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'Live’…Without Regis

Last week’s announcement that Regis Philbin would take a leave of absence from Live With Regis and Kelly to have bypass surgery was a one-two punch for the man whom Philbin affectionately calls “Gelman.”

In addition to being concerned about his old friend’s health, Michael Gelman, the morning show’s executive producer since 1987, had to scramble to line up fill-in co-hosts for at least five weeks of shows.

Gelman had known about the planned leave days before Philbin shocked viewers with the news March 12, and he had been aware of the host’s health concerns before his decision to have surgery.

“He had kept me informed along the way of some issues he was having,” Gelman says. “But we just weren’t sure exactly when or what was going on.”

Once Philbin decided on surgery, Gelman and two bookers began working the phones furiously, lining up CNN’s Anderson Cooper and MTV’s Damien Fahey to take over the rest of the week after Philbin’s March 12 departure. Within a week, they had at least five weeks of shows covered, after which everyone hopes Philbin will be back in action. And it’s looking good so far; Philbin successfully underwent triple-bypass surgery March 14.

The show’s regular bench of guest hosts made the hectic process a bit easier, says Gelman, and allowed him to stick with familiar faces—despite the deluge of calls from agents dying to get their clients in that chair.

“The strategy was to try and keep to tried-and-true people we have used before, since we are going to have a longer period of time without Regis,” he says. “We really wanted to make sure both Kelly and the audience are as comfortable as possible.”

That roster includes Howie Mandel, Neal Patrick Harris, Pat Sajak, Jeff Probst, Martin Short and Donald Trump. Bryant Gumbel is now also onboard, and Gelman expects to use Kelly Ripa’s husband, Mark Consuelos.

“We ended up with an even better list of co-hosts than we could imagine,” Gelman says. “We had a lot of people calling, rearranging their schedules, really rallying behind Regis and the show.”

(Fans of NASCAR superstar Jeff Gordon, a familiar fill-in, may be disappointed, however; the auto racing season has just kicked off.)

Now Gelman has to turn his attention from booking to producing a show with a revolving door of hosts for at least a month. Although each host will be there for more than just one day, the constant turnover will not be easy.

“Putting together a live show five days a week is a lot of work. Now add in the co-host thing,” Gelman says. “It makes a lot more work for the staff; it makes it a lot tougher.”

As for Philbin, Gelman says he knows it won’t be too long before the affable and energetic host will be back on-air, one way or another. “We’re looking forward to getting Regis updates when he’s well enough to call in,” Gelman says. “He is a tremendous part of the show, and anytime he is gone, it’s a loss.”

In the meantime, the show began its guest-host cycle with good news: It was the only talk show to see year-over-year growth during the February sweeps. Regis and Kelly was up 3% on the year to a 3.7 rating, according to national household ratings for Feb. 1-28.

Should the numbers fall off with Philbin gone, might Gelman orchestrate a feud between Ripa and another media personality à la Donald Trump and The View’s Rosie O’Donnell?

“That’s not really our format,” he says with a laugh. “But we’re always looking for something fresh, so then again, who knows?”