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Regis Philbin, television personality and host, dies at 88

Regis Philbin appears on his farewell episode of

Regis Philbin appears on his farewell episode of "Live! with Regis and Kelly" in New York, Nov. 18, 2011. Credit: AP/Charles Sykes

Regis Philbin, the founding host of daytime's "Live!" and the U.S. version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" — not to mention among TV's most beloved figures — died Friday. He was 88.

In a statement first released to People magazine on Saturday, Philbin's family said, "We are deeply saddened to share that our beloved Regis Philbin passed away last night of natural causes, one month shy of his 89th birthday. His family and friends are forever grateful for the time we got to spend with him — for his warmth, his legendary sense of humor, and his singular ability to make every day into something worth talking about. We thank his fans and admirers for their incredible support over his 60-year career and ask for privacy as we mourn his loss."

Among the most successful and durable hosts in TV history, Philbin's career spanned six decades. Ubiquitous, seemingly omnipresent — in daytime and night — he would be compared to Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin, then Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, but Philbin was also sui generis: Unlike none of them, unlike anyone, really. Philbin was the undisputed master of something called "host chat," or the extemporaneous conversation that goes on between co-hosts that relies on wit, speed and an unerring ability to pull an anecdote or story out of thin air. To do this well on live TV, as Philbin did for so many weekday mornings, was a feat that influenced a generation of broadcasters, including David Letterman.

An interview with Philbin could be an entertainment in itself, almost like getting one's own private edition of "Live!" Yet push him slightly on something serious and he invariably pushed back. Did he ever consider his legacy? "No, no, no, I really don't," he once told Newsday. "'Live!' is guerrilla television, guerrilla television!"

The writer David Halberstam once called Philbin "the Willie Loman of broadcasting." Philbin readily agreed: "That's right on the mark."

Philbin also changed the course of TV history, at a moment — the turn of the century — when TV began to wonder what it would become or where it would go. Philbin, of all people, would be the answer, at least over the course of a few surreal years. On Aug.16,1999, when ABC launched an American version of the game show, "Millionaire," there had been zero expectations, yet it was an instant success, and would become the highest-rated prime-time series of the 1999—2000 season (29 million viewers). ABC pumped out more editions, filling more nights. By 2001 — just before the crash in 2002 — Philbin himself literally filled the ABC prime-time schedule.

"I had great hopes for that show," he once told Newsday. Regrets? He had a few, particularly the way it made ABC complacent ("They stopped experimenting and looking around" for new hits) and how it was scheduled ("I had a feeling four nights a week would be tough sledding.")

Born on Manhattan's West Side, his former Marine father (of Irish extraction) was a stevedore and his mother (of Italian extraction) was a homemaker. After first moving to the Bronx (where he graduated from Cardinal Hayes High School), his family moved to Mineola (after Regis had started college). Compelled rather than drawn to a career in broadcasting, Philbin would later graduate from his beloved Notre Dame in 1953 and after a stint in the Navy spent a big part of the next 20 years searching for respect and a steady job. Neither came easily.

The TV curriculum vitae is a long one and includes stints in San Diego as a popular news anchor and host of a Saturday late-night show; brief runs as a talk-show host in Los Angeles, including a four-year run as co-host of "Live!" progenitor, "A.M. Los Angeles"; a very ill-fated run as a syndicated late-night host (1964-65) competing against "Tonight," and yet another one from 1967 to 1969 as announcer on "The Joey Bishop Show," which was ABC cannon fodder thrown at "Tonight."

"Bishop" was a bitter experience, which Philbin rarely spoke of. When it failed, "suddenly I became the reason why," he would say. "I got saddled with that, and because of that, I was not taken seriously for my own individual talents by guys" in the press for years.

Then, on April 4, 1983, Philbin started something called "The Morning Show" with Cyndy Garvey (and two years later with Kathie Lee Gifford). He would eventually insist on moving the show to New York from Los Angeles, reasoning that it had to be "live" to take advantage of his host chat skills. TV history —  an indelible part of it — thus began. For the next quarter century, from a street level studio on West 67th Street, Philbin and Gifford, then Philbin and Kelly Ripa, held forth in a ritualized talk formula that invariably began with a slurp of coffee (Reege) followed by, "So, what did you do last night?" As the response proceeded, he might laugh, or his eyes might roll, or in mock exasperation he'd appeal to the audience, even finally to Gifford/Ripa, if either plausibility or time began to stretch. Then, his turn:  A master storyteller, Philbin could find drama (of sorts) from dinner the night before, or from a stroll down Columbus Avenue.  

 He long talked of quitting, but no one ever took him seriously, until 2011 (at age 80) when he finally said enough, or as he told Newsday, "You're just kind of talked out after a while. You know when I feel it the most? When I wake up in the morning and I say, 'Come on, my God, everyone else is living the good life somewhere, so why don't you relax?'"

No one exactly took that explanation seriously, either: There was speculation of a contractual standoff with WABC/7 (which produced and owned "Live!"), or a standoff with Ripa. There were questions about health (he had had two heart operations, a blood clot removal operation and a hip replacement) and questions over whether Ch. 7 simply wanted to groom a successor — "Oprah" was also wrapping that year, putting pressure on ABC to develop the next iteration of "Live!

But most finally conceded that — like Carson, eventually like Letterman — Philbin managed his own exit. After years of threatening to leave, it was — at long last — time. "That tension has always existed in Regis, that 'I'm a star and nobody gives me credit','' his longtime "Millionaire" producer, Michael Davies, once explained. "That's what he is as a personality, and that tension at the heart of his performance — 'the sun is out, there's a cloud above my head … the sun is out, there's a cloud above my head' — is what makes him so great."

Philbin, who was married twice, is survived by daughters J.J. Philbin and Joanna Philbin, and his wife of 50 years, Joy Philbin. Per People, he was also father to daughter Amy Philbin, whom he shared with his first wife, Catherine Faylen. Philbin and Faylen had another child, son Daniel Philbin, who died in 2014.

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