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Television host Regis Philbin spent more time in front of a TV camera than anyone in history, holding the Guinness World’s Record for over 15,600 on-air hours to prove it. The wise-cracking ball of energy with the unmistakable New York accent was the longtime host of ABC’s perennial favorite morning show “Live With Regis” (syndicated, 1983- ). “Reege” also injected his dramatic flair and gift for unscripted gab into the prime time game show, “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” (ABC, 1999-2002; syndicated, 2002- ), jettisoning the sagging network back into the number one ratings slot. Never at a loss for words or quick jokes, for decades Philbin was the go-to guy when a network needed a commentator for any major pageant, parade or live TV event, as he had something trained actors and seasoned comedians didn’t have – the amusing and unpredictable appeal of an old-school New York “character.”
Although raised in the South Bronx, NY, Regis Francis Xavier Philbin was born in Manhattan on Aug. 25, 1931 to parents Frank and Florence Philbin. He would later have a considerably younger brother, also named Frank. Throughout his long career, Philbin was thought to be an only child, as his brother, a very private person, had requested not to be mentioned in the press; a request that the older sibling honored until he spoke of Frank’s untimely passing from cancer in early 2007. The son of an Irish father and an Albanian mother, Philbin attended the Catholic boys school, Cardinal Hayes High School, and went on earn a degree in Sociology from Indiana’s esteemed Notre Dame University. He would honor both of his alma maters throughout his career, donating $50,000 in winnings from a 2006 appearance on “Jeopardy” (syndicated, 1984- ) to his high school and inviting his college glee club to perform on his 2005 musical offering, The Regis Philbin Christmas Album. Following college, Philbin served in the U.S. Navy, but was still lacking any career plans and had yet to consider entertainment as a direction.
Just starting out, Philbin got a job as an NBC page, working on an early season of “The Tonight Show” (NBC, 1953- ), which at that time, was hosted by comic, Steve Allen. He would recall in interviews, that he used to sit in the balcony and watch the talented cast rehearse for the show, marveling at their acting and comedic skills and wonder what kind of talent he might possibly have to offer. He moved to Los Angeles, where he got a job delivering film for the local station, KCOP-TV, getting started as a news and sports writer. One night, while watching Jack Parr host the next incarnation of “The Tonight Show,” and observing Parr’s personal, improvised style of interviewing and addressing the audience, it struck a chord with Philbin. He had finally discovered something he thought he might be able do. Working his way on camera as a news and sportscaster in the San Diego area, he landed his first local talk show – “The Regis Philbin Show” (1961-64) – on WKGTV in San Diego, CA in 1961. The show’s shoestring budget did not include a writing staff, so Philbin was forced to improvise, helping lay the groundwork for his natural, conversational style of interviewing guests and relating his personal experiences to the audience.
Philbin got his first break into national TV when he was hired to be the sidekick of rat packer, Joey Bishop, on "The Joey Bishop Show" (ABC 1967-69). He began hosting various series including the L.A. show "Philbin's People" (1970) – an award-winning round-table discussion with entertainers and political personalities – and a St. Louis late night show, "Regis Philbin's Saturday Night in St. Louis.” In 1975, Regis was invited to take the helm of “A.M. Los Angeles,” a local morning show that was lagging in the ratings, until Philbin re-energized the format, bringing it to number one in the ratings.
In 1983, Philbin returned to his native New York City, joining WABC-TV's "The Morning Show,” which was also suffering in the ratings and needed his magic touch. Philbin’s presence helped gain new audiences until 1986, when the introduction of co-host Kathie Lee Gifford caused ratings to skyrocket. The name was changed to "LIVE! With Regis & Kathie Lee" (syndicated, 1988-2000) for its nationally syndicated debut in 1988 and became a daytime institution, enjoying a viewership above 18 million at its peak. Most popular was the trademark opening segment where Philbin would banter and joke about what he had done the previous night, as well as tease the easily-embroiled Gifford. In 2000, following a relentless series of tabloid attacks related to her clothing line, her husband Frank Gifford’s extramarital affair, and her overly-discussed children, Gifford left the show. Philbin went through a number of guest co-hosts until a replacement was found in energetic soap opera actress, Kelly Ripa, who immediately brought a younger, more carefree – occasionally bawdy – spirit to the show. Whereas Philbin and Gifford had sparred like an old married couple, the rapport between Philbin and Ripa was refreshingly playful; almost a father-daughter comedy team.
In 1999, Philbin debuted the American version of the popular British game show, “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” The series was an instant smash, prompting a brief resurgence in prime time game shows and allowing Philbin to frequently proclaim that – with his two Disney/ABC-owned series – he had single-handedly "saved the network." A genuine pop culture phenomenon, “Millionaire” launched one of the biggest catchphrases of the era with, “Is that your final answer?” – even landing its popular host on the fashion pages for the slick monochromatic suit and tie combos he sported. The “Millionaire” frenzy eventually ebbed, with the show being pulled in 2001, only to be revived as a syndicated daytime show with new host Meredith Vieira the following year. Philbin would return to the primetime game show world in 2006, when he was tapped to host the talent show, “America’s Got Talent.” Unfortunately, the grueling 12-day shoots and the commute between New York and L.A. took a toll on Philbin’s seemingly boundless energy. He declined to return the following season.
A ubiquitous pop culture icon, Philbin remained an enduring presence, popping up almost everywhere – from David Letterman's late night show to Ripa's ABC sitcom "Hope & Faith" (ABC, 2003-’06) to the finale of "The Apprentice 2" (NBC, 2004-07), where he helped boost his best buddy Donald Trump’s lack of showbiz panache. He always maintained a busy schedule of secondary projects, hosting Miss America Pageants, Disney parades, and filling in for an ailing Dick Clark for ABC's annual "New Year's Rockin, Eve" live broadcast in 2004. In 2005, he even honored his idol Dean Martin by performing at the Dean Martin Festival in the singer’s hometown of Steubenville, OH.
Philbin's forays into film and TV series usually consisted of playing himself or poking fun at talk show hosts in general – from his first appearance in Woody Allen's "Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex* (*but were afraid to ask)" (1972), to "Perry Mason: the Case of the Telltale Talk Show Host" (NBC, 1993) ,"Little Nicky" (2000), "Cheaper By the Dozen" (2003) and "Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous" (2005). He also lent his distinctive voice to the animated films "Mother Goose: A Rappin, and Rhymin, Special" (HBO, 1997) and “Shrek” (2001), as well as dozens of commercial voiceovers for banks, pain relievers, and beverages.
Besides his continual presence on television, Regis Philbin was also an accomplished author and vocalist. He wrote two biographies in his signature, anecdotal style – I’m Only One Man (1995) and Who Wants to be Me (2000). In 1968, he recorded the LP, It’s Time for Regis, emulating his favorite singers like Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. He returned to the studio in 2004 with the CD, When You’re Smiling and the following year with The Regis Philbin Christmas Album, but surprised audiences in 2006 with the experimental jazz album, My Darker Moods, featuring musicians John Zorn, Bill Frisell, and members of the alternative band, Sonic Youth.
In his private life, Philbin was married twice, first to Kay Faylen from 1955 to 1968. They had two children, a daughter Amy and a son Danny, who was born with severe health problems and eventually had to have his legs amputated. He went on to work for the Pentagon. His second wife was Joy Senese, an interior decorator who co-hosted “Live” with her husband on occasion. The couple was married in 1970 and had two daughters, Joanna and Jennifer. It was because he had so freely discussed his personal life in people’s living rooms for years, that when Philbin began experiencing health problems with his heart in the early 1990s, people were genuinely concerned for him. An angioplasty in 1993 failed to rectify his heart condition and in early 2007, the normally jocular Philbin tearfully told his studio that he would undergo heart bypass surgery. Though fearful of having the surgery, Philbin maintained his poise with a typically sharp quip after Ripa said she would be his sponge bath nurse, asking her: “Why don’t you give me a quick dip before I go?” His recovery was expected to take five weeks, during which a cast of co-hosts were scheduled to take his place on air.
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