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He’s revered by David Letterman, studied by Jimmy Kimmel and no less than a “master” in the eyes of Craig Ferguson. Friday night, Regis Philbin’s decades-long reign over television will be acknowledged with a lifetime achievement award at the 35th Annual Daytime Emmy Awards ceremony at the Kodak Theatre.
“He takes these tiny pieces of information, from life or entertainment, and suddenly you’re into this huge story that is about basically nothing, but is fascinating in the way he’s expanded it,” marvels Ferguson.
Kimmel’s appreciation of Philbin’s ability to speak off the cuff has grown since he began hosting his own show, ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” “What makes me so envious is how easy it is for him,” says the younger host, who, like Ferguson, considers Philbin a mentor. “He arrives at the studio 90 seconds before the show starts, leaves 90 seconds after it’s over, and he’s fantastic.”
Philbin is preternaturally gifted and at ease on camera, according to those who have worked with him. What viewers are seeing onscreen is really the way it’s playing out on set.
“We all look at Regis and say, ‘Wow, that’s easy,'” says Michael Gelman, his producer of 25 years. “But when anyone else tries to do it, they can’t.”
Philbin, a native New Yorker, began honing his skills in San Diego on the short-lived, late-night “That Regis Philbin Show” for Westinghouse in 1964. “There was a two-week tape delay, and I wasn’t used to waiting two weeks to talk,” recalls Philbin. “I had an astrologer on as my first guest and he said, ‘This show’s not going to make it.'”
He fared no better working as the announcer on “The Joey Bishop Show” in 1968, as Bishop blamed Philbin for the show’s then-imminent demise. A Saturday-night gig on a St. Louis TV station led to co-hosting duties on “A.M. Los Angeles” in 1975, but it was his return to New York in 1983 that Philbin regards as the turning point in his profession.
“There were definitely stops and sputters (along the way). My career took a straight line when I came back to host ‘The Morning Show,'” he says, referring to the show that quickly became No. 1 in the New York City market before moving into syndication.
The show’s title was changed to “Live with Regis and Kathie Lee” in 1988, reflecting the addition of his new co-host, Kathie Lee Gifford, who had joined him in 1985. By then, Philbin’s style — an effortless presence equally comfortable speaking to women at home and celebrities in the studio — was firmly established.
And, of course, there was the opening “host chat,” an unscripted free-for-all that Philbin had begun honing on the St. Louis show.
“He has this unique ability to tell a story in the most interesting, self-deprecating way that’s relatable to the audience and whomever he’s talking about or to,” says Kelly Ripa, who became Philbin’s co-host in 2001. “It makes them feel like the most important person in the universe.”
That talent, Ripa says, is admired equally by audiences and guests. “You don’t hear it until there’s a break and the camera goes off, but then the celebrities start paying homage to him. It gives you chills to realize how much they appreciate him.”
In addition to becoming Philbin’s signature, the opening conversation was, in a way, a precursor to reality television. “Years ago, I remember a producer saying, ‘You know, what if we did a show where you did your opening and then we followed you around for the rest of the day?'” Philbin says. “But I couldn’t see it. What would actually happen? But it was the germ of an idea, and it was the beginning of the reality revolution.”
Philbin hasn’t slowed down much these days. He recently debuted as the host of CBS’ “Million Dollar Password” and relishes his role as a mentor to younger hosts such as “American Idol” frontman Ryan Seacrest.
“He has this fearlessness and curiosity,” Seacrest says, “and this ability to be imperfect. He’s honest with the audience and lets them in on it. If something goes wrong, who cares? Regis taught me that as long as you remain confident and confidential with them, the audience is fine.”
And who knows what other revolutions Philbin’s presence will inspire. “For every talk show host, for every performer who comes on the show, it always goes back to Regis,” says Ripa. “He’s that lightning in the bottle.”
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