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New York says good bye to Regis Philbin

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regis Credit: Getty Images

The James Brown of television - the hardest-working man on the sound stage - is stepping down Friday after 28 years on his morning show and more than 50 years in the business.

Regis Philbin, 80, the perpetually glib and good-natured tout of all things New York, will be sorely missed, lamented anguished fans.

His final appearance on "Live! With Regis & Kelly" will be full of "surprises" for Philbin, who told reporters Thursday he was feeling "pretty good" but wasn't looking forward to this day. His next adventure won't be quite as glamorous: promoting his new book "How I Got This Way."

Philbin's descriptions of New York nightlife, aglitter with casually dropped celebrity names, beckoned Michael Sneed, 26, now a marketing manager on the Upper East Side, to NYC from Buckhead, Ga.

As a child, Sneed marveled at Philbin's ability to remain utterly genuine while relating equally well to an astonishingly diverse array of people ("My mom and I laughed at all the same jokes"), and how he always had an amusing pocket comment at the ready no matter the situation.

"When I think of people I want to emulate, he's at the top of the list," said Sneed. "In my profession, I strive to be as personable and to make conversation with anyone, just as he does."

Regis made the extremely difficult seem easy, acknowledged Hal Boedeker, a television critic for the Orlando Sentinel. Hosting a show that was a reliably pleasant and reassuring oasis from the anxieties of the day, "makes TV look good," Boedeker said admiringly.

After all his time on the air, "we have no idea what his political views are and in this day and age, that's pretty nice, isn't it?" he added. Charming, non-controversial and determinedly cheerful in an increasingly polarized society - and even in the face of his own shared-with-the-viewers health problems - Philbin eluded buffoonery while "being willing to fall on his face," Boedeker observed.

"It took a lot of chutzpah for him to stand there the other day and sing with Tony Bennett, but Regis loves show business and he thinks he can do it all. He's a trooper," Boedeker said.

With his gushing discussions of Broadway parties and good times in Gotham, Philbin rivaled Mayor Michael Bloomberg as New York's biggest booster.

Philbin was not a practitioner of the penetrating, "gotcha" interview, but his amiability is one of the reasons that show business titans such as Robert De Niro, Liam Neeson and Michael Douglas stopped by "Live" recently to pay their respects to the departing lion, Boedeker said.

One reason fans bemoan Philbin's departure ("it makes me feel old!" declared 26-year-old Sneed) is he represents the end of the era of the "old school" broadcasters - raconteurs such as Jack Paar, Steve Allen, Merv Griffin, and Johnny Carson - who boasted broad, cross-generational and cross-cultural appeal in a time the country felt more unified.

"That's not what TV is anymore," observed Ron Simon, curator at the Paley Center for Media. "Now it's targeted to your specific tastes."

While Philbin's chemistry with his female co-hosts was magic, Philbin was not the romantic heartthrob. Rather, he was the working-class kid made good, the boy with moxie and brains who worked harder than everyone else and showed up, day after day after day.

And boy did he work hard. Philbin dethroned Hugh Downs in 2004 to set a Guinness World Record for "Most Hours on Camera" - a record he still holds. Yet, even as he became a millionaire himself and clearly enjoyed the life of a bon vivant, he remained a little wide-eyed and filled with "gee whiz" glee at his own good fortune.

Most people think of Philbin as a morning host, but "his big break came with 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire' - that's when he got the prime-time audience," Simon reminded. In 1999 and 2000, "Millionaire" generated endless "lifeline" jokes and ruled the ratings.

"During those two years, he was the most popular entertainer in the country," Simon noted.

Philbin has said his greatest regret was not having gone national earlier in his career, but his ability to strike his stride later in life is also no doubt a source of hope for many.

Speculation abounds as to who might replace the irreplaceable Regis. Andy Cohen of Bravo, Dana Carvey and Jerry Seinfeld have all been mentioned.

The syndicated show taped at WABC "needs someone with more star appeal," sighed Michelle Martin, 25, a software sales executive from the Upper East Side, noting the folksy show is becoming increasingly passe to people her age. Martin would like to see someone like "Ryan Seacrest, Nick Lachey or Mario Lopez," take over. "It's time for that show to update," said Martin. As for the "legendary" Regis, Martin said she's sure he won't fade from view completely.

"I'm sure we'll see him hosting awards shows," she said.

Regis' New York City

• Raised Catholic, Regis attended Our Lady of Solace grammar school and Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx. He has brought home a lot of Benjamins for his alma mater, winning $50,000 for Hayes on Celebrity Jeopardy and another $175,000 after answering questions on "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?"

• He appears frequently on the "Late Show with David Letterman," where he is referred to as "the guest from hell" for his ability to go mano a mano with the acerbic late night host.

• His father may have been Irish, but Regis clearly favors Italian food. (Who can blame him?) Restaurants where Philbin has been sighted in NYC include Valbella Ristorante on West 13th Street, Il Tinello Ristorante on West 56th Street and Osteria del Circo on West 55th Street.

• Philbin and his second wife, Joy (he has four children from both marriages), live on the 51st floor of a modern Upper West Side high rise close to ABC studios. Joy told Architectural Digest that she vetoed silk bedspreads because Regis, who sometimes taped three or four shows a day, popped home for much-needed naps between tapings. "My husband often lies face down with his makeup on, so we had to pick a fabric that was elegant but washable," Joy told the mag.

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