Regis Philbin, Legendary TV Host, Dies at 88

Regis Philbin dead
AP Photo/Charles Sykes

Regis Philbin, the ubiquitous TV host best known for his long run on the syndicated morning talk show “Live” and ABC’s primetime hit game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” died of natural causes on Friday night. He was 88.

“His family and friends are forever grateful for the time we got to spend with him — for his warmth, his legendary sense of humor, and his singular ability to make every day into something worth talking about. We thank his fans and admirers for their incredible support over his 60-year career and ask for privacy as we mourn his loss,” the Philbin family said in a statement.

Philbin began his career when TV was barely in its teenage years. He wound up serving as a turn-of-the-century bridge for viewers to TV’s new world of enduring unscripted franchies on network primetime TV, as well as the trend of programs based on international formats.

Always ready with a quip or observation, Philbin styled himself after the famously iconoclastic “Tonight Show” host Jack Paar, particularly Paar’s way of connecting with the camera. Philbin said he admired Paar’s “chatty style and personality” and infused his own on-air persona with similar intimacy.

“I told stories of what had happened in my life during the week, all very similar to the kind of stuff Jack was doing night after night,” Philbin wrote in his 2011 book “How I Got This Way.” “I’ve never stopped doing it that way.”

Despite his approachability and personality, however, Philbin took care not to outshine his guests. Told early in his career that he was a good listener, he channeled that talent into his interview style: “You just don’t go to the next question and you don’t jump all over the guest. You let them be the star of whatever time they have with you,” he said.

First aired in 1983 as “The Morning Show” locally by WABC-TV in New York, “Live” began as a weekday 90-minute show co-hosted with Cyndy Garvey. In 1984, it changed to a 60-minute format (with a new co-host, Ann Abernathy). And in 1988, it entered into national syndication as “Live With Regis and Kathie Lee” when Gifford joined the show.

The chemistry with Gifford was immediate. “We kind of came across as diametric opposites,” Philbin said, “which seemed to give the audience as much of a kick as we got from our silly ribbings of each other.”

They were also unafraid to throw themselves into audience-pleasing physical absurdities with their guests. Philbin noted, “I believe we were the first show to introduce those bulky fat suits that made us look like Japanese sumo wrestlers.”

On Saturday, Gifford called Philbin “my precious friend” in an Instagram post. “I simply adored him and every day with him was a gift. We spent 15 years together bantering and bickering and laughing ourselves silly — a tradition and a friendship we shared up to this very day.”

Gifford’s long tenure on the show was followed in 2001 by a title change to “Live With Regis” and a succession of guest co-hosts. In 2001, former “All My Children” star Kelly Ripa was named his permanent co-host.

In 2011, Philbin was gently retired from “Live,” which by this time had aired over 6,000 episodes, hosted more than 20,000 guests and been seen by 1.1 million in-studio audience members. “Live” continues today with hosts Ripa and Ryan Seacrest.

From 2013 to 2014, Philbin hosted a studio panel show “Crowd Goes Wild” for Fox Sports 1.

Born in the Bronx on Aug. 25, 1931, Regis Francis Xavier Philbin initially aspired to be a Bing Crosby-style crooner, but he took a different path into show business.

He began on TV behind the scenes, as a page for NBC’s “The Tonight Show” in the 1950s. He moved to the West Coast and found jobs in local TV in Los Angeles and San Diego, where he worked as a reporter, writer, substitute anchor and anchor.

His first talk show, “The Regis Philbin Show,” aired on KOGO-TV in San Diego in 1961. The show’s low budget precluded writers or producers, which allowed Philbin to develop his trademark “host chat” opening segment that became a staple of “Live.”

He had a brief foray into nation syndication in 1964-65 with “That Regis Philbin Show,” and his next big break came in 1967, when he tapped to serve as announcer on “The Joey Bishop Show,” playing second banana to the Rat Pack comedian.

In his early career, Philbin also hosted local talk shows in Los Angeles and St. Louis.

In 1975, he was co-host of KABC-TV’s “A.M. Los Angeles,” a show co-hosted initially with Sarah Purcell, then Garvey. During his tenure, the show became a local hit and rose to No. 1 in the competitive morning news race. He left the show in 1981 and soon found himself back in New York to begin his nearly 30-year run on “Live.”

Philbin was riding high on “Live” when ABC tapped him to host a primetime quiz show based on a British format, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” The network thought it would be a low-cost primetime experiment in the dog days of August 1999. The show exploded into a massive hit that took ABC to the top of the Nielsen rankings and made Philbin an even bigger pop culture icon at the age of 68.

Philbin had previously hosted the game show “The Good Neighbors,” which had a brief run during 1975-76.

Over the years Philbin made dozens of guest appearances on numerous TV series, including “How I Met Your Mother,” “30 Rock,” “Ugly Betty,” “Seinfeld,” “Hope and Faith,” “Mad About You,” “Spin City” and “Hot in Cleveland.”

Most recently, he won a Daytime Emmy for outstanding talk show host in 2011, with co-host Ripa, for his final year on “Live With Regis and Kelly.” He won two Daytime Emmys in 2001, one for outstanding talk show host for “Live With Regis” and another for game show host for “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” He and Ripa also won a Daytime Emmy for outstanding special class special for hosting the 2006 “Walt Disney Christmas Parade.” He was recognized in 2008 with a Daytime Emmy award for lifetime achievement.

In 2015 he reunited with Gifford by joining the fourth hour of NBC’s “Today.”

The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes Philbin as holding the mark for most hours on U.S. television with more than 16,740 hours. Philbin first reached the Guinness milestone in 2004 with more than 15,100 hours on TV. At that time, Philbin replaced his friend Hugh Downs, the ABC News veteran who died July 1 at the age of 99.

In addition to all of his TV work, Philbin also recorded several musical albums over the course of his career including 1968’s “It’s Time for Regis!,” “When You’re Smiling” (2004) and “The Regis Philbin Christmas Album” (2005).

Philbin is survived by his wife, Joy Senese Philbin, and their two daughters, as well as a son and daughter from a previous marriage. Joy was a frequent guest co-host on “Live.”

Donations can be made to Food Bank For New York City in Philbin’s memory.