Remembering Regis Philbin, Prolific Talk And Game Show Personality

Jul 31, 2020
Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Regis Philbin, the popular TV talk show host and personality whose career spanned more than 50 years, died of a heart attack last Friday at age 88. He's credited by the Guinness Book of World Records as clocking more hours on camera than anyone else in the history of television. He gained fame as Joey Bishop's talk show sidekick in the '60s, then co-hosted a live syndicated morning talk show for 23 years opposite, first, Kathie Lee Gifford, then Kelly Ripa. And in 1999, while still hosting his morning talk show, Regis Philbin almost single-handedly propelled ABC into first place by hosting the prime-time U.S. version of a hit British quiz show, "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire"

At a time when many talk shows were going through a mean phase, Regis Philbin went high while they went low. He was a natural conversationalist and broadcaster, like Jack Paar, Tom Snyder and David Letterman, whose CBS "Late Show" had Regis on as a guest 125 times. In 2011, Regis published his memoir, "How I Got This Way," just as he was stepping down from "Live With Regis And Kelly." I spoke with Regis Philbin during his final week of those shows that year about his farewell episodes, his new book and what might come next.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BIANCULLI: Regis Philbin, welcome to FRESH AIR.

REGIS PHILBIN: Thank you very much, David. Happy to be here.

BIANCULLI: Your book, "How I Got This Way" is a great way for me to get into talking about your career because you go through it chapter by chapter, but just by linking it to personalities or influences or inspirations along the way.

PHILBIN: Right.

BIANCULLI: And it surprises me how honest you are and sometimes self-deprecating, not in a calculated way but in really saying how it is you felt, whether you were hanging with a celebrity and wondering whether you were really accepted by that celebrity or even dealing with your parents. Did you go in there just saying, if I'm going to do this, I'm going to do it that honestly?

PHILBIN: Well, I wanted people to know where I came from and what my feelings were, as I grew up and how I missed so many opportunities along the way to do what I wanted to do because I didn't have the confidence to even tell myself - much less anybody else - yes, this is the business I wanted to be a part of.

And, finally, at the conclusion of my naval service - because I befriended a couple of older Marine majors who had been through World War II and through the Korea War and were tough guys, and I would - in our conversations, I would tell them, you know, how I've wanted to do this, but I couldn't do it. On the very last day that I left, this one major, you know, came in to shake my hand and say goodbye and ask me what I'm going to do with my life. And I told him, what I'd like to do is go into television, but I don't know what - if I have any talent or what I could do.

BIANCULLI: (Laughter).

PHILBIN: And then he boomed at me - do you want this? And I snapped to and gave him a salute and said, for the first time, yes. Yes, I want this. Then get in your car and go up to Hollywood and make it happen. And that's what I did, and that's how I got my first job that was offered me on the West Coast.

BIANCULLI: And before you decided to take that advice and head down to try and make it in terms of television, you reveal something in this book that, to me, was such a touching story, where you're graduating at Notre Dame and you set up this thing to impress your parents and reveal to them your secret ambition.

PHILBIN: (Laughter).

BIANCULLI: And it's based on loving Bing Crosby and wanting to be an entertainer and a singer. And so you got a rehearsal pianist and a little thing and went straight from graduation, I guess with the cap and gown still on and marching your parents in.

PHILBIN: (Laughter).

BIANCULLI: Was it that sort of a thing?

PHILBIN: Well, you're very, very close. Yes. You know, I had promised them all through high school and college - because they were dying to know, what business are you going to go in? What are you going to do with your life?

And the only thing that I liked very much was the sound of Bing Crosby's voice, who I used to listen to when I was in my - you know, 6, 7 years of age, and the radio was on in my little kitchen in the Bronx. And at 9:30 at night, on WNEW, I would hear this voice singing to me, and he had such a clear and pure and friendly voice that I became an enamored of this guy. He became my friend. And even though I was in the Bronx and he was in Hollywood, I would still see him every night - or at least hear him - every night at 9:30. And that's the guy I wanted to be.

Of course, I never had a singing lesson. I was totally unprepared for anything. But two weeks before I graduated, with my parents coming out to see the graduation at Notre Dame, I discovered that one of the guys I hung around with for four years could play the piano. And I said, I can't believe you can play the - do you know the song "Pennies From Heaven?" Which was one of Crosby's great songs, which as a kid I used to sing to myself. Yeah, of course, I do. And then my parents drove from New York. When they got out of the car, I said, don't say a word, Mom; we're going - I'm going to tell you what I want to do.

So I walked them through the campus. And Gus was waiting at the piano. And we entered the music hall, and I went down to the room I knew he'd be in. I opened the door, gave him a cue, and I sang "Pennies From Heaven" to them. It was ludicrous. I know it broke their hearts. It was - I knew I was wrong from the first note I hit, but I continued to sing the song because I had no place to hide.

BIANCULLI: (Laughter) Well, that's what I love about...

PHILBIN: It was terrible, David.

BIANCULLI: Well, what I love about - the writing is so revealing of your personality that you knew right from the start that this was, literally, not what they wanted to hear.

PHILBIN: Absolutely.

BIANCULLI: We're talking with Regis Philbin, who's listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the person who has starred on more hours of TV than anyone else, period.

You say in the book that you paid close attention to Jack Paar, and that's where, with his monologue, you recognized what it is you wanted to do. But, you know, here's what I don't understand. Recognizing that Jack Paar is really good at talking extemporaneously on television about his life and being entertaining - it's one thing to recognize it; you know, it's a completely different thing to be able to duplicate it.

PHILBIN: Well, you want to know something, David? You expressed that beautifully. You're absolutely right. But the fascinating thing is that that's exactly what I would do on the street corners of the Bronx. I would recreate maybe a ballgame we played at Bronx Park that afternoon and who made a mistake and who - you know, and it was always very funny. And so I remembered that, and I wished I could do that on TV instead of reading somebody's jokes, which I could never do. By then, I had seen Jack Paar do something that gave me the confidence that I also could do. It wasn't a matter of duplicating Paar; it was doing my version of it.

And I can't tell you how many times I said that to Jack Paar. Jack, you were the one that told me what to do with whatever talent, if you have to call it that, that I had. And he wouldn't hear it, of course, 'cause he was a great fan of television, and he couldn't get over the fact that - well, by that time, I had a co-host, and he couldn't get over the fact that we were working with each other, not knowing where we were going with that first 20 minutes. But that's the way I wanted to do it because I felt that was the best way I could do it.

BIANCULLI: Your big...

PHILBIN: I hope I answered your question. I don't even know.

BIANCULLI: Oh, you did perfectly.

PHILBIN: Your question was better than my answer.

BIANCULLI: No, no, no.

PHILBIN: I don't like that, David.

BIANCULLI: You're fine.

PHILBIN: All right.

BIANCULLI: We're up to Joey Bishop now. And this is where a lot people first learned about you and saw you nationwide was as Joey Bishop's announcer sidekick.

PHILBIN: Right.

BIANCULLI: And he called you a good listener as your major talent. But the thing about the book that I did not know - it's one of the most famous episodes of the first round of TV late night wars where you walk off and sort of...

PHILBIN: That's true.

BIANCULLI: ...Leave the show. It was after Jack Paar had famously done it for a few months, objecting to censorship on his program. But this is the first time - decades after it happened - that I've learned that Joey Bishop convinced you to do it as sort of a ratings stunt because Johnny Carson was coming to town.

PHILBIN: Well, that's exactly what happened. And frankly, this is the first time I've admitted that to anyone. I didn't want to tar Joey's name in any way. He was the one that - frankly, you made a little joke of it at the beginning, and yes, he was the one who - he had watched me do an interview with Joe Pyne. And he was looking for...

BIANCULLI: (Laughter) Oh, man.

PHILBIN: ...A second banana. Yeah, Joe Pyne.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, those people who know Joe Pyne. Yeah.

PHILBIN: No, they don't know him. No one knows Joe Pyne anymore, but he was the toughest of all the radio guys in the world. And that's in the book, too. But anyway, Joey heard that interview, and I went to him. And as I walked in the door, he said, I saw you last night. You got a lot of talent. I said, wait a minute. This is the answer to my question all my life. What is my talent? And so he thought for a long time, and I mean a long time. And it was embarrassing because I had come in and put him on the defensive with a question instead of him questioning me. And finally he said, you - you are a great listener. And I said, well, you know, I'll take anything I can get. But at least that's good for what I'm going to be doing here with you.

Now we're doing the job. And, you know, we're on ABC, and ABC isn't as strong as NBC in those years. It began after NBC. Johnny had held the show down for a while. He had a great following. It was tough to crack the code there at 11:30 at night. And so one day as we were walking up the street there, taking our walk every afternoon, Joey said, you know, I have a great idea - a great idea. Yeah, but it involves you. I said, really, Joey? What can I do? And he said, here's what we're going to do. You're going to walk off the show. You're going to be angry about what you're heard in the hallway that ABC doesn't like you and that, you know, you're not doing the job. But I'm going to bring you back because I think you're doing the job. In other words, Joey was, you know, making himself a hero and also getting some attention to the show, and maybe people would tune in to see what happens to this young guy who walks off the show.

Well, look; I'm working for Joey Bishop. I'm trying to do my job. He said he would bring me back. And so I didn't want to do it, but I did it. And I walked off the show, and every night Joey would say, I went out looking for Regis today. I went down to the beach. I mean, would say incredible, silly things.

BIANCULLI: You're very diplomatic about it. But reading between the lines, it really seems as though Joey Bishop hung you out to dry on that thing.

PHILBIN: Well, when I reread it and when I think about it, he did. But he did bring me back. So it's just a show business stunt to attract attention and build a rating. That's what it comes down to. And maybe he did. But the way you look at it, you could read that into it. Sure.

BIANCULLI: Regis Philbin visiting FRESH AIR in 2011. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GWENDOLYN DEASE'S "PORKCHOP'S BLUES")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our tribute to Regis Philbin, who died of a heart attack last Friday at age 88. I spoke with him in 2011 midway through his final week on TV as co-host of "Live! With Regis and Kelly." It was a last lap loaded with special guests and enthusiastic tributes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BIANCULLI: So let me play something for you and see how you react to this. This is from one of your recent shows. Adam Sandler came on as a guest, and you and your co-host Kelly Ripa are there. And everybody wants to sort of do what Bette Midler did with Johnny Carson and serenade you somehow or do something.

PHILBIN: You know, you're absolutely right. That's what's been happening. And he had a poem, right?

BIANCULLI: He had a poem. So let's hear the poem.

PHILBIN: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LIVE! WITH REGIS AND KELLY")

ADAM SANDLER: I wrote this about 4:00 in the morning last night because I was so - you know, I know this is my last time with you, Reg, on the show. But we're going to hang out in real life, but here we go. How could you leave us, Regis? You're quitting is simply egregious.

(LAUGHTER)

PHILBIN: That's a good word.

SANDLER: We need your banter with Kel-egis (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

SANDLER: You two make us laugh until we pee-gis (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

SANDLER: You've had so many co-hosts - Kelly, Kathie Lee. Even Cyndy Garvey sat here with you. And before them, Kitty Carlisle, Lillian Gish, Madame Curie, too.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: That's Adam Sandler serenading our guest, Regis Philbin, with Kelly Ripa standing by. Are there any secrets for being a morning person and being on? How do you get so much energy in the morning?

PHILBIN: Well, after a while you develop it for the morning. It's the afternoons where you feel like you're going to die, you know?

BIANCULLI: (Laughter).

PHILBIN: No, you know that you've got to be up. And, I mean, it's not that bad for me now. About 15 years ago or so, we moved into an apartment house that they built right across the street. It used to be the home of all my children. And then they tore that building down - it was just a very small, short building - and they built this skyscraper. And I said, boy, wouldn't this be nice? This is one of the luxuries of working in New York, to live across the street and walk across the street to your job. And it was. And I think it helped me a lot - continue to do the job. It was great.

So in the morning, you wake up at 7:30. You get ready. You take the shower, the shave. You jump into your suit, make a little breakfast for yourself, look at the paper as it is delivered to your door. Then come across the street around 8:20, check whatever else is in the papers you didn't see. Gelman comes in around a quarter to 9:00. Ten to 9:00 we go down, get made up. At 30 seconds to 9, I knock on her door. Out she comes. We walk down the hallway, and we do the show. It's as simple as that.

BIANCULLI: I have one more clip that I want to play, but this one showcases you, which I'm sure you're happier about. And...

PHILBIN: No, not at all (laughter).

BIANCULLI: No, but it exemplifies what I think makes you such a singular TV talent.

PHILBIN: All right.

BIANCULLI: I put you right up there with Jack Paar...

PHILBIN: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: ...In terms of when you are honest and unchecked, and you just do it in front of the entire audience. And in this clip - this is from last week - you're talking to your co-host Kelly Ripa. And the subject comes up of Andy Rooney, who retired from "60 Minutes" just recently and then died a few weeks after that. So here is how you bring it up suddenly, in the midst of the audience all warm and excited about your, you know, announcing your impending retirement and the celebration that's going on.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LIVE! WITH REGIS AND KELLY")

PHILBIN: You know what's scaring me a little bit is Andy Rooney passed away two weeks after he left, after he left...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Regis...

KELLY RIPA: OK. Now, first of all...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Apples and oranges.

RIPA: Let's - Right. Let's not compare...

PHILBIN: Andy's gone...

RIPA: That's not...

PHILBIN: ...The tough little guy he was.

RIPA: That's not going to happen to you.

PHILBIN: I don't know. But Andy used to say to the gal, Mika - you know Mika, who works on the - with...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: "Morning Joe."

PHILBIN: What's his name?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: "Morning Joe?"

PHILBIN: "Morning Joe," yeah.

RIPA: Joe Scarborough.

PHILBIN: Who - I think they're terrific, but anyway - we've talked about that. But, anyway, Mika has said she once worked with Andy over at CBS. And he said, when I leave my job, I'll die.

RIPA: Yes, but you have never said that.

(LAUGHTER)

RIPA: You said, when I leave this job, I'm going to be a movie star.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Right (laughter).

RIPA: That's kind of what you've said.

PHILBIN: Did I say that?

RIPA: Yes. Or you've said you're going to...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Move on.

RIPA: ...Be a sports broadcaster or something, a Broadway star.

PHILBIN: No. No, no, no. No, no. A movie star.

RIPA: Movie star, whatever.

(LAUGHTER)

RIPA: I mean, you've said a lot of things, but death has never been an option.

(LAUGHTER)

RIPA: So let's not get...

PHILBIN: Yeah, but it scares me a little bit, you know?

RIPA: Stop being competitive with Andy Rooney. Stop.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: I just think that's such an honest exchange. Are those the sorts of things that you plan at all to say beforehand or regret afterwards?

PHILBIN: No, not really. You know, there have never been any writers, so we - neither one of us know what the other one is going to say. That's the whole point of working with me. I think I function better like that. And so whatever flashes through your mind - and I forget what preceded it - you're right, the audience seemed to be in a good mood. But, anyway, Andy's passing two weeks after he left his job, after so many years, did flash through my mind, and it just popped out. And I thought Kelly handled it very well.

BIANCULLI: In these last few weeks, when the show has been making such a big deal about your departure, do you have a lot of input into what guests are allowed on and not on and what segments, or do you like to stay away from that so that you're not culpable?

PHILBIN: No, I don't have much input into it. I think there's - you know, I'm kidding around with them now, saying, you know, Gelman, is there maybe too much a farewell to Regis that people are subjected to with all this? It wasn't my idea to even stay this long. I thought I was going to get out of the end of my contract in August. But ABC asked if I wouldn't mind spending a few more months. I don't know why. But they...

BIANCULLI: For the last ratings month of the year, perhaps, Regis?

PHILBIN: For the - thank you very much. There you go, David Bianculli.

BIANCULLI: Yeah.

PHILBIN: You're probably right. And that's all a part of our business - is I - fine, I'll do it. And so that's what we're doing. But no, I have very limited input, but I'm kind of pleased with the way it's going. I hope it - you know, it couldn't go much longer than the two weeks we're on doing it. But other than that, everything's good.

BIANCULLI: Listen - my last question is about something else from your book. You end each chapter with little morals or fables or epigrams. I don't know - yeah.

PHILBIN: Life's lessons, they call it.

BIANCULLI: Well, the one that I want to quote to end our conversation is, one chapter says - ends with one that says, if you are grateful to someone who's brought your life even a little joyfulness and if you have the chance to tell them so, do it. It just takes a second, and you'll never regret it. So thanks.

PHILBIN: Well, thank you very much. And I agree with what you just read because that pertains to Bing Crosby, who I never called, who I was afraid to call, who I didn't think it was - I was important enough to call. He never did know what he meant to me as a little boy growing up in the Bronx and as a guy trying to break into our business.

BIANCULLI: Well, I'm glad I got a chance on your final week on this show to say thank you for - I remember when I came to New York, I wrote about your program and identified it as a guilty pleasure, and you complained. Like, what is there to be guilty about? And I never forgot that. That was very funny.

PHILBIN: Well, you know, people have said that, like they're ashamed that they spend any time watching the show. In the early days, I used to hear that. But nevertheless, they were watching it. I was glad to hear it, whether it was guilty or innocent.

BIANCULLI: (Laughter).

PHILBIN: I'm glad you were with me, Bianculli.

BIANCULLI: I still am. Listen - Regis Philbin...

PHILBIN: Thanks, David.

BIANCULLI: ...Thanks for being on FRESH AIR.

PHILBIN: Thanks, buddy.

BIANCULLI: Regis Philbin visiting FRESH AIR in 2011. He died last Friday of a heart attack at age 88. A personal note - he was one of the nicest people I ever knew in show business and, like Fred Rogers and very few others, was exactly the same off camera as he was when the TV lights were on. After a break, we'll remember Annie Ross, who died Tuesday at age 89. She was a member of the inventive jazz vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Rock critic Ken Tucker will review the new Taylor Swift album, and I'll review the new Disney Plus series "Muppets Now." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.