Regis Philbin, household name. Like . . . Alex Trebek! Or . . . Les Tremayne! Or even . . . Keefe Brasselle! And yet, that's not enough for the man who was the Regis Philbin of the '60s and '70s and sure as heck doesn't want to be the Regis Philbin of the '80s.
He wants, in his not-too-inimitable phraseology, "another shot at it," and to "go for it." And "it," of course, is national fame through television, even if it is NBC daytime, which is as also-runny as you can get. And so today begins, at 9 a.m. on Channel 4, "The Regis Philbin Show," a calculated step backward in the pursuit of viewers, ratings and money.
This time, they're not going to try to lure those fickle folks out there in television land (Regis calls them "ladies") by being daring or innovative. "I don't want to break any new ground on this show," says Philman, er, Krellman, er, Philbin, beaming boyishly in a baby-blue corduroy jacket. "I can't think of a gimmick other than my own peculiar personality."
Will this be enough? Previously, NBC flopped big in daytime talk with "America Alive!" -- a giddily bouncing ball that marked Jack Linkletter's return to television and, apparently, also his second retirement from it. Later, the bright and inventive "David Letterman Show" was apparently too bright and inventive to interest those who have made "General Hospital" the number-one show in daytime TV.
But Philbin, 47, thinks he has, to coin a phrase, paid his dues. "It's been a long, rocky road, I'll tell you," says the fellow whose previous claim to a kind of fame was three years of playing Ed McMahon to Joey Bishop's Johnny Carson on an unsuccessful late-night ABC talk show. Each night viewers would hear Philbin say, "And now -- twinkle, twinkle it's time for Joey!"
After that, there were such further humiliations as "The Neighbors," a terrible game show ("I'm not proud of that," he says) and such moments in the limelight as his appearance as a panelist on the "What's My Perversion?" show in Woody Allen's movie "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex." More to the point, Philbin spent the past six years hosting "AM Los Angeles," and he thinks that has prepared him for this Big Career Move.
"Everybody asks me 'Why you? Why you?' " says Philbin over breakfast in a downtown hotel. "Well, I've been such an enormous hit in L.A. that I think I can translate that to the national level." One of the reasons the ABC-owned station that does "AM Los Angeles" was so persnickety about letting him out of his contract, Philbin claims, is that "they just didn't want to have to compete against me."
As for NBC's previous daytime failures, Philbin says, " 'America Alive' did all those remotes from all over, I don't think that worked very well, and Letterman's show was a comedy show; he had a cast of comedians. Well, I don't even have a writer! I see this as a service show. We're going to tell people how to do things -- how to buy meat, fix your marriage, go to fashion shows. I want to make my audience's life a little more interesting; enrich them, as well as entertain them."
In some cities around the country, Philbin will be up against such established daytime hits as "Donahue," the trend-setting group gabfest, and "The Richard Simmons Show," starring the fey fitness fetishist. Philbin says that "a lot of NBC stations have given up" on the network's lousy daytime lineup and booked the syndicated Donahue and Simmons shows themselves; only about 80 percent of the affiliates will carry him.
Still, he thinks he can make it. He says the Simmons show is "very gimmicky" and may be "a flash in the pan," which is a little odd since Simmons appeared with Philbin on a presentation tape made for NBC affiliates, and on that tape Philbin told Simmons, "You're the hottest guy in the whole country."
When it comes to Donahue as competition, Philbin says old feminist Phil is getting redundant with so many of his shows devoted to sexual topics. "He's looking for the deviant that's even more deviant than the last deviant," says Philbin.
"I am so sick of the sex thing," he goes on. "I just think it's been totally overdone. I caught a couple of sitcoms on the air the other night; they were all suggestion and innuendo. I know the guys who write these things. They just think sex is the most reliable way to get a laugh. Well, it's ridiculous. I hate it. I'm going to try to stay away from sex." He means as a subject on his talk show. But then, they can always bring it in later if the ratings need a boost.
More likely, they'll rely on one of Philbin's old L.A. specialties, miscellaneous kookery. Talk shows in L.A. are overrun with astrologers, swamis, mediums, head-bump readers, gourmet prophets, you name it. Television's goal is to make every city in America a suburb of Los Angeles. Philbin even consulted his favorite astrologer, Joyce Jillson, to see if this were a propitious time for him to start a new network talk show. She said no.
However, on the presentation tape, Jillson tells Philbin he is in good shape because "Jupiter is going into Scorpio and Scorpio is the sign of the Nielsen."
Philbin claims he didn't want the Regis Philbin show to be called "The Regis Philbin Show," but these things get out of hand. "I have no control over the title," he says. "I wanted one of those one-word NBC titles that says it all -- you know, 'Today' with Regis Philbin. Or 'Tonight' with Regis Philbin. But those have all been used." Except for the "with Regis Philbin" part, of course.
"So they came up with things like 'After Today,' 'Later Today,' 'Day by Day' -- I said, 'Hey, that's a song, gimme a break' -- and 'Day to Day.' Then last week in the NBC commissary I met NBC chairman Grant Tinker and he said, 'Now about the title of this show -- what does "Day to Day" mean?' He said, 'One thing I know about in this business is titles. I'm the guy who named it "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," remember.' "
And Tinker, right on the spot, came up with another great title: "The Regis Philbin Show." Then, says Philbin, it was on to other momentous matters, like "where to put the couch." And so forth.
One thing you can say about Regis: he's not a quitter. True, he did, on July 12, 1968, tearfully announce on the air that he was leaving the Bishop show because network executives were plotting against him.
But, a week later, he was back.
"I want to be known as more than just Joey Bishop's sidekick," says Philbin, with an eagerness that seems just short of desperation. There's a raring-to-go glint there, the kind you see in the eyes of the man who would leap into your lap to sell you a potato peeler and make you feel his blood is on your hands if you say no. On the tape Philbin says, "Nothing means more to me than the success of this show"; for better and worse, no one could doubt the sincerity of that.
And now -- twinkle, twinkle -- it's time for Regis.