Obituary: Regis Philbin, veteran US breakfast TV host and presenter of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Regis Philbin, US TV host. Born: 25 August, 1931 in The Bronx, New York. Died: 24 July, 2020 in Greenwich, Connecticut, aged 88

Regis Philbin has died at the age of 88 (Picture: AP/Eric Jamison)
Regis Philbin has died at the age of 88 (Picture: AP/Eric Jamison)

US TV host Regis Philbin, who shared his life with breakfast TV viewers for decades and hosted the American version of the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? has died aged 88

Philbin died of natural causes just over a month before his 89th birthday, according to a statement from his family.

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Celebrities routinely stopped by on Philbin’s eponymous morning show, but its heart was in the first 15 minutes, when he and co-hosts Kathie Lee Gifford or Kelly Ripa bantered about the events of the day.

Viewers laughed at Philbin’s mock indignation over not getting the best seat at a restaurant the night before, or being henpecked by his partner.

“Even I have a little trepidation,” he said in 2008, when asked how he does a show every day. You wake up in the morning and you say: ‘What did I do last night that I can talk about? What’s new in the paper? How are we gonna fill that 20 minutes?’

“I’m not gonna say it always works out brilliantly, but somehow we connect more often than we don’t.”

He hosted Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee from 1985-2000, and then Live! With Regis and Kelly from 2001 until his retirement in 2011.

After hustling into an entertainment career by parking cars at a Los Angeles TV station, Philbin logged more than 15,000 hours on the air, earning him recognition in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most broadcast hours logged by a TV personality, a record previously held by Hugh Downs.

“Every day, you see the record shattered, pal!” Philbin would tell viewers. “One more hour!”

He was host of the prime-time game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? which was US television’s most popular show at the turn of the century. ABC aired the family-friendly programme as often as five times a week. It generated around one billion dollars in revenue in its first two years – ABC had said it was the more profitable show in TV history - and helped make Philbin himself a millionaire many times over.

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Philbin was even a fashion trendsetter; he put out a line of monochramactic shirts and ties to match what he wore on the set.“You wait a lifetime for something like that and sometimes it never happens,” Philbin said in 1999.

In 2008, he returned briefly to the quiz show format with Million Dollar Password.

He also picked up the Lifetime Achievement Award from the daytime Emmys.

Regis Francis Xavier Philbin grew up in the New York borough of the Bronx, the son of Italian-Irish parents and named for the Roman Catholic boys high school his father attended.

He went to Notre Dame University, and was such an enthusiastic alum, he once said he wanted his ashes scattered there.

After leaving the Navy in 1955, Philbin talked his way into a meeting with the stationmaster at KCOP-TV in Los Angeles.

He got a job parking cars, then progressed into work as a stagehand, courier, news writer and producer of a sports telecast. When its sportscaster did not show up one day, Philbin filled in.

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Philbin got far more on-air experience in San Diego in the early 1960s, when KOGO-TV began producing The Regis Philbin Show for a national audience.

The programme of music and celebrity interviews was taped two weeks before each airing. It was cancelled after four months.

In 1967, Philbin was hired as the announcer and sidekick to comic Joey Bishop on his network show. When he heard that he was going to be fired because of poor ratings, Philbin tearfully announced he was leaving on July 12 1968, walking off during a live broadcast. He returned three days later after letters of support poured in.

He and Bishop had bad blood. Bishop called Philbin an “ingrate” for walking off during a salary dispute and later badmouthing him.

Philbin’s second wife, Joy, was Bishop’s assistant.

After three years of commuting to St Louis each week for a local Saturday night show, Philbin became a star in local morning television – first in Los Angeles, then in New York. In 1985, he teamed with Kathie Lee Johnson, a year before she married former football star Frank Gifford, and the show went national in 1988.

Philbin’s “sarcastic playfulness” endeared him to fans, Good Housekeeping magazine wrote in 2000.

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“He’s the little guy protesting the injustices of life, from crime waves to paper cuts,” the magazine wrote. “The ranting is punctuated with Kathie Lee’s familiar cry of ‘Oh, Reege,’ uttered sometimes in sisterly sympathy and sometimes in teacherly admonishment.”

The gentle bickering and eye-rolling exasperation in Philbin and Gifford’s onscreen relationship caught the imagination of the viewing public.

Gifford left the show in 2000. After a trial period for a replacement, soap star Ripa filled the slot.

Despite hosting the series Regis Philbin’s Health Styles, in the 1980s, Philbin had health issues. Doctors performed an angioplasty to relieve a blocked artery in 1993. He underwent bypass surgery in 2007 at age 75.

He is survived by his wife, Joy, and their daughters JJ and Joanna Philbin, as well as his daughter Amy Philbin with his first wife, Catherine Faylen,

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