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Regis Philbin: Going Out on Top

1/24/2011 12:01 AM Eastern

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.

September