Kathie Lee Gifford was a television icon long before it ever occurred to anyone that she should join NBC’s Today.
She was a singer and performer before her TV days began, having logged her first pro singing gig when she was just 10 years old. Although she sang in a group with her sister throughout her youth, Gifford got her professional break in 1977 when she was hired to be the “la la” girl on hit primetime game show Name That Tune.
Singing and music were always her passions, but Gifford got a different kind of opportunity when her agent was watching ABC’s Good Morning America. He called the executive producer and said, “Stop looking, I’ve found Joan Lunden’s substitute.”
Gifford was divorcing her first husband and ready for a change, so she agreed to give it a try, thinking she would only stay in New York for a year. She arrived from Los Angeles in 1982, met football star and broadcaster Frank Gifford, married him in 1986 and never left.
She never put much thought into delivering news and talk on TV. It all just sort of happened. Even so, she says, “I don’t know that I believe in lucky breaks. I’m not one of those people who think things are random. More often than not, it’s hard work and preparation.”
The first thing everyone attributes to Gifford is authenticity—and the second, relatability — and both of those shone on GMA. ABC brass wanted Gifford to stay on and fulfill the promise of replacing Lundon, but Gifford had other plans for herself. “I’ve never thought of myself as a journalist and I was never comfortable with the teleprompter,” she says. “I never got the enjoyment out of doing that show as I did with live performance.”
That led her to someone else who only worked live: Regis Philbin. At the time, Philbin was hosting The Morning Show in New York with Ann Abernethy, who was leaving to get married. Gifford set her eyes on that show. “I wanted to have fun, I wanted to do stupid stuff like Regis was doing. Everyone said don’t do it, because you’ll become GMA’s host, but why would I want something to be mine that is not something I long for?”
Even then, Gifford understood the principal that would guide her choices going forward: “My joy is nonnegotiable, but my salary and time off is. Joy is what makes life sweet and feeds your soul.”
Gifford spent 15 years with Philbin, another B&C Hall of Famer, on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, and American audiences fell in love with her and her family, sharing their morning coffee with the on-screen pair.
“Kathie is totally relatable to the daytime audience, and has always been open to sharing details that let the audience into her life,” says Live’s longtime executive producer Michael Gelman. “She also has a very quick, unfiltered sense of humor, with an unpredictable quality —you never know what she’s going to say.” Philbin considers her “one of a kind,” adding, “She’s always up to date on everything, she has a wonderful sense of humor and she always enjoys a great laugh.”
When she decided to leave Live in 2000, Gifford was again adhering to her personal principals: “My career is the way I make my living , but my family and my faith are my life.”
She departed to spend more time with her husband and children and to write and produce on-and off-Broadway musicals. At one point, she stopped in to guest-host the fourth hour of Today to promote a project, and NBC execs were immediately convinced she was the one.
Jim Bell, who was then executive producing Today, went to recruit her and recalls asking her, “Have you seen the fourth hour of the show?” Her reply: “I haven’t seen the first, second or third hour.”
But Bell was relentless. “I couldn’t believe she wasn’t on television. It seemed America was missing out,” he says. He persuaded Gifford to have lunch with her would-be cohost, Hoda Kotb. Gifford went, and the hour-long lunch turned into an all-afternoon party, one that informs the show today.
“That lunch with Hoda is what changed everything,” Gifford says. “We laughed, we cried and we had so much in common. We got kicked out of the Rainbow Room. I didn’t think I wanted to come back to television, but I knew I wanted to be friends with her for the rest of my life.”
“When I come to work, I look forward to walking into the make-up room and she sings a song to me,” says Kotb. “We have so much conversation before they even cue us. Some people, the more you know, the less you like. With Kathie Lee, the more you know the more you like.”
“As I’ve always said, I’m a post-menopausal has-been and she’s an award-winning Egyptian journalist. What could go wrong?” jokes Gifford.
Much like when she moved to New York, Gifford agreed to give it a try for a year. Eight years later, the fourth hour of Today is really the Kathie Lee and Hoda party, and no one would have it any other way. The hour’s rise—affectionately sent up on Saturday Night Live—created more stability in her public life after the occasional tabloid scandals of the Live years. Gifford’s perseverance and poise is on regular display behind the scenes, colleagues say.
“So much of what she does, people don’t get to see,” says Matt Lauer, Today’s host. “She’s the one who stands up and has strength in tough times. She’s the one who props people up when they are having bad times. She always has something to say that makes you feel better.”
Gifford’s husband, Frank, NFL Hall of Famer and longtime announcer for ABC’s Monday Night Football, died in August at 84. B&C is also recognizing him with a lifetime achievement award during this year’s Hall of Fame ceremony.
“B&C is also honoring my husband posthumously and I’m happy about that. Frank lived the fullest life I’ve ever known,” Gifford says.
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