Regis Philbin: I Spent 18 Months Playing Pac-Man Before ABC Hired Me

6:08 PM PST 01/25/2011 by Elizabeth Guider
Charley Gallay/Getty Images for ATI
Regis Philbin

The "Live With Regis and Kelly" co-host was honored Tuesday with NATPE's Brandon Tartikoff Award, named after the late NBC exec who fired him 30 years ago.

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- "All these animals were coming around," Regis Philbin recalled, talking about programming execs and syndicators came around to try to hire -- not him, but his blonde co-host on an NBC morning show that was foundering: one Mary Hart.

That was 30 years ago. And Philbin ended up playing Pac-Man at home for a year and a half thereafter before ABC came back after him and gave him another show. RELATED: Regis Phibin to Retire From Weekday Talk Show

Philbin regaled the assembled Tuesday night with such insidery anecdotes from his 50-year career in TV, including the fact that he eventually discovered -- after he found out he would be a Legacy honoree -- that it was actually Brandon Tartikoff who had him fired from that ill-fated gig on the Peacock with Hart back in 1981.

And now to make things right and come full circle, Philbin was honored Tuesday night with one of the four Legacy Awards, bestowed the last eight years at NATPE in honor of uber-programmer and Peacock legend Tartikoff.

Entertainment Tonight's Mary Hart, NBC Sports and Entertainment guru and longtime Tartikoff colleague Dick Ebersol and RTL's CEO Gerhard Zeiler, the first international recipient, were also honored for their leadership and vision.

Philbin recently announced he will leave his longtime daytime strip at the end of the season.

He has performed in 16,000 hours of television -- a Guinness World Record, said NATPE CEO Rick Feldman.

"We know Regis as a consummate professional and a gentleman," Disney syndie president Janice Marinelli said. She also said she knew that despite his stepping down from Live, "Regis has no intention of retiring from this industry."

Lily Tartikoff, Brandon's widow, told the good and great of the biz that her husband "lived for sharing the process of creating television." These recipients, she said, reflect all that her husband stood for.

CBS Distribution president John Nogawski said of Hart that "there was no bad bone in her body" from the very beginning of her career in first-run syndication. She is "the ultimate class act," he said.

In her remarks, Hart remembered too that she had worked for Tartikoff 32 years ago -- and he fired her, and Philbin too. That's what got her the interview to try out for ET.

"And what we did way back then, in doing ET (when few thought it would catch on), eventually flooded the airwaves with a new genre of entertainment news," she said.

For his part, Ebersol thanked a number of luminaries in the room, including his current boss, Jeff Zucker, who, he said, is "the best he's ever had," of all the good bosses he has worked for.

Ebersol also recalled when Tartikoff was made Ebersol's boss, and his friend and colleague asked him, "Are you OK with this? I'll do whatever you want me to do."

It was Tartikoff's grace that most characterized him, as no one had ever been that sensitive in business dealings, Ebersol told the NATPE participants.

"We work in a business that chews us up. The failure just never got to him. Brandon got more out of people who failed for him than any other exec. It was that grace and personal courage that no one else had," Ebersol said.

As for Zeiler, who controls 39 TV stations across Europe, he said this award was never even in his dreams.

"When I started in the 80s, we always looked at America and there was one man who stood out -- Brandon Tartikoff, and it was his programming that we bought and wanted to emulate."

And he thanked the American TV industry as being the one "we will always learn from."

Trade pubs B&C and Multichannel News sponsored the event along with Tartikoff's "home," NBC, and the NATPE org.

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