Regis Philbin is leaving his long-running show on Friday, Nov. 18, but he has no plans to stop sharing tales.
In Regis Philbin’s office at the studios of WABC television in Manhattan, the shelves were about half empty last week, as he wound down the days to his final appearance, Friday morning, on “Live With Regis and Kelly.”
A few Notre Dame mementos were still up. So was the life-size cutout of Dean Martin. But Philbin was slowly packing it all, the awards and photos and knickknacks, preparing to end the most enduring act in morning television — and probably the longest-running act in television of any kind.
Among the many atypical guests who have frequented the show over the years have been editors from Guinness World Records, and they helpfully came up with the statistic that Philbin, who turned 80 this year, has put in more hours on the air than anyone else in the history of television — approximately 17,000.
Almost all those hours have been live and unscripted. Philbin said that for a long time he felt a certain insecurity about what his talent really was, since he wasn’t truly a singer, dancer or comic. But a brief turn in the 1960s on a show that was taped two weeks ahead of broadcast began to open his eyes to what it was he really did well: talking about current events.
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“Spontaneous conversation,” Philbin said, still in the resplendent gray suit and deep purple tie he had worn that morning on the air. “Spontaneity is everything to me, working without a net.”
Philbin’s ability to generate laughs from top-of-the-head comments about who was hailing a cab on Broadway the night before has received encomiums from no less an authority than David Letterman, who has frequently called Philbin the funniest man on television.
“I know he’s said things like that,” Philbin said. “It’s awfully nice. I enjoy making him laugh, telling him he needs a friend.”
That of course inspires a story, as do most moments with Regis (one of those people in show business who don’t really need a last name). It seems Steve Martin recently tried to induce the famously unsociable Letterman to his home for dinner. Letterman countered with a group invitation to a restaurant. Philbin was invited, as was Philbin’s good friend Don Rickles.
“We all went to a private dining room at Le Bernardin,” Philbin said, weaving the tale. “We sat around the table. It was very quiet. Finally Dave brought up music. And that’s when Steve Martin gave a tutorial on the banjo! For an hour and a half! I’m there thinking, ‘Oh my God,’ and Rickles is rolling his eyes in his head and going, ‘Ooh, hoo.’ “
This has always been the essence of Regis of course, the talent that fed those 17,000 hours.
“I think he is the world’s greatest storyteller,” his co-host, Kelly Ripa, said. “That’s his gift.”
Philbin has collected many of the best stories in a new book called “How I Got This Way.” For example, when Philbin got his first shot at national television, he thought a good gag would be to invite the famous astrologer Sydney Omarr as his first guest to predict how the show would fare.
“He says the show’s not going to make it,” Regis recalled.
And indeed it did struggle. But when he was told that the show was renewed, “I got cocky,” Philbin said. He invited the astrologer back.
“Sydney says, ‘I hate to be the bearer of bad news every time I see you, but the show’s going to go off in 48 hours.’ “
It was canceled 36 hours later.
Omarr returned when Philbin’s three-year stint as late-night sidekick for Joey Bishop was ending. Philbin asked the astrologer for predictions on Bishop’s career future (dim) and Philbin’s.
“He tells me I’m going to become a household name,” Philbin recounted. “When? I ask. Six months? A year? No, he says, 20 years.”
The kicker to the story is that “Live” began to click in New York and syndication just about 20 years later.
Philbin almost didn’t take the “Live” job. He had been a success in Los Angeles on a local morning show before giving it up to try a national show for NBC. That flopped quickly, leaving Philbin without work. Still, he resisted reviving the plan of a show in New York because despite being a child of the Bronx, he disliked the winters.
But he took it. It was 1982, and his co-host of what was then called “The Morning Show” was a woman named Ann Abernathy. She left to get married, and the Kathie Lee era began. For 15 years Philbin jousted in the mornings with Kathie Lee Gifford. Ripa has been his partner for the past 11.
“They were both live wires,” Philbin said. “Both could tell a good story and both laughed easily.”
The other constant on the show has been the executive producer, Michael Gelman, who has worked with Philbin for 29 years. Gelman was there when Philbin interviewed the actor Craig T. Nelson, whose attention wandered so much during the interview that he ended up turning his back and speaking his answers to the ceiling.
“Regis just turned his own stool the other way and kept on asking questions,” Gelman said. “The audience loved it.”
The key to the show, Gelman said, is simple: “Let Regis be Regis. We go with the flow.”
He also has underrated skills, said one of his most frequent guests, Donald Trump. “I think he’s a great interviewer,” Trump said. “He always gets you to speak something you didn’t intend to because he makes you so comfortable.”
That was the goal, Philbin said, adding, “I wanted my guests to look better with me than they did with anybody else.”
The success and longevity of the morning show were gratifying, but Philbin truly relishes his time as host of the ABC prime-time game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” beginning in 1999.
“That was kind of a highlight of my life,” Philbin said. “I realized there was a difference between a syndicated morning show and prime time. ‘Regis saved the network!’ I used to walk around saying that. I was a big man! I was a giant! It was a wonderful time in a broadcaster’s life to get a show like that. Wow, it was dynamite.”
So it all ends Friday. Not Philbin’s career, he is eager to emphasize, just this morning show chapter. Both Ripa and Gelman used the same expression, “Regis is irreplaceable,” in noting that the show would take its time before selecting a new co-host.
As for Philbin, he will take some time, he said, and then look for a way to add to those record-setting hours on TV.
“Dancing With the Stars,” maybe? He said he had been invited, but had declined — at least so far. But if “Saturday Night Live” called, that would be irresistible.
“It’s come up in my mind, but not theirs,” Philbin said. “I think the audience for that show would rather have some young guy playing a vampire somewhere.”