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Interview: Regis Philbin

Regis Philbin is best known for his twenty-eight years hosting the popular morning television program Live!, as well as the American version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? He is a multiple Emmy Award-winner, Life Time Achievement Award Recipient and Broadcasting Hall of Famer. To Americans he is a national treasure—the televisual equivalent of the Statue of Liberty. Cody assures us that he is the only non-President carved on Mt. Rushmore. Google disagrees.

Regis Philbin has spent more than 17,000 hours on television. If you’re curious, yes, that’s a Guinness World Record. To put it in perspective, it’s also the equivalent of spending the entirety of two years of one’s life on television.

“What do you wanna know baby?” Aside from everything, I ask the man who’s done it all—partly out of reverence, partly out of diffidence—about his own childhood shyness. Was he of all people, as he’s gone on record publicly to say, afraid of performing?

“Oh, very shy. For a while there I thought it was going to hold me back. I really, never told anybody what I wanted to do. Because I didn’t think I could do it. I mean I wanted to go into some type of entertainment—radio, whatever. But then television came along and I thought maybe I could do something there; I didn’t know what it was. 

“As a matter of fact, I had to do two years in the Navy after Notre Dame because we were at war with Korea. After it was over and I was all packed up and ready to leave, one of the Marine Majors that I’d been hanging around with where we lived—in San Diego Bay—was a very tough guy, and he said to me, ‘what are you going to do with the rest of your life?’ I said, ‘You know, Major, I really don’t know. I would like to go into television. I see it now. But, I don’t know if I can do it.’ He said, ‘don’t you know you can have anything you want in this life? You’ve only got to want it bad enough. Now do you want it?’ And I said, ‘well, yeah, but you don’t understand, Major. I have no experience. I have no talent. I don’t know what I could do.’ And this guy, this Marine Major was a tough, tough guy, he looked at me right in the eye and he said, ‘I said do you want it?!’ I said, ‘Yes, Sir (trembling), I want it.’ And that was the first time that I was able to tell anybody yes, that’s what I want.”

The Major’s clairvoyance is not particularly shocking, considering Regis spent his Navy days “yelling and screaming and getting laughs”. His was the unwavering smile; he transcended the drudgery and inevitable monotony of armed service by playfully voicing his dissent, flirting with insubordination but saying what was on everybody else’s mind. It did not go unnoticed by his men—perhaps, his first true audience. My mind lingers on what court marshaling Regis Philbin would have looked like.   

After the Navy, Regis wound up in Los Angeles running errands for the local news station, KCOP, in Hollywood. His chores included “carrying furniture from the prop house to the studio where they were making the show and then cleaning up the show after it was over.” Though his duties were certainly beneath the qualifications of a commissioned officer in the United States Navy, Regis began to feel some degree of validation working for Channel Eight in San Diego. Half journalist and half comedian, Regis was tasked with “coming up with something every hour on the hour for eight hours, so (he) spent a lot of time at the San Diego Police station.” He was entirely on his own without any writers for support. Not only did he survive unscathed, and without any serious communicable infections. He received a call from Channel Ten. They wanted Regis’s witty remarks and singular enthusiasm. 

The rest is television history: The Regis Philbin Show, The Joey Bishop Show, Live!, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?—to name a few. I’m eager to know what’s been the one indispensible aspect of his personal life. “Joy,” he tells me, without the slightest hesitation.

“You know my baby, Joy? She’s been a tremendous help in my life. I’m so happy that I met her and that we’ve spent forty-five years together. And that is really, as you say, indispensible for me.”

He tells me that he’s no stranger to the evolution of comedy. Unfortunately, with the internet came evil incarnate, anonymous bloggers stewing in the their parents’ basements lusting after the crude, irreverent mockery so ubiquitously employed by a contemporary generation of younger comics. “That’s not for me,” he tells me with almost religious conviction, and I propose his continued successes might have something to do with the ratio of those he entertains to those he offends, or to his maintaining only loose affiliations with several prominent bicoastal gangs.

“I’m happy to hear you say that. Because that’s what I’ve tried to do. I’ve tried to get the laughs without offending anyone. And, that’s the way it’s always been I think. And I hope, even with my cohosts or just people who were in the audience, I don’t offend anybody. Just get them on your side.” Get them on your side—something he’s been doing for the last sixty years. But who would Regis Philbin be had he never stepped on a television set?

“I might still be a page at NBC,” he laughs. “It’s just, one of those things that I kept working at and working at and finally it came to me.” I start to get the sense he’s never once envisioned an alternative. And of that childhood shyness? Is that gone?

“It’s tough because you always have your doubts about yourself. And then you get out there and for some reason it comes to you and you make it happen. And you’re on your way. But yeah, I think about it a lot. I think success to somebody is overcoming their doubts about what they really want to do, and at least taking a try at it. Don’t overlook that. He thinks, you can’t do it. You can do it. It depends on how well you do it, of course, but still you must give yourself that try.” 

Regis is a great sport and he consents to a game of word association wherein he must only reply with one word describing my successive promptings. 

Tabloid Journalism—

“Tabloid journalism…well, I think it—one word?”

If you would, please.

Terrible.

 Oxford—

 “I’d have to say the best.”

I tell him how much Cambridge will enjoy that. 

Gelman (his longtime producer on Live!)—

“I still see Gelman to this day and we reminisce about the old days. Let me pick out a word for him: indefatigable.”

Kelly (his most recent co-host on Live! of eleven years)—

“I rarely talk to her since I left. She seems to be doing fine with Michael Strahan. They seem to be a good team together. They’re getting along as far as I can see. Who knows what’s happening behind the camera, but no—(laughs) I would say she’s doing just fine.”

Out of respect I refrain from reminding him about the fine print of word association.

Kathie Lee (his former co-host on Live! of fifteen years)— 

“I gotta yell ya, I’m going to pinch-hit for Coda. Is that her name?”

He’s referring of course to Hoda Kotb, Kathie Lee’s current co-host on the fourth hour of NBC’s The Today Show, but something tells me there’s a conscious jab somewhere in there for me, though I know not where.

“I keep calling her ‘Coda’ and Kathie gets mad at me. Anyway, I’m going to pinch-hit for her with Kathie Lee. And I guess—I’m up in my attic in Connecticut. Going over some pictures that I want to bring and reminisce with her. She’s a very, very special character and someone who never gives up. And if she wants something she goes out and she makes it happen. I admire her tremendously.”

Your career—

 “Lucky (laughs).” What about blessed?

He takes a second. “Blessed, too. No doubt about that. That’s a much better word. Thank you. Thank you for the help.”

I remind him that the USC Trojans play the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum 29 November 2014. As one of the more vocal Irish fans on television, how come he never tried out for the team when he was at university? As a Trojan myself, I’m merely being facetious; I know full well that Regis is five-six on a good day and has, at best, only coachable footwork.

“Oh, I did think about it. But as soon as I got there and I saw Leon Hart and “Jungle” Jim Martin and Emil Sitko and all those guys that were there when I started as a freshman, I knew it wasn’t for Regis.”

I think it worked out for Regis. 

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