Regis Philbin, TV’s indignant Everyman, dies at 88

The talk show host Regis Philbin, at home in Greenwich, Conn., Aug. 2, 2013.
The talk show host Regis Philbin, at home in Greenwich, Conn., Aug. 2, 2013.

Regis Philbin, the talk- and game-show host who regaled America over morning coffee with Kathie Lee Gifford and Kelly Ripa for decades, and who made television history in 1999 by introducing the runaway hit “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” died Friday night. He was 88.

His death was announced by his family in a statement. The statement did not say where he died or specify the cause.

In a world of annoyances, Philbin was the indignant Everyman, under siege from all sides — by the damned computers, the horrible traffic, the inconsiderate people who were always late. There was no soap in the men’s room. Hailing a cab was hopeless. Losing a wallet in a rental car? Fuhgeddaboudit! Even his own family was down on him for buying a chain saw!

And was it possible, he wondered, to ask ever so softly in a crowded pharmacy where to find the Fleet enemas without the clerk practically shouting: “Whaddaya want, buddy? A Fleet enema?”

“Aggravation is an art form in his hands,” wrote Bill Zehme, the co-author of two Philbin memoirs. “Annoyance stokes him, sends him forth, gives him purpose. Ruffled, he becomes electric, full of play and possibility. There is magnificence in his every irritation.”

From faceless days as a studio stagehand when television was barely a decade old, to years of struggle as a news writer, TV actor and sidekick to Joey Bishop, Philbin, with patience, determination and folksy, spontaneous wit, climbed to preeminence relatively late in life on talk and game shows.

Regis, as he was universally known, was a television personality for nearly six decades and an ABC superstar since 1988, when his New York talk show went national. But he also wrote five books, appeared in movies, made records as a singer, gave concerts and was a one-man industry of spinoffs, from shirts and ties to medical advice and computer games.

By almost any measure — ubiquity, longevity, versatility, popularity — he succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of a stickball-playing kid from the Bronx in New York City. Near the end of his career, Forbes put his net worth at $150 million, and Guinness World Records said he was the most-watched person in television history, with more than 17,000 hours of airtime — equivalent to two full years, night and day. (The previous holder of that record, Hugh Downs, died this month.)

His forte was unscripted talk. Shunning writers and rehearsals, relying on trivia and his own off-the-cuff comments in a 15-minute “host chat” and then on good chemistry with co-hosts and guests, he ad-libbed for 28 years on “The Morning Show” (1983-88), “Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee” (1988-2000), “Live! With Regis” (2000-01) and “Live! With Regis and Kelly” (2001-11).

Unlike most late-show monologues, Philbin’s were personal: self-mocking accounts of life’s woes and misadventures. The rest of the show might be anything: Gifford talking about her pregnancies or her dogs, chardonnay and Chablis. Regis dancing with Chippendale hunks, unable to get his pants off over his shoes, hopping about in his underwear.

After Gifford’s departure and an interregnum with no regular co-host, Ripa joined the show in 2001 and was judged a refreshing change: sprightly, irreverent, clever at playing the chatterbox sidekick to the irascible Philbin. He often made a joke of looking bored while she rattled on.

In one episode, “American Idol” star Clay Aiken playfully put a hand over her mouth to shut her up.

“That’s a no-no,” she snapped, complaining that she had no idea where his hand had been.

While still doing his morning show, Philbin in 1999 became host of the original American version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Modeled after a highly successful British quiz show, it soared to popularity overnight as the highest-rated prime-time game show in television history. At a time when game shows were often seen as disreputable ghosts of the past, an astonishing 30 million viewers tuned in three nights in a week.

The show, whose concept was so emphatic that its creators put no question mark in the title, single-handedly lifted ABC to first place from third among the networks; made Philbin ABC’s biggest star; raised the stock value of the network’s parent company, Disney; and revolutionized ideas about what constituted a prime-time hit.

A tournament-style show in which contestants answered consecutive multiple-choice questions for cash sums rising to $1 million, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” was addictive. It was designed around relentlessly rising tension, with throbbing music, flashing strobe lights, a loudly ticking clock and Philbin, the inquisitor, posing questions on a scale of silly to impossible and then demanding, “Is that your final answer?”

“To sit in the audience, with the lights underneath the Plexiglas floor swiveling in all directions and a huge camera boom sweeping overhead, is to feel as if one were inside a giant pinball machine,” Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker in 2000.

“The music is driving me crazy!” Philbin screamed during one show. He winced when he had to read some of the easier multiple-choice answers. (What makes shirt collars stiff? Starch, glucose, Viagra …)

As ratings skyrocketed, other networks scrambled to develop comparable game shows — Fox called its version “Greed” — and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” was credited with reviving the game show genre and with paving the way for reality shows as a cornerstone of television programming. A surge of unscripted, competitive reality shows, including “Survivor,” “American Idol” and “Big Brother,” followed in its wake.

Philbin hosted “Millionaire” from 1999 to 2002, sometimes five nights a week as its popularity rose, and, perhaps inevitably, faded. Critics said overexposure led the public to tire of it. Meredith Vieira replaced him on a retooled syndicated daytime version of the show in 2002 and remained its host until 2013. The show has had several hosts since then; it was recently revived for a limited run on ABC with Jimmy Kimmel as host and features celebrity contestants.

In 2004, Philbin returned for 12 episodes of “Who Wants to Be a Super Millionaire,” offering prizes up to $10 million, and in 2009, on the 10th anniversary of the first broadcast, he hosted an 11-night prime-time reincarnation.

Regis Francis Xavier Philbin was born in Manhattan on Aug. 25, 1931, to Francis and Filomena Boscia Philbin. His father, a personnel director, settled the family in the Bronx. Regis, named for a Roman Catholic high school in Manhattan that his father had attended, was long believed to be an only child, but he revealed in 2007 that a brother 20 years younger had died.

“I never talked about him because he was a very private guy,” Philbin said in 2007 on “Live! With Regis and Kelly.” “I’ve respected that all these years.”

Regis, a skinny boy who took up weightlifting, graduated from Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx in 1949 and earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana in 1953. After two years in the Navy, he began his career as a stagehand at KCOP-TV in Los Angeles. He soon became a news writer.

In 1957, he married Catherine Faylan. They had two children, Amy and Danny, and were divorced in 1968. In 1970, he married Joy Senese, who was Joey Bishop’s assistant. The couple had two children, Joanna and Jennifer, known as J.J.

Philbin is survived by his wife, his daughters and four grandchildren. Danny Philbin, who worked for the Defense Department, died in 2014.

In the early 1960s, Philbin was a sportscaster and news anchor in San Diego, and in the 1964-65 season he hosted his first talk program, “The Regis Philbin Show,” on Saturday nights at KOGO-TV. It was syndicated nationally for 13 weeks and later aired on KTTV in Los Angeles.

From 1967 to 1969, he was the announcer and sidekick on “The Joey Bishop Show,” one of ABC’s many attempts to challenge the ratings dominance of Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show” on NBC. In the early ’70s he hosted “Regis Philbin’s Saturday Night in St. Louis” on KMOX, a CBS affiliate there. From 1975 to 1981 he co-hosted “A.M. Los Angeles,” a top-rated show on KABC, first with Sarah Purcell and then with Cyndy Garvey.

In 1983, Philbin teamed with Garvey in New York on WABC’s “The Morning Show.” Two years later, Kathie Lee Johnson — she became Gifford after a divorce and remarriage — replaced Garvey as his co-host. In 1988, the show went into national syndication and became “Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee.”

From 1982 to 1987, he also hosted “Regis Philbin’s Lifestyles,” a magazine show on Lifetime that addressed health, diets, exercise and beauty. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, he was a professional whirlwind, with appearances on sitcoms, talk and game shows, dramas, comedies, variety shows, Miss America pageants and specials for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. He also appeared in a number of films, usually as himself.

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