Morning after morning, Regis Philbin would help America brace itself for another workday with a contagious blend of enthusiasm, barbed humor and laments about the mundane ups and downs of everyday life — a visit from his mother-in-law, another tough loss for his bad-luck New York Mets, the wallet he accidentally left in a rental car.
As other morning television personalities came and went, Philbin reigned for decades as the comfortable and sometimes cantankerous guest in living rooms across the country, hosting “Live” first with Kathie Lee Gifford and, later, Kelly Ripa. The show was unrehearsed, unscripted and often veered wildly depending on whatever perceived indignity or slight had come his way. Studio audiences related to it all.
Philbin earned Emmy nominations by the armful, hosted New Year’s Eve specials, rode in parades, set a record for the most face-time hours on television and helped reinvigorate prime-time game shows with “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” a runaway hit. When he stepped away for good in 2011, it was an emotional goodbye that tugged on many viewers.
In poor health in recent years, Philbin died Friday of natural causes, his family said in a statement provided to The Times. He was 88.
“Our hearts are broken to learn the news about Regis’ passing,” a representative for “Live” said in a statement to The Times. “Regis originated ‘Live’ as a local New York broadcast back in 1983, and for more than 28 years he poured his heart and soul into the show. Many of the members of our staff began their careers at ‘Live’ with Regis, and were lucky enough to learn from a master broadcaster.”
Philbin’s family thanked his fans and supporters.
“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,” Philbin’s family said.
Known affectionately as “Reege” and “Outregis,” Philbin got his start in television as a page at NBC Studios in New York. He made a name for himself guest-hosting “The Tonight Show” and serving as comedian Joey Bishop’s sidekick and announcer on “The Joey Bishop Show” in the 1960s. “Late Show” host David Letterman regarded Philbin as “a master communicator” and had him on his show more than any other guest in the show’s history.
In a 2000 Times interview, when asked what made him likable, Philbin seemed embarrassed by the question. “I don’t know. It’s a hard thing to answer about yourself,” he said. “I guess it’s good genes. My parents brought me up well, to have pleasure when making people happy.” Then, he seemed to pause and reconsider, exclaiming (as he was wont to do): “Oh, no! I can see the headlines now! ‘Regis Thinks He’s a Nice Guy! Who Does He Think He Is?!’”
At age 80, and after more than 56 years on TV in Los Angeles and New York, Philbin departed “Live!” during an emotional finale. Some said Philbin was finally tired of the daily grind and the early hours and wanted an easier life. He was replaced by the affable NFL player-turned-analyst Michael Strahan, who co-hosted with Ripa until he bowed out in 2016.
Health issues dogged Philbin since the 1990s. In 1993, he underwent emergency angioplasty to unblock a heart vessel. In 2007, he had to have triple-bypass heart surgery. Two years later, he had hip replacement surgery, followed by the removal of a potentially fatal blood clot in 2010. He struggled with high cholesterol, blood pressure and severe acid reflux.
Philbin, who co-hosted New Year’s Eve spectacles and was a Rose Parade grand marshal, earned 21 Daytime Emmy nominations, winning four and a lifetime achievement award. He was such a consistent presence on television that, in 2004, he set the Guinness World Record for the most face time on camera when he logged his 15,600th hour.
Philbin also amassed a hefty prime-time following on ABC’s wildly popular game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” which he hosted for three seasons starting in 1999.
He said he took the “Millionaire” gig because his wife thought he needed something to fill his afternoons. “She was out many afternoons, so she said, ‘Why don’t you find something to do?’ I thought it might be something to kill, say, one afternoon a week. I didn’t anticipate the hit that ‘Millionaire’ was going to be.”
Philbin wrote two memoirs, “I’m Only One Man!” and “Who Wants to Be Me?” that recalled his upbringing in the Bronx and credited his parents — first-generation Americans with roots in Ireland and Italy — with his rich gusto for telling stories.
He was born Regis Francis Xavier Philbin in New York on Aug. 25, 1931, named after Regis High School, a Jesuit school his father attended in Manhattan. After graduating from Notre Dame in 1952, he spent two years in the U.S. Navy as a supply officer.
While based in San Diego, he started reading about the opportunities in the still-evolving world of television. On his last day in the service, a tough-talking major asked him what he was going to do with the rest of his life.
“I’d like to go into television,” he said hesitantly, “but I don’t know what I could do. I’m not a comedian. I’m not a singer. I’m not a dancer. I’m none of these things but still I’d like to go into it but I don’t know if I have any talent. [The major] said, ‘Don’t you know you could have anything you want in this life, you’ve only got to want it bad enough. Now do you want it?’... and I said, ‘Yes, sir. I want it.’”
Philbin is survived by his wife of 50 years, Joy Philbin; three daughters, J.J., Joanna and Amy; and four grandchildren.
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