He's sung to Bing Crosby and mentored Jimmy Kimmel. Over a half-century in show business, he's been up, down, over and out and finally—for the past two decades—a star.
But right now, Regis Philbin is in a dither. He's worried about what to say when he accepts a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 35th annual Daytime Emmy Awards, which will be held on June 20 at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles and telecast on ABC.
“How do you relive 53 years in 2½ minutes? How am I gonna do it?” he says. “What does it all mean?”
Of course, he'll think of something. At 76, this is the man who's kept the live in Live since 1988, when he and then co-host Kathie Lee Gifford teamed for the nationally syndicated launch of Live With Regis and Kathie Lee. Success arrived shortly thereafter and has remained through the present incarnation, re-titled Live With Regis and Kelly since Kelly Ripa came aboard in 2001.
“This award, in my humble opinion, is way overdue,” Ripa says. “He's the most deserving of anyone and they could honestly give him that award every year. The man's contributions are immeasurable.”
Well, almost. He hosted ABC's mega-hit Who Wants to Be a Millionaire from 1999 to 2003 and, in summer 2006, NBC's America's Got Talent, and this summer Million-Dollar Password on CBS. He set the Guinness Book of World Records mark for most hours on TV. On the side, he's recorded American songbook standards and a Christmas CD.
As for the fretting, Ripa says it's exactly what she expected: “It's like he's in denial—like he's honored and irritated all at the same time. This is a man who works and works and if you try to pay him tribute, it's deflected. He's from that generation; you don't celebrate yourself.”
NOT SPOILED BY SUCCESS
In fact, longtime friends and associates say Philbin's refusal to get too comfortable with success may be what's made him survive and thrive. Much like his boyhood idol Crosby, a beguiling onstage persona is combined with a tremendous work ethic and drive.
John Severino, former president of CBS Stations Group and the ABC Television Network, played a pivotal role in two of Philbin's career milestones and has seen the ambition and effort up close.
In 1974, Severino became general manager of then-struggling KABC Los Angeles. Philbin wanted to host KABC's morning show AM Los Angeles, but Severino had misgivings and instead gave him the job of movie critic with occasional turns at the daytime gig.
He soon realized he had underestimated Philbin, and gave him the morning job full-time: “Regis took off like the proverbial rocket, and it became apparent he was really in his element with AM Los Angeles,” Severino recalls. (But Severino, who had a reputation for driving hard contract bargains, made Philbin continue doing the movie reviews.)
He and Severino finally agreed that Philbin would do just AM Los Angeles, and from 1975 to 1981—co-hosting first with Sarah Purcell and then Cyndy Garvey—the show was a ratings hit.
Still, Philbin was restless. “All I wanted was a national show,” he says. “Terrific show, AM Los Angeles, but it was Southern California and couldn't be done live nationally.”
Yet TV wasn't his first love. He had wanted to be a singer and tried to persuade his parents by performing “Pennies From Heaven” for them the weekend that he graduated from Notre Dame.
“I could tell my father wanted to throttle me, and my mother cried her eyes out,” Philbin says. “They were terribly disappointed.”
So, after a stint in the Navy, Philbin landed a job as an NBC page in New York with vague goals of doing something in television. When the industry migrated to the West Coast, he went along and began a classic apprenticeship through the late 1950s and 1960s: stagehand, sports newswriter, substitute anchor.
He tasted national fame as announcer on The Joey Bishop Show from 1967 to 1969. He also met future wife Joy, who was working as Bishop's assistant. They married in 1970. A series of local gigs ensued in Los Angeles and St. Louis before AM Los Angeles.
By 1981, Severino had been named ABC network president and he tried to promise Philbin a national shot. But lured by NBC president Grant Tinker, Philbin left AM Los Angeles for New York and an ill-fated daytime venture.
“That was the low point,” says Joy Philbin, who had done occasional co-hosting stints on AM Los Angeles. “It was a big decision to move two little girls from a comfortable neighborhood in L.A. to an apartment in New York. They were miserable; we were all miserable. But what I appreciated about Regis being unemployed for a year, he never lost his confidence or his sight of what he does best.”
Severino called Philbin, saying they could duplicate their Los Angeles success. They began The Morning Show on WABC. Six years later, Buena Vista Television syndicated it. “And you know what?” Severino says. “Every year on Thanksgiving, Regis still calls me to say thanks. He is a very humble guy.”
The achievement of getting a national show quickly transformed into trying to do the best show possible. Michael Gelman, who a year earlier had become executive producer of The Morning Show, hung the program on Philbin's strengths.
'A SPECIAL TALENT'
“Regis has a special talent few people have,” Gelman says. “He can look into the camera and connect by talking through the airwaves. He also has the rare art of storytelling that has been lost. So we tried to create a framework where he could do his thing.”
Philbin has been honored in the past. In 2001, he won a Daytime Emmy as Outstanding Game Show Host for Millionaire and another Emmy as Outstanding Talk Show Host for Live With Regis, the show's name during its six-month period when he hosted solo.
But Live itself hasn't won an Emmy, as Philbin points out while discussing his impending award at the Kodak Theatre. “The Rellys”—the awards devised by Live to mock the Emmys—will continue.
If what others say about his reaction to fame is true, then perhaps remembering the Emmy that hasn't happened yet is just one more way for Regis Philbin to keep it real.
At any rate, the mood shifts when it's suggested that with several CDs under his belt, he could sing an acceptance speech. He finally throws his hands wide a la Jolson and experiments: “Hey it was back in San Diego/In nineteen-sixty-one/I saw Jack Paar and I said/That's—for—meeeee!”