Regis Philbin, television personality and master storyteller, passed away Friday evening. His easy smile, self-deprecating humor, and spontaneity made for a winning combination both on his game shows, including Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and his talk shows Live with Regis and Kathie Lee and later Live! with Regis and Kelly. He was 88 years old.
Born on August 25, 1931, in Manhattan, New York, his name is apocryphally owed to his father, Francis Philbin, who loved his time at the prestigious Regis High School on the Upper East Side. Growing up, Regis attended Catholic day schools. He went on to the University of Notre Dame — a school whose sports teams would remain a lifelong passion of his — and graduated in 1953 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. Afterward, during the Korean War, he served two years in the United States Navy as a supply officer.
Following his stint in the military, he pursued the flashing lights of showbiz, where he would remain for much of the rest of his life. In an interview with Larry King in 2017, Regis recounted an exchange he had with a Marine major. As Regis prepared to separate from the service, the major, “tough as nails,” asked what he was going to do with the rest of his life. Regis responded, “I’d like to go into television but I haven’t had the chance.” The major replied, through clenched teeth, “Don’t you know you can have anything you want in this life? You’ve only got to want it bad enough. Now do you want it?”
In the years that followed, Regis proved he did want it, as his was a difficult journey to become the holder of the Guinness World Record for “Most Hours on Camera,” tallying over 16,300. Starting as a page for The Tonight Show, he would go on to take gigs as a writer, talk-show sidekick, and local talk-show host. His first national attempts at fame, in the 1960s, failed to take. It was the success of the morning talk show A.M. Los Angeles that elevated his name, and in 1988 Live with Regis and Kathie Lee was born. When Kathie Lee Gifford left the show in 2000, Kelly Ripa came in and Live! with Regis and Kelly continued on until Regis’s retirement in 2011.
When he wasn’t on a talk show, Regis could be found hosting a variety of game shows. The most successful was Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. The Game Show Network credits WWTBAM with revivifying the game-show genre. Regis’s catchphrase “Is that your final answer?” stands alongside the Jeopardy theme at the pinnacle of game-show lore.
Late night loved Regis as much as the mornings did, with his 150 appearances on David Letterman’s show. Eulogizing, Letterman said of him, “Regis is in the same category as Carson. Superlative. He was on our show a million times, always the best guest we ever had, charming, lovable and could take a punch. When he retired, I lost interest in television. I love him.”
A lovable curmudgeon about all things technology and an admirer of a well-told story, Regis’s freewheeling personality on air made it feel to the viewers as if he and they were family seated together at the breakfast table, talking over coffee. Having learned on The Joey Bishop Show the art of being the butt of the joke, Regis did what few of his peers could do: make fun of himself good-naturedly. His self-awareness and humility won over his audience and guests time and again. There will never be another.
He is survived by his wife, Joy, and three children. Requiescat in pace, Mr. Philbin.