Why Regis Philbin Was the Key to 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire's' Success

American Broadcasting Companies via Getty Images; Inset: Desiree Navarro/WireImage
Regis Philbin on 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire'; Michael Davies (inset)

Executive producer Michael Davies fondly recalls the "last great broadcaster," who died July 24 at age 88.

A lot of people know Regis Philbin asked to be the host of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. What they don't know is that he was always the first choice. Regis and I had already talked about him hosting a reboot of The $64,000 Question I'd been developing, but it was clear from the early run-throughs that the show couldn't work. No one would ever take any risks! So when I saw a tape of Millionaire in the U.K., it solved all of my problems. 

I was in one those old ABC Entertainment Center offices — the one on Avenue of the Stars that's since been consumed by the CAA Death Star — when Regis called. Not many people saw Millionaire the way we did, certainly not ABC. But Regis knew it was the modern making of one of those great game shows of the 1950s. Over that call, he sold me on something I'd already been evangelizing. If he was my first choice before that conversation, he was my only choice by the end of it.

Regis had way more faith in the show than I did. He said from day one, "We are going to save the network." Executives thought he was joking. He wasn't. Regis knew from his vast experience how special what we had was. But what he didn't realize is how much of what we had came from him — especially when people deliberated over their answers. Regis' lack of patience added to the tension of Millionaire. He could not bear how long contestants took to answer the questions! They would take longer and longer the more money was at stake. And for those questions, we had those tense, pulsating music cues play. Once, when one contestant was taking a particularly long time to weigh their options, I saw a smile flash on Regis' face. When I asked him about it, he announced that he'd finally come up with lyrics to the music: "If you don't know, then you should go."

I don't mean this at all pejoratively, because we love our grandparents, but Regis was 68 when he started the show. It was the most modern game show that had ever been on TV, so, to some extent, this was Grandpa operating the spaceship. Having him in the seat gave the audience an enormous amount of comfort, but sometimes Grandpa just wanted the contestants to get to the point. 

In many ways, Regis was the last great broadcaster. He was the last person who came from a time and place where the job was to appeal to everyone — and he did it without being soft or corny or anybody but himself. The man who crossed Columbus Avenue to come to work from his condo on 67th Street was the same man who sat in that chair. It sounds easy, but you can count the people on one hand who are truly capable of doing it. I might have gotten Millionaire on the air without Regis. It could have gone 10 episodes, but we certainly wouldn't have made 400 primetime episodes in three seasons. No one but Regis could have done that. 

A version of this story first appeared in the July 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.