The word “icon” was created for Regis Philbin.
The Emmy-winning co-host of syndicated morning show “Live With Regis and Kelly” is the king of daytime, attracting 4 million viewers each morning, and a prime-time prince who is drawing nearly 10 million viewers to CBS’ summer run of “Million Dollar Password,” which he hosts.
He has been the go-to guy for ABC as host of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” which became a phenomenon in 1999. Since then he’s crossed network lines to host the 2006 premiere season of NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” and New Year’s festivities on Fox.
And he is the more-than-deserving recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award he will receive Friday from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences at the 35th annual Daytime Emmy Awards, to be broadcast live on ABC.
The indefatigable Mr. Philbin, who will be 77 in August, entered the Guinness Book of World Records in 2004 when he had racked up more than 15,000 hours on camera, a record he keeps breaking.
He is the master of live TV, arguably the medium’s best extemporaneous storyteller (and sometimes re-teller) ever. He don’t need no steeenking writers; he is at his best when he works without a written net. Give him a collaborative conversationalist such as the whip-smart Kelly Ripa. Step away from the stopwatch. It’s Regis’ world but we all get to live in it through “Live” host chat segments in which he and Ms. Ripa trade stories.
He can talk to anyone and is never at a loss for words, except when a roll of the eyes will say more.
He can tell a joke and take a joke, which makes him the perfect foil for David Letterman, on whose CBS “Late Show” he has appeared more than 90 times.
“Regis is one of the greats of all time. He’s a tremendous broadcaster and always entertaining. Day in and day out, he has the single most entertaining show on television. There’s nobody better than Regis,” Mr. Letterman said when asked to talk about the man he hilariously refuses to dine with.
Mr. Philbin’s nightclub and concert career keeps him crooning on the weekends.
He can do it all except, perhaps, put on three-inch spikes and sprint 150 yards in the upcoming High Heel-a-Thon fundraiser on “Live” July 9.
TelevisionWeek National Editor Michele Greppi, who became addicted to host chat and Mr. Philbin in 1988 when “Live” went into national syndication, recently talked to the man himself, as well as the men and women who have played key roles in his life and career.
TelevisionWeek: Who did you have to, um, kiss, to get the Lifetime Achievement Award?
Regis Philbin: [Chuckles] Oh, boy, how you cleaned that question up. I couldn’t tell you how these things happen. Honest to God, I was surprised. I’m a little intimidated by it. A little wondering, do I really deserve the Lifetime Achievement Award. My God, it sounds so official, and I’ve been around to remember the giants who received awards like this. Now most of them are gone and maybe that’s why I’m getting it. I’m still around. It just happened. I don’t know how they decided. I guess they decide on who’s still around.
TVWeek: Oh, come on.
Mr. Philbin: Well, you’re asking me who did I have to kiss. I didn’t kiss anybody. But I’d like to kiss somebody to get out of this.
TVWeek: You’re going to have to make a speech, right?
Mr. Philbin: Yes, and that is another problem. Two and a half minutes. How do you go over a lifetime and a half a century in 2½ minutes? I don’t want to get into the thank-you and thank-her and thank-him phase of it because inadvertently you’re going to leave a lot of important people out. And you don’t want to spend the whole 2½ minutes thanking everybody. It’s a little difficult.
TVWeek: Is there anything you can say during that speech that we don’t know about you?
Mr. Philbin: That’s a very cogent point. I spent my life talking about what it is I’m doing, what I’ve seen, where I’ve been. That’s how I sustain the show, that’s how I open the show. So I can’t use any of that material. There’s nothing left. Why don’t you write the speech?
TVWeek: Perhaps you should think about getting together some of those comedians and comedic actors who do the great imitations of you and let them all give one sentence of your speech.
Mr. Philbin: That is a very funny idea. From Dana Carvey to Ben Affleck. All these guys want to be REGIS! … Somebody brought up in terms of thank-you speeches and awards, they honored Stanley Donen a few years ago with sort of a lifetime achievement thing and he made a song of it and he sang about working with Cary Grant and all these people. It was so cute. He acted it out. He sang and danced a little bit. It was a great idea, but it’s not for me.
TVWeek: Is there a place in your great home in the New York City sky or your great home in Connecticut where crumpled-up notepaper litters the floor with false starts?
Mr. Philbin: No, there isn’t, but there are old tapes of various shows that I haven’t looked at since I made them that might have some information. No, I haven’t, darn it, but I had to do that when I wrote the books that I wrote, so there it is in bold print all these years. Some of those stories are quite funny, but again, I guess if you read the book, or I may have even used it on the air, you have heard it before.
TVWeek: We do watch you every day, and you do on occasion repeat yourself. It’s not that you’re retelling something, because it’s in how you tell it.
Mr. Philbin: I know what you mean. Anyway, it’s a problem, and I’ll have to solve it pretty soon. I’ve been putting it off for the last couple of weeks now, because I still have three weeks in June to get this done.
TVWeek: The last time we talked, you were preparing to host the pre-Oscars show, and you were going to wear one of your old tuxes. Will you get a new tux for this occasion?
Mr. Philbin: No, it’s going to be the same—I have a couple of tuxes that are like three years old. I’m not buying a new one. These are finely made tuxes. No one knows how old they are. They happen to be three or four years old, but that’s what I’m going to wear.
TVWeek: You’re the only man we know who has multiple tuxes that get a fair amount of use. It’s quite the life you lead.
Mr. Philbin: You’re right. I’m packing my tux right now, going down to Biloxi tomorrow morning, and I’m going to be doing a show at the Beau Rivage Hotel that night. That requires a tux. In fact, all of the shows I do in tuxedo. Then there are the awards shows that we go to. And even [executive producer Michael] Gelman has an awards show, the Relly Awards Show. So, yes, I do get a lot of use out of them and I’m probably in them more than most people.
TVWeek: Will Baby Joy be going with you this weekend?
Mr. Philbin: You know she had a shoulder operation, which is quite painful and is still paining her. So she sucked it up and we went to the “Sex and the City” premiere and party last night. That was fun, because she loves that show. She’s in pain. She had some bone spurs removed. She tore a tendon in her bicep, which she didn’t sew together because she thinks she can cure it without surgery. It’s going to take a while.
TVWeek: Did she watch “Dancing With the Stars” with Christian De La Fuente, who popped a tendon in his upper arm?
Mr. Philbin: I’m more aware of that injury than she is, but that’s something similar to what she went through. We just had him on the show and he was still in the brace. I’ve got to tell you, it’s always more than they tell you it’s going to be.
TVWeek: How are you feeling these days?
Mr. Philbin: I feel pretty good, you know. I had the operation in March of 2007. I feel good.
TVWeek: How do you keep the energy level that you do at this stage in your life when you keep taking on additional commitments?
Mr. Philbin: You know what? It was only a commitment of six “Password” shows, which we did between Friday and Monday, two on each day of the weekend. Relatively easy and interesting. It was something new. You get excited about it. It worked out fine. But if I was to do it on a regular basis, that might be something to reconsider. All I do, you know the drill, I go over [to WABC-TV’s “Live” studio] around 8:25, 8:30 and at 10 to 9 get a little makeup on, at 30 seconds to 9 knock on a door.
TVWeek: A couple of weeks ago you had to kick open the door.
Mr. Philbin: I do love the opening and I do love the rest of the show. It’s exhilarating. The audience is there, so it’s kind of an upper. That kind of keeps your energy up as well.
TVWeek: The average day from there goes how?
Mr. Philbin: After the show there’s always something to tape. Today I taped something for Army Archerd, who is emceeing the Vision Awards out at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Then we did a little promo for New York City taxicabs. Have you noticed they’re getting more television in them? And we always promote our show for the next day. So we do that for about a half-hour. Then we go upstairs and maybe there’s some mail or some calls that have to be returned. Then there’s interviews, like with Michele Greppi. The Insider must know everything. So there’s that to go through. Then it kind of lightens up in the afternoon. I’ll go to the gym and take a workout right in my building. Tonight, maybe a movie. Last night it was the “Sex and the City” premiere. Now, that was exhausting, because — did you go to that?
TVWeek: We don’t travel in those circles.
Mr. Philbin: No kidding. All those years of “Sex and the City” being on television?
TVWeek: In fact, HBO has even stopped inviting us to the screenings of things like the Roman Polanski documentary, which you attended and said was quite the gathering. I listened to you describing it the next day on “Live.”
Mr. Philbin: Oh, it was, it was. I was there for that one. I was working out there when that was going on. I well remember all the guys who were covering the story in the dark. I didn’t know how it wound up. I guess I forgot about that judge, who was having his own little circus. It came back to haunt him.
TVWeek: Back to “Sex and the City.” Did you like it?
Mr. Philbin: Yes, I did. I know the [New York] Post rammed it today. I don’t know what the [Daily] News did. I did like it, but only because I had been a slow convert to that show over the years, because Joy is talking, watching, and my God, I got involved with the girls. I think that Michael Patrick King is just a terrific writer. He’s writing for four different people. More than that when you count the supporting players. That’s really a chore.
TVWeek: That’s a series you never made a cameo appearance in, right?
Mr. Philbin: You’re absolutely right.
TVWeek: Maybe that’s why you were slow to convert?
Mr. Philbin: No, not really. I understand what you’re saying. First of all, it was on at a time when “Seinfeld” was on. And I always, always went with “Seinfeld.” But then after a while, even though I still love “Seinfeld” and still watch it, and still laugh, I did, like yesterday, Joy and I are in bed together, we’re watching [“Sex and the City”]. That was the choice of the evening.
TVWeek: We’re trying to resist the urge to ask, “And what was Joy wearing?”
Mr. Philbin: Now, don’t you dare. You know what happened with you and HBO.
TVWeek: So let’s talk about the Daytime Emmys in Los Angeles. Will “Live” spend any extra time out there?
Mr. Philbin: I’ll probably fly out Thursday after the show and Friday we’ll put on tape. I think Gelman is coming out. It was easy when the Daytime Emmys were in New York, because we could work the same day.
TVWeek: Do you have any particular nostalgic plans or friends you plan to make contact with?
Mr. Philbin: As a matter of fact, [we’re getting together with] the guy who took us into syndication. Jamie Bennett, who was with Buena Vista at the time. Now, I had had resistance about syndicating the show when I was doing it locally in Los Angeles, and I could understand the difficulty, even if the general manager had said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” I have to do it live. And yet if I did it live, it would be noon back here in New York. If I wanted it to be 9 a.m. in New York, it would be 6 a.m. in Los Angeles. That’s too early. I realized even when [the general manager] said no: Why am I pursuing this? Coming back to New York and starting all over, we had enormous ratings in no time at all and the show was a hit and then five years later, somebody said, “Let’s do it.” There was some resistance because general managers feel like, “Hey, this is our property,” and it is. It’s their show. But they did make an arrangement with Buena Vista so that WABC still owns the show and has a piece of the action. Under those terms, Buena Vista began to syndicate the show. A couple of years later, Disney, which owns Buena Vista, buys Capital Cities/ABC, so we all wound up as one big happy family. So there will be a lot of reminiscing about this show. Jamie Bennett got it going and Mary Kellogg was with him.
TVWeek: Was there anything he needed to convince you of other than saying, “We can work out a deal with the station”?
Mr. Philbin: No. I felt very secure after that. That was one of the minor blocks, that the station owned the show and they’d never had an arrangement like this where a local show stayed—I think Oprah’s show was like that at the beginning. Jamie Bennett knew the show intimately. He wanted to do the 20-minute opening. He wanted all the things that we were doing on the show. Consequently, the show never changed. That’s another reason why we made it this time.
TVWeek: Does anybody ever suggest these days, “Why don’t you try something a little different”?
Mr. Philbin: No one has. No one has ever tried to change [the host chat length].
TVWeek: During the host chat segment, when is the last time you remember it feeling like a struggle to fill it up?
Mr. Philbin: It’s been a long time, I guess. Sometimes when you’re with a [guest co-host] who has never done that before and you don’t want to make an interview out of it, and yet you want them to come across—hosting is altogether different than being a guest. A lot of these execs see a great guest and say, “Oh, my God, give him or her their own show.” They don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. It’s an altogether different ball game. It’s reliant on you as the host to keep them energized and keep them on track and get the funny stories out of them. If you’re not careful, it turns into an interview, which I really don’t want to do. I want them to participate on their own. But sometimes it’s new to them and they don’t know how to do it. I would consider that to be a difficult opening.
TVWeek: Do you and Kelly Ripa have a code word that if you say it, she understands that you’re …
Mr. Philbin: No. No code words. That sounds like it should be part of the show.
TVWeek: One day recently, I thought it was “colonics.”
Mr. Philbin: Well that was Gelman’s time to get himself internally cleansed. I got a big kick out of it, so I went with it for a couple of days.
TVWeek: How often do people make a direct pitch to you?
Mr. Philbin: It happens all the time. Last night Mario Cantone, who’s been a regular on “The View,” said to me: “You know, I’d love to get on the show. Why doesn’t Gelman like me?” I told Gelman that. He said, “What is he talking about? I have nothing against Mario Cantone.” You don’t want to infringe on somebody else’s show, so I guess Mario is going to have problems getting on our show, but that’s kind of how it works.
TVWeek: Tell him to go out for “Dancing With the Stars” and win to be on “Live.”
Mr. Philbin: There you go.
TVWeek: Have your personal pop culture interests changed much over the time you’ve been in the business?
Mr. Philbin: Absolutely. As the generations go by and the tastes change, if you’re doing a talk show like this, you’ve got to become aware of what’s going on. To keep everything current, the show has changed and I’ve become more aware of the young performers getting into the business. Of course I have such fond memories of what the music business was like when I was growing up and what it was like just 20 years ago. If you’re doing a show like this, you’ve got to stay with it.
TVWeek: You have written books about your life. But will you ever do a tell-all?
Mr. Philbin: A tell-all? No. I think I’ve told all that I can in those two books. Writing a book is a big, laborious process that takes a lot of concentration and focus. I just don’t want to go through that all again. It’s really like a personal examination, and you’ve got to think of other people’s feelings and so you just don’t—no, I can’t do that anymore.
TVWeek: But there been have big events in your life since then. The heart surgery.
Mr. Philbin: Yeah.
TVWeek: You’re a grandfather.
Mr. Philbin: Yeeeaaah. It’s true. Life changes. It goes on. I guess I should never say never, but I haven’t really considered it in the last 10 years since I got the other two done. They were fun. But no, I don’t think so.
TVWeek: At what point do you consider slowing down?
Mr. Philbin: When you say slowing down, can it get any easier than this? I do one hour in the morning. I leave energized. I’m going to get lunch now, if I ever get done with this interview. I’m going to work out at the gym. I mean, it can’t get better than this, can it?
TVWeek: But you are always doing and going, hosting this evening or that philanthropic event.
Mr. Philbin: You’re right. You can go out every night and every day and work and do something, but I do pick my spots.
TVWeek: What keeps you going, and what keeps you accepting the things you accept at an age, all due respect and affection, at an age where some other people think maybe they’ll go play golf?
Mr. Philbin: I do get tired. I don’t know what it’s like, though, to feel my age. I know it staggers some people. I wish I were 20 years younger, like everybody else, but, gee, right now I feel as good as I did 20 years ago. So I’m enjoying it and I guess I want to continue to enjoy it. I don’t really do anything that I don’t want to do.
TVWeek: What role does money play in your decisions?
Mr. Philbin: Not at this point in my life. I’ve made enough money to live comfortably and take care of my family and friends and everybody else. So it’s not that big a deal anymore. It really isn’t.
TVWeek: Anything else you’d like to talk about?
Mr. Philbin: You’ve covered everything. There is nothing else.
TVWeek: Yes, there is. There’s what’s next.
Mr. Philbin: Ohhh! Lifetime Achievement Award. “Password” Sunday night. What else?
TVWeek: There’s another Notre Dame football season coming up.
Mr. Philbin: Let’s not get into that too soon. That is not going to be another, not as bad as it was last year, but still to be reckoned with.
TVWeek: You don’t have to sacrifice any chickens in the back yard in Connecticut?
Mr. Philbin: No. They’re safe, I think.