The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Regis Philbin, boisterous television personality, dies at 88

Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa in 2011.
Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa in 2011. (Rob Kim/GETTY IMAGES)
Placeholder while article actions load

Regis Philbin, the boisterous television personality who gained a devoted following on his long-running morning show and helped reinvigorate the prime-time game show genre as host of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” died July 24 at 88.

The family confirmed the death in a statement released by a personal representative, Lewis Kay. Further details were not immediately available.

Mr. Philbin’s trademark blend of enthusiasm, quick wit and excitability made him a popular television host for more than six decades.

Initially a page on “The Tonight Show” hosted by Steve Allen, he became one of the most seasoned performers on live television. He was an actor, a singer and nightclub comedian before emerging to greater prominence in the late 1960s as second-banana to entertainer Joey Bishop on an ABC late-night talk show that tried to challenge Johnny Carson’s ratings dominance on NBC. According to Guinness World Records, Mr. Philbin spent more hours on U.S. television — more than 16,000 — than anyone else in history.

Mr. Philbin spent many years hosting a morning show in Los Angeles before he returned to his native New York in 1983 to take over a failing morning show on the local ABC-TV outlet in New York. He had two short-lived female co-hosts before teaming with Kathie Lee Gifford in 1985.

Three years later, the program was nationally syndicated as “Live with Regis and Kathie Lee.” Mr. Philbin’s exclamatory, teasing, air-chopping personality played well against Gifford’s much-younger sex appeal and irreverence, and they thrived on small talk about the news and what Mr. Philbin called “the aggravations, the slights, the family stuff” in their own lives.

They conveyed the chemistry and appeal of a married couple comfortable with each other’s idiosyncrasies.

Regis Philbin, the legendary TV host, died at the age of 88, July 24. Philbin held the record for having more time on camera than anyone else in TV history. (Video: Reuters)

“I couldn’t decide if he was obnoxiously adorable or adorably obnoxious,” Gifford wrote in her memoir.

For his part, Mr. Philbin told The Washington Post: “She does get on my nerves once in a while, as I do hers. But what I hate is the hosts who are too civil, too nice to one another. I like to keep an edge between us. And if it looks like there’s an antagonistic thing, well, maybe there is.”

Each morning, the show would open with an unscripted “host-chat.” Mr. Philbin refused to talk with his co-host until they were seated in front of the live audience, enabling spontaneous, off-the-cuff conversation.

Part of the appeal was Mr. Philbin’s ability to make fun of his enthusiasms, particularly for his alma mater Notre Dame, and the fact that so much of the daytime competition was reveling in the tasteless and tabloid.

“That was the year of discontent on television,” Mr. Philbin told Entertainment Weekly about the start of his long run with Gifford. “Geraldo [Rivera] was breaking his nose, Phil [Donahue] was walking around in a dress, Sally [Jessy Raphael] was walking around with hookers, Oprah [Winfrey] was losing 65 pounds. And here we were talking about what we did last night! Who cared? But I knew that if they could just watch us two, three times in a row that we could hook our share of the audience. And we did.”

Washington Post television critic Tom Shales wrote in 1992: “Not racy, not freaky, not remotely tawdry, the syndicated daily hour of small talk and tomfoolery has become one of television’s least disheartening hits, and the reason it’s succeeded has everything to do with the wacky cranks at the heart of it.”

Gifford left the show in 2000 to pursue other interests, including a singing career. The show, renamed “Live With Regis,” continued for the first year with guest co-hosts, including Mr. Philbin’s second wife, the former Joy Senese. He teamed with a new partner, former soap opera actress Kelly Ripa, in 2001, and their show “Live! With Regis and Kelly” aired for a decade.

In 1999, Mr. Philbin began hosting the ABC prime-time show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” whose format was borrowed from a game show that had aired successfully in the United Kingdom.

The ABC show was initially given a two-week limited run, and it proved such a ratings winner that the network began broadcasting it three times a week. It was also widely considered instrumental in showing that unscripted programming could attract a broad audience for network TV.

Mr. Philbin had been a game show host earlier in his career and when he heard that “Millionaire” was going to be produced for American television, he enthusiastically lobbied to be its host. He appeared on the “Late Show With David Letterman” and proclaimed that if given the new hosting duties, “I am going to resurrect ABC!”

At the very least, he helped resuscitate the prime-time game show format. Following “Millionaire,” which Mr. Philbin hosted until 2002, the networks aired a slew of game shows including “Twenty-One,” “Weakest Link” and “Deal or No Deal.” Within a few years, the “reality” game show genre, which included popular hits such as “The Amazing Race,” solidified their place on network television.

In the New York Times, journalist Alex Witchel wrote in 1999 that “the X factor of ‘Millionaire’s’ success seems to be — besides the money, of course — that Mr. Philbin genuinely wants the contestants to win.”

Mr. Philbin’s experience was suited to carry the show in front of a live studio audience. His much-imitated catchphrase, “Is that your final answer?,” kept the show suspenseful and intriguing.

“I got lucky with this show,” he told the Times in 1999. “I thought I had climbed my mountain with the morning show. Big hit locally and nationally. And all of a sudden this ‘Millionaire’ show comes along and I’m pushed to another mountain peak. I really don’t dare ask anything more. This is it. What else can I want?”

Regis Francis Xavier Philbin was born in Manhattan on Aug. 25, 1931, and grew up in the Bronx. His father was a personnel director for Sperry Gyroscope, which manufactured navigation equipment.

He was named after Regis High School, a Jesuit school in New York that his father attended. He later quipped, “It’s not a great show business name, but Robert Redford was taken.”

He received a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1953 from the University of Notre Dame, then served two years in the Navy before launching a career in entertainment against the wishes of his parents. His early idols were singer Bing Crosby and broadcaster Jack Paar.

He held various jobs, initially with the help of an uncle who worked at CBS radio as a press agent. He spent much of his early career on the West Coast, where he showed promise as a TV personality on local news programs. He had a break in 1964 when Westinghouse Broadcasting hired him for a nationally syndicated late-night show.

It did not work out well, he later told Entertainment Weekly. “I get to Hollywood and find out I’m on a two-week tape delay!” he said. “What could I possibly talk about that would have relevance two weeks from now? I have to be live, and be able to relate something that has happened in my real life. I don’t know how to use writers. I remember being in a hotel suite in San Francisco before the show premiered and staying up until dawn, literally in shock and scared to death. I psychologically was not ready for it. So I failed miserably.”

In 1967, he won a job as announcer and sidekick on “The Joey Bishop Show,” where each night viewers would hear Mr. Philbin say, “And now — twinkle, twinkle, it’s time for Joey!”

But despite the national exposure, Mr. Philbin was unhappy. Often, he was belittled by Bishop and was the butt of on-air jokes. One night, he walked off the set in the middle of a live performance.

“There was talk that maybe it was me who was hurting the show,” Mr. Philbin told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “Rather than hurt Joey’s chances for success — and I guess I was offended that they thought it was my fault — I decided to walk one night and see what happened. I simply said, ‘There’s been a lot of pressure on you. I know we’re starting out. I’ve heard some talk that maybe ABC is unhappy with me. You hired me. To get you off the hook — Love ya. Good luck, goodbye.’ ”

Letters from supportive fans immediately poured in and three days later, Mr. Philbin returned to the set. The show lasted until 1969 and often showcased Mr. Philbin as a singer. In 1968, he released his first recording, an album of pop songs called “It’s Time for Regis!”

Mr. Philbin’s first marriage, to Catherine “Kay” Faylen, ended in divorce. In 1970, he married Senese, who had been Bishop’s secretary. In addition to his wife, survivors include a daughter from his first marriage; and two daughters from his second marriage, Joanna and Jennifer. A son died in 2014.

After Bishop’s show ended, Mr. Philbin served as host of a succession of talk shows culminating in a six-year run on “A.M. Los Angeles.” He left the morning show in 1981 and soon reunited with one of his former colleagues, Cindy Garvey, on a consistently low-rated morning show on the ABC-TV outlet in New York.

Once Mr. Philbin took the helm, the ratings picked up. Garvey was later replaced by Ann Abernathy and then by Gifford.

As much as Mr. Philbin enjoyed household recognition, he tried to present himself in private as down-to-earth and approachable. In his 1995 autobiography, “I’m Only One Man!,” written with Bill Zehme, Mr. Philbin called himself a “cab guy.”

“Limousines just embarrass me,” he wrote. “Like anybody else, when I see a limo on the street, I wonder who’s riding in back. Whoever it is, I expect to be impressed. Whenever I’ve gotten talked into riding in a big sedan, I can’t help but think I’m going to let people down by stepping out of it. They want Madonna to be in that car. Or Donald Trump. Or Kathie Lee! I don’t want to be responsible for that kind of disappointment!”

Read more Washington Post obituaries

Hugh Downs, omnipresent television broadcaster, dies at 99