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Regis Philbin Knows How to Listen

May 16, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Fifty years ago next month, a 23-year-old man of Italian and Irish heritage, fresh from Notre Dame after a stint in the U.S. Navy, got his first job in show business-as a page at NBC in his native New York, seating guests for the “Tonight Show.” As Regis Philbin gazed down from the second balcony of the Humphrey Theater, he was in awe of the talent of host Steve Allen and the cast of characters before him, who could sing, play instruments, tell jokes and do skits.

“God, I was so intimidated by it all,” Mr. Philbin recalled last week, sitting in his office on the West Side of Manhattan full of mementos from his long career.

He soon relocated to Hollywood and landed a job as a stagehand at KCOP-TV, which at the time was doing a lot of live production. One night he went to see the latest incarnation of the “Tonight Show,” which was broadcasting from L.A at the time. The host was Jack Parr, who seemed to have no great talent outside of his charming way of telling a story. “I said, ‘Hey,’ recalled Mr. Philbin, “‘maybe I can do that.'”

On local and national television, on cable and syndication, he has been doing it ever since, and at this point is the acknowledged master. His morning chat show, “Live With Regis and Kelly,” nationally syndicated by an arm of The Walt Disney Co., is a ratings powerhouse. Along the way Mr. Philbin even determined his talent.

He explained that talent by referring back to about 1967, when he was doing a local talk show in L.A. and auditioned to become the sidekick to comedian Joey Bishop on his national talk show. “When I met Joey he said, ‘I saw you last night and you’ve got a great talent.’ I said, ‘Really? What’s my talent?’ And these comedians love to pontificate. He stood up and I could tell he was thinking what’s his talent? And finally he said, ‘You’re a great listener.'”

Listening, Mr. Philbin explained, remains key: “In this particular job, you’re not only the guy watching for the cues and everything else; you’ve got a co-host who is part of it as well. You’ve got to juggle all these things, what the guests are saying, how to fit in, maybe how to get a laugh yourself. But you have to always listen.”

Though he is at the top of his profession, he thinks at times about walking away from it all. “At this point in my life, what other mountains do I have to climb?” he mused, adding: “I could leave tomorrow. I’ve done it. I think I’ve done it. … Don’t you? How much longer do I have to do it? Is there something else besides getting up five mornings a week, working on a tightrope?”

There was a recent spate of articles suggesting Mr. Philbin might be replaced. Mr. Philbin said that came out of a misunderstanding. He had joked on his show about how much his longtime producer Michael Gelman liked the show “Survivor” and its host, Jeff Probst. Mr. Philbin joked on-air: “If anything happens to me, it’s going to be Probst. I feel it.”

That led to a column item in New York, which led to an article in the National Enquirer, taking his joke seriously, which led to an article in Variety. Calling it the literary equivalent of professional wrestling, Mr. Gelman said it was false. “Nowadays the so-called legitimate press takes things from the tabloids and repeats stories as if they are facts,” said Mr. Gelman.

In reality, Mr. Philbin has about 18 months left on his contract. In syndication, that means he will have contract negotiations late this year so that his stations can be reassured by early 2006 that he isn’t going anywhere. And it is almost certain he isn’t going anywhere. The truth is that Mr. Philbin is enjoying the success, his life in New York with his wife, Joy, and working with his latest co-host, Kelly Ripa.

Ms. Ripa, said Mr. Philbin, “is an incredible woman. She’s got three kids, a prime-time show (“Hope & Faith” on ABC), and she is here every morning. I’ve got to hand it to her. She keeps it all under control.”

His co-host for the past four years returned the compliments. “I call Regis my oldest son,” said Ms. Ripa, “because I feel that way about him. I want to nurture him. He’s been so good to me and my family. We’ve had such a life change because of what he’s given us. I’m forever loyal to him. I will always have his back.”

Ms. Ripa, who was full of trepidation when she first replaced Kathie Lee Gifford, talked about how much she has learned from her co-host. “Regis is the one who taught me to play into the camera, because I didn’t know,” she said. “Coming from soaps, you never look into the camera, no matter what. If the camera falls on you, you don’t look into the camera.”

On-air, Mr. Philbin loves to make fun of his producer. He chose Mr. Gelman when Mr. Gelman was in his early 20s, in the mid-1980s. They have been a team since the show went into national syndication in 1988. “The whole prickly thing is an act,” Mr. Gelman said of Mr. Philbin. “He’s a great talent, and that’s one reason we’ve had such a long run. That comes off. The whole show is very honest. What you see is what you get. It’s not like they turn nice when the camera comes on. They are the same when the camera’s off.”

Mr. Philbin and Mr. Gelman share a concern that the show’s success is not always appreciated. “We’ve been No. 1 for so long people take us for granted,” Mr. Gelman said. “The press writes about you and then forgets you until someone new comes onto daytime and gets half our ratings and triple the publicity. We do resent that.”

Mr. Philbin did love hosting “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” and “Super Millionaire,” which had a brilliant but short life. He said there is no indication the prime-time version will return anytime soon. He said there doesn’t seem to be room on the ABC schedule these days.

He won’t say, but Mr. Philbin’s salary has been estimated at $20 million a year. He comes in around 8 a.m. and is done for the day at 10 a.m. But it is still a daily challenge. “It’s harder than it looks,” Mr. Philbin said. “I mean, by now, I’m in overdrive. It’s just part of my life … but you’ve still got to weave it all together and not become overbearing or obnoxious to the audience. You just give enough stuff, not about yourself, but a little about yourself, so they become part of the family. And then they get hooked and it pays off in the ratings.”