Entertainment

Prolific U.S. TV host Regis Philbin dies at 88

Regis Philbin, a familiar face to TV viewers as an energetic and funny talk and game show host who logged more hours in front of the camera than anyone else in the history of U.S. television, has died at the age of 88, People magazine said on Saturday, citing a statement by his family.

Logged more hours in front of the camera than anyone in history of U.S. television

Television host Regis Philbin blows a kiss goodbye during his final show of Live With Regis and Kelly in New York on Nov. 11 18, 2011. Philbin died Friday at the age of 88. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Regis Philbin, the genial host who shared his life with television viewers over morning coffee for decades and helped himself and some fans strike it rich with the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, has died at 88.

Philbin died of natural causes Friday night, according to a statement from his family provided by spokesperson Lewis Kay.

"His family and friends are forever grateful for the time we got to spend with him — for his warmth, his legendary sense of humour and his singular ability to make every day into something worth talking about," the statement said. "We thank his fans and admirers for their incredible support over his 60-year career and ask for privacy as we mourn his loss."

Celebrities routinely stopped by Philbin's eponymous syndicated morning show, but its heart was in the first 15 minutes, when he and co-host Kathie Lee Gifford — on Live! with Regis and Kathie Lee from 1985-2000 — or Kelly Ripa — on Live! with Regis and Kelly from 2001 until his 2011 retirement — bantered about the events of the day. Viewers laughed at Philbin's mock indignation over not getting the best seat at a restaurant the night before, or being henpecked by his partner.

"Even I have a little trepidation," he told The Associated Press in 2008, when asked how he does a show every day. "You wake up in the morning and you say, 'What did I do last night that I can talk about? What's new in the paper? How are we gonna fill that 20 minutes?"'

WATCH | Regis Philbin dead at 88:

Prolific U.S. television host Regis Philbin has died at 88, according to a report. Canadian Tamara Taggart remembers working with Philbin on Live With Regis and Kelly in 2009. 7:20

Philbin was known for his rough edges, funny anecdotes, self-deprecating humour and a Bronx accent that was once described as sounding "like a racetrack announcer with a head cold." American comedian and late-night host David Letterman, a longtime friend, called Philbin the funniest man on television.

'The ultimate class act'

Philbin — known to fans as "Reeg" —  was a fixture on various local and national shows for a half century with co-hosts including Kathie Lee Gifford and Kelly Ripa, winning millions of fans as well as honours as the top U.S. talk and game show host.

"I'm not gonna say it always works out brilliantly, but somehow we connect more often than we don't," he added.

Ripa and her current partner, Ryan Seacrest, called Philbin "the ultimate class act, bringing his laughter and joy into our homes every day."

Philbin logged more than 15,000 hours on the air, earning him recognition in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most broadcast hours logged by a TV personality, a record previously held by Hugh Downs.

"Every day, you see the record shattered, pal!" Philbin would tell viewers. "One more hour!"

'Is that your final answer?'

He was host of the prime-time game show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, briefly television's most popular show at the turn of the century. ABC aired the family friendly program as often as five times a week. It generated around $1 billion US in revenue in its first two years and helped make Philbin himself a millionaire many times over. He signed a deal in 2000 making his salary for Who Wants to be a Millionaire $20 million a year — the most ever for a game show host.

Philbin, second from right, is flanked by his wife, Joy Philbin, centre, and co-host Kelly Ripa, right, during his final show of Live With Regis and Kelly in New York on Nov. 18, 2011. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Philbin's question to contestants, "Is that your final answer?" became a national catchphrase. Philbin was even a fashion trendsetter; he put out a line of monochromatic shirts and ties to match what he wore on the set.

"You wait a lifetime for something like that and sometimes it never happens," Philbin told the AP in 1999.

In 2008, he returned briefly to the quiz show format with Million Dollar Password. He also picked up the Lifetime Achievement Award from the daytime Emmys.

In the 2008 AP interview, Philbin said he saw "getting the best out of your guests" as "a specialty. ... The time constraints mean you've got to get right to the point, you've got to make it pay off, go to commercial, start again. Play that clip. Say goodbye." He gave his desktop a decisive rap.

"And make it all conversational."

Philbin poses with his Lifetime Achievement Award backstage at the 35th Annual Daytime Emmy Awards, at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood on June 20, 2008. (Phil McCarten/Reuters)

In 2011, as Philbin was ending his run as co-host of the popular Live! With Regis and Kelly at age 80, the New York Times wrote: "In a daytime landscape filled with bland, polished hosts and smarmy good cheer, Mr. Philbin was crumpled, nasal and histrionic. He was a snaggletooth amid cosmetic dentistry and porcelain veneers."

Regis Francis Xavier Philbin grew up in the New York borough of the Bronx, the son of Italian-Irish parents and named for the Roman Catholic boys high school his dad attended. He went to the University of Notre Dame, and was such an enthusiastic alumnus, he once said he wanted his ashes scattered there.

After leaving the Navy in 1955, Philbin talked his way into a meeting with the stationmaster at KCOP-TV in Los Angeles. He got a job parking cars, then progressed into work as a stagehand, courier, newswriter and producer of a sports telecast. When its sportscaster didn't show up one day, Philbin filled in.

Philbin got far more on-air experience in San Diego in the early 1960s, when KOGO-TV began producing The Regis Philbin Show for a national audience. The program of music and celebrity interviews was taped two weeks before each airing. It was cancelled after four months.

Fans to the rescue

In 1967, Philbin was hired as the announcer and sidekick to comic Joey Bishop on his network show. When he heard that he was going to be fired because of poor ratings, Philbin tearfully announced he was leaving on July 12, 1968, walking off during a live broadcast. He returned three days later after letters of support poured in.

He and Bishop had bad blood: Bishop called Philbin an "ingrate" for walking off during a salary dispute and later badmouthing him.

Philbin's second wife, Joy, was Bishop's assistant.

Philbin arrives during Media Day for Super Bowl XLVIII at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., on Jan. 28, 2014. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

After three years of commuting to St. Louis each week for a local Saturday night show, Philbin became a star in local morning television — first in Los Angeles, then in New York. In 1985, he teamed with Kathie Lee Johnson, a year before she married former football star Frank Gifford, and the show went national in 1988.

The gentle bickering and eye-rolling exasperation in Philbin and Gifford's onscreen relationship was familiar to anyone in a long-lasting relationship.

"No arguments, no harsh words in all this time," Philbin told a theater audience in 2000. "Well, there was the time I didn't talk to her for two weeks. Didn't want to interrupt her."

Gifford left the show in 2000. After a tryout period for a replacement, soap star Ripa (All My Children) filled the slot.

Philbin enjoyed a side career as a singer that began when he sang "Pennies from Heaven" to Bing Crosby on Bishop's show. He said a record company called him the next day, and he made an album.

Even though the series Regis Philbin's Health Styles, on Lifetime in the 1980s, was part of his lengthy resume, Philbin had health issues. Doctors performed an angioplasty to relieve a blocked artery in 1993. He underwent bypass surgery in 2007 at age 75.

He's survived by his wife, Joy, and their daughters J.J. and Joanna Philbin, as well as his daughter Amy Philbin with his first wife, Catherine Faylen, according to People.

With files from Reuters

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