British-born producer Michael Davies — whose rebooted "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" premieres Wednesday (10:01 p.m. on ABC/7), with Jimmy Kimmel as host and celebrity contestants — changed television in the last century. Davies then made a splash or two since (the various "Talking" series on AMC; "Wife Swap"; "Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen"). He's also an NBC Sports soccer host and commentator.
But "Millionaire" (1999-02), hosted by Regis Philbin, was the monster that ate prime-time, then blazed out after a few seasons. Here is an edited version of our conversation:
Michael, it's been a long time since we last spoke. How have you been?
I lost my father this past weekend. The obituary will say to COVID-19 but it was a combination of factors, including pneumonia, and really, he was 91. That was the real cause.
I am so sorry.
My dad was born in 1929, grew up during the war in London, joined the army out of art school, went to West Africa where he was involved in the relief efforts, became an architect, engineer, and built this amazing life of ours — my brother became a huge Hollywood screenwriter [William Davies of "Johnny English" fame] and my sister [Rebecca de Pont Davies] a mezzo-soprano. I became the black sheep — a game and talk show producer. We came from a very normal suburb of south London where the kids didn't leave to come to America. We were very very fortunate to be raised by two incredible parents [his father, Trevor de Pont Davies, died March 28; his mother, Brenda Jean, died in 2016].
It's a challenging time for you then, on a personal and professional basis.
I've been able to go into postproduction virtually on ['Millionaire'] and just three weeks ago didn't have any idea how to do this. [TV producers are] pushing the limits of what's possible without going into a post-house. Look at how creative all the late-night shows have been.
Ever a thought to pull the plug after the shutdown?
We were fully loaded and ready to go then realized we couldn't have a studio audience and from that moment everything was much simpler because the celebrities' representatives would have asked, are you going to have a studio audience? We were meant to shoot for three days then canceled the last day because we had more than enough for eight episodes.
You've made a few changes. Besides Jimmy, what's a key one?
The original launched pre-social media and a huge effort was put into the app for this. It's going to follow the show every night and give away millions to charity from the celebrity contestants while allowing regular viewers to play from home. It'll start at the end of each show. I saw this as an opportunity to modernize, from the set, lighting, stage. And we did remove the audience from the show three weeks ago [but] we do think the show stands up without one. It was never a happy-clappy show anyway.
The first episode has Eric Stonestreet, Will Forte, later ones Jane Fonda, Anderson Cooper, Andy Cohen, Anthony Anderson, all playing for charities.One of the things that was unsatisfying about the original 'Celebrity' edition was watching the contestant give the [on-screen partner] contestant the answer, so we introduced an element where they could bring the smartest person they know who could sit behind them and help on the first ten questions.
Why Jimmy as host?
You might not remember this but his and my career have been inextricably linked since the mid-90s [then] I developed 'Win Ben Stein's Money' which was just as much a vehicle for Jimmy [who hosted] as it was for Stein. Then I developed 'The Man Show' — and took the pilot to ABC which would have cost me my future prospects there but for 'Millionaire' and [then] on a golf course brought up Jimmy to [then ABC Entertainment co-chief Lloyd Braun] who was looking for a late night host … Jimmy is also a massive fan of 'Millionaire' and was a celebrity contestant on it in, I think, 2001.
And, of course, the Regis question. Did he give you his blessing?
Yes! Regis [now 88] was there with us. He came back the day before we started taping and I spent time with him and Jimmy on the set — he was there for a [story] that'll air on '20/20.' It was important to Jimmy and me. I'm so fond of him and he helped changed my life so it's important we made him feel a part of this.