Ready to Bring New Life to 'Live!'

It had become a routine for an average 5 million Americans each weekday: sipping a cup of coffee as the witty banter between the ageless Regis Philbin and charismatic Kelly Ripa played out on local television stations across the country. That routine would not have been the same (or even existed) were it not for Michael Gelman, the long-standing and well-known executive producer of Live! With Regis and Kelly.

Some just know him as Gelman, “the poor, downtrodden producer,” as he says, of the morning show, who Philbin and Ripa teased mercilessly. It is not often that a producer appears on-air on live television; it is a unique aspect of Live! that has become a staple of its daily production, and it’s a part Gelman plays well. But the bumbling persona he “plays” on camera is hardly representative of his actual talents.

Ripa, who has worked with Gelman the past 10 years, is the first to admit as much. “He is equal parts executive producer, psychotherapist, marriage counselor, nutritionist, circus performer,” she says.

While Gelman is at the helm, Live!, nationally syndicated since 1988, owes much of its success to the charm of its hosts—Ripa and the legendary, indefatigable Philbin, who departed the show on Nov. 18 after 28 years.

“[Philbin] doesn’t have to ‘turn it on’ for the camera because it’s Regis being Regis…and I think I’ve done a great job, along with my entire staff, at harnessing that,” Gelman says.

The departure of Philbin leaves Gelman the undesirable task of finding a suitable replacement, which has supplied the media much fodder for speculation. Plenty of names—including Ripa’s husband, Mark Consuelos; the ubiquitous Ryan Seacrest; and Bravo’s Andy Cohen—have surfaced, some seemingly out of thin air. And that speculation provides free publicity for the show, currently titled Live! Wth Kelly.

“Whoever had the best publicist was getting their name in the paper the most,” Gelman says, referencing the rumors that circulated after Kathie Lee Gifford announced her departure from Live! in 2000. “That doesn’t bother me. I’m entertained by the fact that all these people are being speculated about, and I think it’s good for the show….All I’ll say is this: Kelly Ripa was not on anyone’s list,” he says.

The formula to find a new cohost will be the same as the one that found Ripa. Gelman is bringing in several guest cohosts (beginning with Jerry Seinfeld, Neil Patrick Harris and Jerry O’Connell) before announcing a successor. This time, however, the shoes are a bit bigger to fill.

Those shoes Gelman knows well. Besides having worked with Philbin on Live! for 20- plus years, Gelman produced The Regis Philbin Show, a primetime talk/variety series that aired on Lifetime cable for one season. The enduring friendship he has with Philbin is one that few producers enjoy with their talent, as it is rare for a producer—let alone much of the staff, which Gelman says has been one of the most stable staffs in live television—to remain with the same show for many years.

“We’ve had an incredible relationship, where sometimes he’s like my brother, and sometimes he’s like my child. Losing Regis [on the show] will be a big change for all of us,” Gelman says.

Fresh off his departure from Live!, Philbin echoes the sentiment, although his perception of being Gelman’s “child” is somewhat reversed: “I’ve had a great time raising him all these years. He’s finally turned into a great producer,” he says.

That “great producer” first came to WABC-TV as an intern for Good Morning New York, a local morning show and Live!’s early predecessor. When he returned to New York following graduation from the University of Colorado’s School of Journalism, Gelman snagged a job on The Morning Show—which had debuted in 1983 with Philbin and Cyndy Garvey as hosts—as a staff production assistant, then later associate producer.

A brief stint as New York producer for Hollywood Squares in 1986 preceded Gelman’s return to WABC-TV, where he pitched himself as the head producer for The Morning Show (which was renamed Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee to coincide with its national debut). Gelman, at 24, became one of the youngest syndicated producers after landing the job. (His daughters Jamie and Misha may be too young to appreciate this achievement, but at least they’re now old enough to enjoy the real benefits of Dad’s career: meeting idols such as Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift.)

Although serving as executive producer of a show targeted at an older female demographic, Gelman had, while studying broadcast production management in Colorado in the early 1980s, dabbled in adventure and sports television production. Working as a cameraman, field producer and editor for the U.S. Ski Association, Gelman traveled around the country to cover events leading up to the Winter Olympics. His interest in rock climbing, skiing and other outdoor sports would have been a good match for television production, but his ambition led elsewhere.

“I would have loved living in Vail and shooting ski races, but I was just really more ambitious and didn’t feel like that was a good future,” he says.

Gelman’s decision to ditch fast-paced adventure sports television production for the equally fast-paced live morning show proved to be a good one. And if his success in finding a replacement for Kathie Lee is any indication of his ability to sustain the show for another 24 seasons without one of its iconic hosts, then Live! is in good—and plenty full—hands.

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