ap­pear­ance.

“It’s bet­ter to be hot,” he told the As­so­ci­ated Press. “It’s fun. I know this busi­ness. I was per­fectly con­tent with my morn­ing show. Peo­ple would ask me, ‘What’s next?’ There is noth­ing next. There are no more moun­tains for me to climb. Be­lieve me when I tell you, all I wanted when I started this show in 1961 was to be a suc­cess na­tion­ally.”

The prime­time game burned out quickly be­cause of overuse and ended in 2002.

He’s sur­vived by his wife, Joy, and their daugh­ters, J.J. and Joanna Philbin, as well as his daugh­ter Amy Philbin with his first wife, Cather­ine Faylen, ac­cord­ing to Peo­ple.

Richard Drew / As­so­ci­ated Press 2000

Regis Philbin and co­host Kathie Lee Gif­ford dur­ing her last ap­pear­ance on the show in 2000.

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