“How much Metamucil does Regis buy?” demanded Kelly Ripa of an audience member who claimed to shop at the same market as Ms. Ripa’s co-host, Regis Philbin, right after a recent Monday morning taping of ABC’s Live with Regis and Kelly. It was a little after 10 a.m., and this sassy piece of dental floss in designer jeans was refusing to let the fiber question drop.
“How does he buy it?” she asked again. “By the case? By the ton?”
Reege laughed and rolled his eyes. Wearing a mustard-colored tie and tan sport coat—one of three outfits he would don before noon—Mr. Philbin swiveled on his heels and went to take pictures with the audience.
Now entering his sixth decade of fame, Mr. Philbin has logged more hours on television than any other personality in the history of the medium. His persona—the old-fashioned guy persistently befuddled by the fast-moving world around him—isn’t the whole picture. Beneath the beautifully timed, pop-eyed reaction shots and his high-pitched “Look what irritated me today!” empathy with his audience is a coiled intensity, the same edge which Johnny Carson also brought before the camera—a knowledge that the only way to survive on TV is to bristle at the medium itself. Indeed, when Carson died in January, David Letterman said that Mr. Philbin was the only person left on TV who even came close to him. And like Carson, Mr. Philbin, who is unspeakably wealthy—his ABC salary is estimated to be $20 million a year—never comes across as a rich guy on TV; accurately or not, his viewers can easily imagine him poking around the antacid shelves at Duane Reade.
In Reege’s world, celebrities are crazy, and in-laws? Hoo boy! Athletes are great Americans, especially if they’re football players and especially if they play for Notre Dame. Airport personnel, on the other hand ….
The one thing that Mr. Philbin never does is bear bad news. “I don’t dwell on negative things,” he told The Observer solemnly after the taping, while Dean Martin sang zippy holiday songs in the background. He was sitting in his kitsch-cluttered, windowless office, a shrine to his 50 years in television. “My job is to keep everybody’s spirits up.”
On this particular morning, during the 20-minute unscripted “host chat” that begins each episode of Live, Mr. Philbin had talked about a 91-year-old acquaintance named “Banana George” (“Leave him alone! The man thinks he’s a banana!”) and a recent delay on a flight back from Florida.
In taped segments for future shows, he told chubby actor Jack Black that he was “so hot” and nodded approvingly during a discussion of actress Sienna Miller’s cashmere tights. That day’s other guests were basketball player Charles Barkley and the pop quartet Il Divo, who managed to sing exactly one carol before being joined by Mr. Philbin, who happens to be hawking The Regis Philbin Christmas Album. To the enthusiastic yelps of his perimenopausal fans, Mr. Philbin undid his top button, revealing a sliver of 74-year-old chest, and formed an impromptu quintet: “Il Reego.”
Live is largely unscripted and has no writers, save executive producer Michael Gelman, who scrawls things like “Big, big show today!” on posters and holds them up for the hosts to read. Mr. Philbin is married, as any viewer would know, to “a beautiful woman named Joy,” with whom he has two daughters; he also has two children from a previous marriage. Regis and Joy, who live on Manhattan’s West Side, are frequently out on the town, he said, “mostly because it gives me something to talk about the next day.”
Mr. Philbin, who is indistinguishable on camera and off, began his television career on a bench outside Rockefeller Center in 1957. “Shy, retiring and afraid to express myself” by his own nearly unbelievable account, he spent the good part of a June afternoon mustering the courage to go in and apply for a job as an NBC page. He got that job, and a series of unremarkable others on the West Coast, until October 1961, when he landed his own show.
The Regis Philbin Show aired live on Saturday nights at 11:15 p.m. in San Diego. He was 30. Three years later, Westinghouse hired him to do a nationally syndicated version of the program. It went up against Johnny Carson and was canceled four months later. In the late 60’s, he was a sidekick on The Joey Bishop Show on ABC. As for the 70’s and 80’s, well …. There was a five-year stint as host of two fitness programs on cable: Regis Philbin’s Health Styles and Regis Philbin’s Lifestyles. The upshot is that Mr. Philbin became a health nut. On his desk, amid tubes of Rolaids, jars of jellybeans and a collection of Notre Dame football swag, is a videocassette: Ancient Secrets of the Fountain of Youth. Mr. Philbin swears by the tape, and he does all four of its yogic poses before coming to work every morning.
His career caught fire, of course, when he teamed with Kathie Lee Gifford to make the unwatchable but perversely successful Live With Regis and Kathie Lee. Ms. Gifford left to pursue a solo career in 2000, and one year later Mr. Philbin acquired as his new co-host the considerably more charming and even more child-laden former soap star, Ms. Ripa.
The year before he lost Kathie Lee, Mr. Philbin became the host of a little show called Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, which made a gazillion dollars for ABC and spawned its own empire, including CD’s, video games and a second Philbin autobiography, Who Wants to Be Me? Mr. Philbin likes to joke that he “single-handedly saved ABC.” And he’s pretty much right.
Now, five years later, Mr. Philbin is about to star in a prime-time ABC revival of This Is Your Life, the uplifting reality show once hosted by the late Ralph Edwards. “My network needed me!” he says. Meanwhile, he’s also flagging the Christmas album, hosting the New Year’s Eve broadcast on Fox, and performing a nightclub act every two months (Golden Nugget in Las Vegas!). “That’s all just fun,” he said. “It’s just to get me out of the house.”
Mr. Philbin refuses to look into the future. “I’m at the top of my mountain,” he said, and then, to forestall any potential discussion of descent, he bounded out of his chair. “Wait’ll you hear this,” he said, fiddling with an outdated boom box. On came a 1967 recording “some kid sent me” of an episode of The Joey Bishop Show, during which Mr. Philbin sings “Pennies from Heaven” with his idol, Bing Crosby.
He settled behind his desk and lost himself in reverie. Eventually, the singing stopped.
“Bing,” says a notably younger but still easily identifiable voice on the recording, “can I sit on your lap?”
Mr. Philbin pounded the desk. “I get such a kick out of that line,” he said.