Regis Philbin never had the pleasure of knowing the late Brandon Tartikoff personally, but like so many in the television business, marvels at his reputation. "He was one of our guys who was a legend while he was still alive," Philbin says.
The same could be said of Philbin, who has hosted his nationally syndicated daytime talk show Live! With Regis and Kelly in some form since 1983, and last week gave his surprising announcement that this season will be his final one on the show.
But Philbin is the last to admit to his contributions. When asked how he feels about receiving an award that honors television professionals who exhibit passion, leadership, independence and vision, he answers in his typical credit-deflecting fashion, "Do I live up to that?"
"He treats this job like anybody would treat any job," says Kelly Ripa, Philbin's cohost since 2001. "He doesn't look at it like he's somebody important because of it. He doesn't realize what he's contributed to television and to pop culture."
Perhaps it's his humble beginnings that have allowed Philbin to keep his humility through a halfcentury in the business. Born in Manhattan, just seven blocks from the WABC studio where Live! films, and raised in the Bronx, Philbin began his career in television as so many young TV enthusiasts have-as an NBC page.
While working at 30 Rock, he would be sent to the Hudson Theatre on 44th Street to watch rehearsals of the Tonight show. From his spot on the second balcony, he'd watch host Steve Allen rehearse at the piano with the comedians and singers. "I saw all this talent and it sent chills down my spine because I realized ‘I don't have any talent at all,'" Philbin quips.
It was television personalities like Baxter Ward and Jack Paar, whom Philbin names as early mentors, that made him see hosting as a talent. While working as a news writer at KCOP in Los Angeles in the late 1950s, he would study Ward delivering the copy he had written. "He had the most magnificent voice, and such a terrific on-camera presence," Philbin recalls. "I would stand in the back of that house and watch him, how he moved, how he voiced the news he was reading. It was just beautiful."
And it was while watching Jack Paar sit on the edge of his desk during the Tonight show, talking about what had happened to him that day, that for the first time Philbin thought, "I could do that."
Philbin took that idea to his first hosting gig on The Regis Philbin Show, which aired Saturday nights from 1961-64 on KOGO-TV (now KGTV) San Diego. He began each show by talking directly to viewers about events in the news or his own life, a dialogue that would evolve over the years into what is now known as "host chat" on Live!.
"He developed a format of television that now is taken for granted," says Michael Gelman, executive producer of Live! since 1987. "Regis developed the whole idea of two people chatting and having a conversation to start off a show that's now very commonplace. In many ways, I think he was the forerunner to a lot of the reality shows that are out there now, where people are on the air talking about themselves in ordinary ways that a lot of people can relate to."
And throughout his career, whether serving as Joey Bishop's sidekick on The Joey Bishop Show from 1967-69 or hosting A.M. Los Angeles, which he took from the bottom of the ratings to No. 1 in the late 1970s, it is Philbin's ability to be natural in front of the camera that lends itself to his storytelling and allows him to connect with the viewer at home. "He's got that ability to break through the TV and really move people who are watching," Gelman says. And that applies at Live! whether Phibin is interviewing a celebrity guest or, in rare cases, dealing with breaking news, as on Sept. 11, 2001.
Live! was on the air when the events of 9/11 occurred, and although the show was preempted in New York, it remained live around much of the country. Ripa describes herself as going into a trance and not being able to speak, but Philbin held it, and the show, together. "He took [the audience] through what was happening calmly and succinctly," she says. "I was blown away at his ease with the broadcast portion of what he did."
It is unsurprising from a TV personality who has won multiple Emmy awards, a Guinness World Record for most hours on camera (16,548.5, set in September 2010) and induction into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame. His career has even seen him dabble in music, performing his act at venues around the country and releasing several albums, including one with his wife, Joy, with whom he has two daughters and two grandchildren.
He also says a highlight of his career was his run in 1999-2003 as host of ABC's primetime version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, which he calls "one of the great shows in television history." As host of that game show, he always tried to get a little background information from the contestants, to make them likable and get the audience to root for them, a quality he brings to hosting on Live! as well.
"Regis has a philosophy where he really wants to make the guests look good," Gelman says. "The interviews aren't about him getting the laugh, it's more about making the guests feel good and being comfortable. And by doing that, he also gets a lot out of a guest."
Naturally, Philbin enjoys watching television shows with strong hosts, like that of his friend David Letterman, who he says "carries the banner of great hosting on talk shows," and his favorite show, Pardon the Interruption on ESPN. "I love the symmetry between those two guys," he says of PTI hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon. "It's a great combination of talent."
Philbin calls hosting "an invisible talent," perhaps why he considered himself talentless when he first got into television. "It really is a very peculiar type of talent," he says. "It's not accessible to everybody, but some people pull it off very well. But it's difficult to define. You say ‘well, they're just talking,' but it's more than that if you get a chance to really observe it."
And now, viewers will only have this last season of Live! to observe a true talent-invisible or otherwise. "There is a time that everything must come to an end for certain people on camera, especially certain old people," he told his viewers in making the announcement last Tuesday.
But like that of Brandon Tartikoff , the legacy of Regis Philbin's career will live on well beyond its time.
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