In Depth

In Their Own Words: Michael Davies

President and CEO of Embassy Row and Regis Philbin’s executive producer on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” in prime time

[Regis] always used to say on “Millionaire,” all this for a lousy $500,000 a show, lady.” He’d be standing in his upstage position, ready to walk up and start the fastest finger bit, and it was the one part of the show where he had to wait until we were ready to go. He used to stamp his foot. As he was waiting to go, he’d say, “Are you ready to go? You ready yet? You ready yet? You ready yet? You ready yet? I don’t know what they’re doing up there.” He’d fix eyes on a lady in the audience and go, “All this for a lousy 500,000 bucks a show, lady.” It was one of my favorite things he did.

I met Regis when I was a young cub executive at Disney in the mid-1990s. When Michael Eisner told me to go out and get the rights to “The $64,000 Question,” because he believed a game show would work in prime time, I immediately wanted Regis Philbin to do that. We developed that show with Regis in mind. In the end, once we developed it, we couldn’t figure a way to go and make it work. There were other people on the list. As he always said, I really wanted Bill Cullen. Then Regis called me one day and he’d seen the tape from his agent, Jimmy Griffin. Regis was notorious at that time for—there wasn’t a lot he really wanted to go and do. He had a great job doing the daytime show, and there weren’t that many shows he was interested in doing. He called me, having watched the show, and every single thing Regis spoke about, why he thought this was the next big show, why he was so passionate about doing it, were all things that revealed the truth about the show for me as well. From that phone call on, he was the only person for me. The rest is history.

I remember Regis saying to me that he was well-known from doing “Live,” but he became really kind of famous after doing “Millionaire.” “Millionaire” was a perfect storm for him. There’s no one who will ever—the worse the contestant, the less personality, the more nervous, the more inarticulate, the less they have to say, the better Regis is. Regis can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. He just has that ability. He becomes better and funnier when he’s given nothing. He just played every moment of that show with the contestants so perfectly. He got the tension of the game. He has that great voice for reading the questions.

When you’re working with Regis, he has no patience for stopping down and starting again. He’s got this whole banter going back and forth with the audience and the contestants. He puts everybody on the points of their toes. Everybody’s a little bit on edge. It lends atmosphere to a TV show. He’s a delight, but it’s this slight tension that runs through the production that comes across on camera that is superb.

From the moment that Regis opened [“Million Dollar Password”], my wife let out a sort of sigh of, “Omigawd, it’s so great to see Regis doing a game again.” The voice. The excitement. The whole thing. It felt like a big prime-time show the second you heard Regis open his mouth and welcome you to the show. There’s no one else I could imagine that celebrities on “Password” would respond to in the way they respond to Regis.

He’s not just another game show host. He’s an American treasure. When Regis started saying, “All this for a lousy $500,000 a show,” he was joking, because he was making much less. By the end, he really was making $500,000 a show. That was what was funny about it.
I owe Regis so much because “Millionaire” built my entire career. Producers and executives always try to take credit for the careers of talent, but if you’ve ever actually worked around talent and you realize how difficult it is to actually be talent and go on camera and actually do it every day, the only people who deserve credit for those careers is the talent themselves.