The highest compliment I can give to anyone in radio or television is to call them A Great Broadcaster. Regis Philbin certainly qualified. Like his hero, Jack Paar, Regis wasn’t known for other talents. He wasn’t a comedian. He couldn’t dance. Despite releasing a record album and doing dates in casinos and nightclubs, he wasn’t a singer. What Regis was good at was being himself on television.
You might not think it’s difficult to wake up every morning and go to a TV studio where you sit on a stool and entertain an audience of millions by just talking for 15 minutes. You’d be wrong. Trust me, I have some experience in this realm, which is why I have so much respect for what Regis did for so long.
Remember, he had no writers. Sure, there were segment producers who prepped him for the guests, but that opening quarter-hour segment, known as Host Chat, was entirely ad-libbed and created by Regis. Not only did he have to live a life interesting enough to give him material each day, he also had to prop up whoever was the co-host sitting next to him. Whether it was Kathie Lee Gifford or Kelly Ripa or myriad guest co-hosts, Regis made them all look better. None of them would have had such career success without him.
As a viewer, all I cared about was hearing Regis tell a story about going out to dinner or a movie or a show — and having some minor thing go wrong. The elevator got stuck. An old friend didn’t recognize him. Joy’s mother came to visit, so he missed the beginning of the Yankees game. It was all relatable, because Regis had the ability to recognize the absurdity of daily life and turn it into TV fodder.
His perceived status as Everyman made him perfect for “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” Make no mistake — that show would not have been the huge phenomenon it was without Regis in the host seat. Already a longtime TV veteran, he knew how to handle the formatics of a broadcast, but he also understood the human drama taking place just a couple of feet away from him. You could see him empathizing with contestants as they struggled with questions, yet he still knew when he could crack a joke to lighten up the proceedings. Once ABC was done with running “Millionaire” on the network, it went into syndication but — as much as I like Meredith Vieira — it wasn’t the same without Regis. None of the five other hosts who’ve taken that seat has been as good, either.
I could go on and on, discussing his on-air mutual-respect love affair with David Letterman, on whose show he guested more than anyone else. Or his years as co-host of the miserable Joey Bishop late night show. Or his work on game shows like “Million Dollar Password.”
Someone at ABC should already be working on a Regis retrospective to run in primetime. The company owns the rights to all those years of morning TV he did, and there would be no shortage of celebrities more than happy to share anecdotes about working with him.
But let me finish with my own Regis story.
One day in the late 1980s, as I was doing my morning radio show on WCXR/Washington, a guy called in (I can’t remember what the topic was) and said his name was Danny Philbin. I replied, “Finally, we’ve found Regis’ long-lost son!” At the time, Regis regularly talked about his two daughters, but never mentioned any other offspring, so I assumed he had none. But it turned out Danny was Regis’ son from his first marriage. He’d been confined to a wheelchair after losing both his legs to a spinal cord defect, but had a thriving career at the Department of Defense’s public affairs office at the Pentagon. We chatted on the air for a few minutes and I wrapped things up by kiddingly asking him to get his father to be a guest on my show. Danny laughed and said, “Sure, I’ll get right on that!”
I didn’t think much more of it until a couple of days later when Danny called again, this time to give me the name of Regis’ personal assistant. He told me to contact her, mention his name, and she’d set up a time for his father to call into my show. I thanked Danny profusely, hung up, then called Regis’ office. The woman who answered said yes, she’d been expecting my call, and we made the arrangements.
Later that week, I was playing The Harris Challenge on my show. In those days, I had all sorts of sound effects, including one of a wheel similar to those used in carnivals, with pegs sticking out that clicked each time they went past a flexible pointer. I’d pretend to spin the wheel, let it come to stop, then say we were playing for prize package number two, or four, or whatever, and my sidekick Dave would announce what that prize was. It was all theater-of-the-mind, as we really only had one prize — tickets to a movie or a concert or dinner at a restaurant — so the arbitrary number I chose changed nothing.
On this particular morning, I spun the wheel and said it had stopped on prize package number three. Dave apologized, but said he didn’t have anything for number three. He had one, two, four, and five, but no number three. In mock shock, I asked my producer if she had the information. Nope. Neither did John, my newsman. That’s when I said, “What about you, Regis, do you know what’s in prize package number three?”
Without missing a beat, Regis — waiting patiently on the phone — answered, “Yes, Paul, I do,” and read the information we’d prepped him with ahead of time. It went exactly as I planned, a complete surprise to the audience. We all laughed, and then I spent several minutes in a very nice conversation with Regis, in which he said Danny had told him how much he liked my show, and I returned the compliment by telling him how much I liked Danny. I asked Regis where he’d taken Joy to dinner the night before, hoping he’d launch into one of his typical rants, but he demurred, saying he was saving that story for when he got on the air about 20 minutes later. At some point, I realized I was way behind on commercials, and Regis had to get his makeup on, so we wrapped things up.
It was the most talked-about segment of my show for quite a while. I later recreated the missing-prize-package routine with other guests, including Maury Povich, Connie Chung, and James Carville. They were all good, but not as great as that first time with Regis.
In succeeding years, Regis returned to my show several times. He never did it to promote anything. He had no agenda. But he was always fun and willing to play along.
In other words, he was just Regis, as money-in-the-bank a guest as he was a host — A Great Broadcaster.