He was described, by some, as “the hardest working man in show business.” He holds the Guinness World Record for logging the most hours on tv. He exuded a unique style, for example, a self-deprecating wit, distinctive NY accent, and often irreverent ad-libs. In addition, he would often relate elaborate, amusing stories in which he poked fun at himself. In essence, he would make himself the butt of his own joke. All these characteristics endeared him to his fans like few other entertainers. People would greet him on the street like a long-lost friend – “Hey Reeg! How’re doing?!”
Regis Francis Xavier Philbin was born on August 25, 1931 in NYC. He was a true child of the American “melting pot.” His father, who had served in the marines in WWII was of Irish descent; his mother was Italian. Regis’ unusual name was a tribute to his father’s old high school, the prestigious Regis High School. For years, it was thought Regis was an only child, but some years later he disclosed on Live with Regis and Kelly that he had had a brother who had just died from non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
He was raised in the Bronx. He had a distinctive Catholic education – Our Lady of Solace grammar school, Cardinal Hayes HS, and Notre Dame University. He graduated from ND in 1953 with a sociology degree. After a stint in (the Navy he went into the entertainment business.
Regis learned the business from the ground up. He broke into the tv business as a page on the Tonight Show. The host at that time was Steve Allen. (There have been six principal hosts of the show from its inception in 1954 to the present. Can you name the other five? (See below for the answer.) After that, he was a writer for a LA-based talk show hosted by Tom Duggan. His first hosting gig was as a last-minute fill-in for Duggan when he failed to appear one night. He would often relate how nervous he was to jump in at the last minute with minimal preparation, but he pulled it off.
Shortly thereafter, he debuted as a talk show host of his own show, aptly named The Regis Philbin Show from San Diego. Since the show lacked a writing staff Regis commenced to open each show with a “host chat” session. He would simply talk to the audience and his co-host, informally, about the day’s current events. Although he was not the first talk show host to employ this tactic, it became his trademark, and he continued it prospectively. In 1964 his show was syndicated nationally, but the show didn’t draw well, and shortly thereafter it was cancelled.
Regis’ next step up the ladder was in 1967 when he became the co-host or “side-kick,” on the Joey Bishop Show on ABC. The role of the “side-kick,” which was popularized by Ed McMahon on the Tonight Show, was basically to laugh at Bishop’s jokes, whether they were funny or not, and take his teasing and abuse in stride. After the show was cancelled. Regis then bounced around for several years doing talk shows, game shows and variety shows with a plethora of co-hosts in a variety of cites.
Finally, in 1985 he got his big break. He was paired with Kathie Lee Johnson (later Gifford), and the pair “clicked.” In 1988 the show was syndicated nationally as Live with Regis and Kathie Lee. The show became very popular, and Regis’ career took off. Audiences and viewers loved his style. Over the years Regis hosted and appeared as a guest on numerous other shows and events, too many to list here. Probably, my favorite was Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. Some of you may recall his signature line to a contestant: “Is that your final answer?”
I think the following two testimonials sum up Regis perfectly and explain his popularity. Geraldo Rivera knew him a long time and was an avid fan. He recalled “we had wonderful laughs together. Regis made everyone laugh.” Rivera added, “he was quick with a quip.” Arthel Neville, who occasionally co-hosted with Regis on Live, recalled “he [was so] generous. He [didn’t] mind sharing the spotlight.” In addition, she said she should have followed his advice with respect to her first marriage. His succinct advice was “don’t do it,” and he turned out to be right.
We are all familiar with Regis’ tv career, particularly his stint on Live, however, in addition he cut several records and albums, and authored various books. Moreover, he was the recipient of numerous honors and awards. These included daytime Emmys, TV Guide Personality of the Year, Grand Marshall of the Tournament of Roses Parade, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and, last but not least, the Guinness World Record for number of hours on tv (16,540).
Regis was married twice and had four children. Audiences are familiar with his second wife, Joy, who often served as co-host on Live. He was an avid sports fan, particularly of the Yankees and, of course, Notre Dame. One of his endearing qualities was his ineptitude with mechanics and especially technology. He often regaled audiences with his misadventures with the tv remote and computers. I recall one story, in particular. It’s too long to repeat it all here, but essentially, he had just bought a new car. He was driving it into NYC via the Midtown Tunnel. He had to pay the toll, but he couldn’t open the window or the door to do so. He was holding up traffic, and you know how impatient NY drivers can be. Amid all the honking of horns someone recognized him and yelled out “Hey Reeg!” adding to his extreme embarrassment. He told it a lot better than I just did. It was just hilarious.
Regis’ health had declined in recent years. In 1993 he underwent an angioplasty procedure. This was followed up with a triple by-pass, a hip replacement and the removal of a blood clot in his calf.
Finally, on July 24 he passed away from heart disease at the age of 88. Rest in peace, Regis. You entertained us for over 60 years, and you will be sorely missed.
Quiz answer: Steve Allen (1954-1957, Jack Paar (1957-1962), Johnny Carson (1962-1992), Jay Leno (1992-2009 & 2010-2014, Conan O’Brien (2009-2010), and Jimmy Fallon ( 2014- present).