Regis Philbin: Selling Million Dollar Dreams on TV

He presided over live morning shows for four decades, emceed ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ and served as Joey Bishop’s late-night sidekick.

Regis Philbin, the indefatigable and downright neighborly host of talk shows and game shows, spent more time in front of a television camera than anyone else.”His family and friends are forever grateful for the time we got to spend with him — for his warmth, his legendary sense of humor and his singular ability to make every day into something worth talking about,” Philbin’s family said in a statement about the television legend who died on July 23, 2020 of natural causes.

“We thank his fans and admirers for their incredible support over his 60-year career and ask for privacy as we mourn his loss,” the family added.

Unfailingly perky and personable during his 60-plus years in show business, Philbin hosted live morning programs from Los Angeles and New York from the early 1970s through 2011, sharing cups of coffee and flipping through the morning papers alongside the likes of Ruta Lee, Sarah Purcell, Cyndy Garvey, Mary Hart, Kathie Lee Gifford and Kelly Ripa.

Like Jack Paar before him, Philbin engaged his audience with tales about his personal life and the seemingly mundane events of his day.

Philbin made his mark in primetime as host of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, helping transform ratings-laggard ABC into the No. 1 network in 1999-2000 by drawing audiences of 30 million to a game show that aired three and then five times a week.

A New York native and ardent Notre Dame alum, Philbin also played sidekick to Joey Bishop on an ill-fated ABC late-night effort meant to compete with Johnny Carson in the late 1960s, and he later served as David Letterman’s frequent foil in scores of guest appearances on CBS’ Late Show.

According to Guinness World Records, the dapper Philbin — who got his first on-camera job in 1959 at a San Diego TV station— spent nearly 17,000 hours on television, surpassing the record held by Hugh Downs. He was inducted into the Broadcast Hall of Fame in 2006.

Widely known simply by his first name, Regis also appeared as himself on dozens of TV series and films, from The Larry Sanders Show, Seinfeld and How I Met Your Mother to Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask (1972) — where he was a panelist on a mock game show What’s My Perversion? — to Night and the City (1992) and Dudley Do-Right (1999).

He also voiced Mabel, the stepsister of Cinderella, in two Shrek films.

Regis Francis Philbin was born in Manhattan on Aug. 25, 1931, and raised in an Irish-Italian household in the Bronx. His father was a personnel director and his mother a housewife.

An only child, Philbin graduated from Notre Dame in 1953 with a degree in sociology, then enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He left two years later as a lieutenant, then walked unannounced into the offices of KCOP-TV in Los Angeles, talking his way into a meeting with program director Al Flanagan. The executive didn’t have a job for Philbin but said he would call him when he did.

Instead of hanging around, Philbin returned to New York and, with the help of his uncle, a publicity man for CBS, landed a gig at Rockefeller Center in June 1955 as an NBC page. He got on TV for the first time when he was seen holding open the studio’s elevator doors for Eddie Fisher, who had just sung his final number of the season on his show and was leaving for vacation. (The studio is now home to Late Night With Seth Meyers.)

Six weeks into his career as a page, Philbin was surprised when Flanagan phoned, offering a position as a KCOP stagehand. He accepted and was promoted to news writer before leaving to work as a reporter at a small San Diego radio station.

He joined KFMB-TV, then became a feature reporter and anchor on KOGO-TV (now KGTV) in 1960. He also convinced the station to give him a live Saturday night talk show.

“I loved Jack Paar,” Philbin said in a 2006 interview for the website The Interviews: An Oral History of Television. “It seemed to me Paar was coming out on The Tonight Show and just sitting on the edge of a desk and talking to people about what he had seen and what he had done that day. That reminded me of the candy store back in the Bronx where we just told each other stories. I said, ‘Maybe I could do that.’ “.

The Regis Philbin Show, airing live from 11:15 p.m.-1 a.m., debuted in October 1961, and the new host “opened it just like Jack did, sitting on a stool … I had a whole week of experiences that I could tell the audience about. The response was extraordinary.”

He wrote, produced and booked the guests (among them Jerry Lewis, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Walter Winchell, Don Adams and Bill Dana) himself.

A mention of him in a Winchell column put him on the radar in Hollywood, and suddenly he was hired in 1964 to replace the departing Steve Allen on a late-night syndicated talk show owned by Westinghouse.

Philbin, though, was fired a couple of months later. “I was thrown into Hollywood with associate producers and writers … I didn’t know how to tell a joke, that wasn’t me. I would tell you a funny story about what I had done, who I had seen, but jokes were different,” he said. “I could not handle it.”

Philbin bounced back as the announcer and sidekick (a la Ed McMahon) on ABC’s The Joey Bishop Show, which bowed in April 1967. (Bishop, a member of the Rat Pack with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., had regularly subbed for Carson on The Tonight Show.)

To get the nervous host to relax, Philbin would walk around Hollywood, where the show was taped, with Bishop every day.

Philbin didn’t relish being the straight man or the target of Bishop’s ripostes, and, after hearing whispers that he was being blamed for the show’s poor ratings, he walked off the set in 1968 and went missing for a week.

“Every night I had to come up with something different. Joey never knew what it would be. Didn’t want to know,” Philbin said in an interview with Esquire in 1997. “He would just counterpunch, his specialty. But if it didn’t pay off or wasn’t cute, it was my fault.”

The program was canceled in December 1969, replaced by The Dick Cavett Show.

Philbin then hosted Tempo, a three-hour morning show on L.A.’s KHJ-TV, with co-hosts including Lee; a program for a CBS affiliate in the Midwest called Regis Philbin’s Saturday Night in St. Louis; another morning show in Chicago; and a short-lived talk show for NBC that had replaced one that was fronted by Letterman.

Things settled down when he was paired on A.M. Los Angeles at KABC-TV with Purcell and then Garvey (wife of Dodgers first baseman Steve Garvey) from 1975-83, and he returned to his hometown to reunite with Garvey on The Morning Show at WABC-TV.

Kathie Lee Johnson/Gifford joined Philbin in 1985, and ratings for the renamed Live With Regis & Kathie Lee soared. The show, owned by the station, became nationally syndicated in 1988 — but only after Philbin threatened to quit if it wasn’t.

Gifford departed in July 2000, and Ripa was picked as her permanent replacement in February 2001. In November 2011, after 28 years, Philbin retired from the show — which he taped across the street from his apartment on the Upper West Side — eventually replaced by Michael Strahan.

When he learned that ABC was planning to do a version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, which had originated in the U.K., Philbin lobbied to serve as host.

“I got a tape of the show and said, ‘My gosh, this has hit all over it. Someone walks off the street and wins a million bucks?!’ I just loved the whole format,” he said. “I wasn’t even on the ABC list. I had to pitch pretty hard to even be considered for it.”

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, executive produced by Michael Davies, debuted on Aug. 16, 1999, and aired almost 400 times in primetime before it expired in 2002 amid viewer exhaustion.

“When it went off, I thought that’s what you get for giving too much of it away to the audience,” Philbin, who won a Daytime Emmy for his work, told the Associated Press. His question to contestants, “Is that your final answer?” became a national catchphrase.

Philbin also presided over the ABC game show The Neighbors, America’s Got Talent, the Miss America pageant, Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve and, in a reunion with Gifford, the Today show.

On one installment of The Joey Bishop Show, Philbin sang “Pennies From Heaven” to guest Bing Crosby, and that led to a 1968 album of standards, It’s Time for Regis. The crooner also recorded The Regis Philbin Christmas Album, which featured a duet with Donald Trump, in 2005.

Philbin was married twice: to Kay Faylen — daughter of actor Frank Faylen (Dobie Gillis’ dad on the CBS sitcom) — from 1955-68 and to Joy Senese, Bishop’s executive secretary, from 1970 until his death. He had two children, Amy and Daniel (he died in 2014), with his first wife, and two, Joanna and Jennifer, with his second.

On the final day of The Joey Bishop Show — Bishop had quit and Philbin was hosting — producers asked him who he wanted as a guest. He suggested an astrologer, Sydney Omarr. “We can find out what’s in the future for all of us,” Philbin figured.

“Sydney came on and told me what’s going to happen to Joey, what’s going to happen to Johnny Mann the bandleader, and finally he got to me. He said, ‘You know, your name is going to become a household word in this country.’

“I said, ‘Really? When?’ He said, ‘Well, it’s not going to happen right away.’ ‘Well, how long is it going to take? Six months? A year?’ This was December 1969. He said, ‘No, it’s going to be 20 years.’ Sure enough, [Live With Regis & Kathie Lee] didn’t get syndicated [around the country] until the 1988-89 season. It was 20 years, he was right.”

  • Adapted from a tribute in the Hollywood Reporter by Mike Barnes, with contributions from Duane Byrge.

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