The untold truth of Regis Philbin

Regis Philbin is a textbook case that proves the theory that talent plus tenacity will eventually lead to success. For Philbin, though, it took awhile. According to CNN, he was in his 70s when his TV career hit its peak in the 2000s after decades toiling in regional markets, ranging from San Diego, Calif. to St. Louis, Mo.

In an interview with the Seattle Times, Philbin said that out of all his various achievements in broadcasting, it was being tapped to host the ABC game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire that he considered to be his greatest achievement. The show was such a monumental success that the network eventually aired the show five nights a week in primetime, delivering ratings that crushed the competition. '"'Regis saved the network!' I used to walk around saying that. I was a big man! I was a giant!" said Philbin. "It was a wonderful time in a broadcaster's life to get a show like that. Wow, it was dynamite."

A ubiquitous presence on national television since the 1980s, there's still a lot that even Philbin's biggest fans may not know about the veteran broadcaster, who turned 88 in August 2019. Read on to learn the untold truth of TV legend Regis Philbin.

The truth about Regis Philbin's lifelong love of Notre Dame

As ESPN noted, Regis Philbin graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1953, earning a degree in sociology and playing on the college tennis team. Since graduating, Philbin remained a lifelong supporter of the school's famed football team, the Fighting Irish. In the 2012 interview, Philbin had recently exited Live! with Regis and Kelly, and the TV icon lamented no longer having a television platform on which to heap praise on his beloved team. "Notre Dame is having a great season and I'm not there to shoot my mouth off with it! That bothers me!" Philbin joked to the outlet. "I know I got looks from [producer Michael] Gelman and Kelly Ripa when I would bring up the Irish, but I can't believe this season!"

As his viewers well knew, Philbin frequently talked up the Notre Dame football team on the air. "After 20 years of eating crow and watching this team go down, it's a big year for all of us," Philbin declared of Notre Dame's undefeated season. Unfortunately, the team was subsequently forced to forfeit that entire season and more due to an academic misconduct scandal. Philbin could not have been happy.

Regis Philbin needed a pep talk to pursue his TV dreams

After graduating from Notre Dame, Regis Philbin served as a supply officer in the U.S. Navy, a Lieutenant Junior Grade. As he told Cherwell, he "had to do two years in the Navy after Notre Dame because we were at war with Korea." After completing his commitment, Philbin was preparing to return home when a Marine Major — "a very tough guy" — asked him what he was planning to do with the rest of his life. 

Philbin told the officer that he wasn't really sure, but was considering a career in the burgeoning new medium of television. "He said, 'Don't you know you can have anything you want in this life? You've only got to want it bad enough. Now do you want it?'"

Philbin was hesitant, explaining that he had no experience and no talent as a performer. The officer, Philbin recalled, "looked at me right in the eye and he said, 'I said do you want it?!' I said, 'Yes, sir (trembling), I want it.' And that was the first time that I was able to tell anybody yes, that's what I want."

His TV debut was a fluke

When he decided to pursue a career in television, Regis Philbin did not begin at the top. "I started in 1955 as [an NBC] page over at 30 Rock, so it's been a long time," Philbin told the The San Diego Tribune over five decades later in 2011.

Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter for a feature on former NBC pages who'd gone on to great success, Philbin admitted he was starstruck by all the celebrities he would encounter on a daily basis. He recalled that "it was a thrill because you never knew who would come in."

Philbin remembered the time singer Eddie Fisher filled in to host Perry Como's show when the crooner went on vacation. Philbin was enlisted to hold an elevator for Fisher, with the episode's final shot featuring Fisher weaving through the crowd before disappearing into the waiting elevator. Philbin, keeping the doors open for Fisher, wound up appearing onscreen in what would be his television debut. "I was thrilled," said Philbin, adding, "I ran to call my mother to see if she'd seen me on TV. And she said, 'Yeah, yeah, but where was Eddie going?'"

Regis Philbin's first real on-air appearance was an accident, too

While Regis Philbin holding an elevator door for a celebrity as an NBC page was technically his first time on the air, his official debut in a broadcasting capacity came shortly after, when he landed a job writing for Los Angeles, Calif. talk show host Tom Duggan. According to Michael Essany's biography on Philbin, it wasn't long after he got the gig before Duggan missed his curtain call ("reportedly the consequence of his penchant for hard liquor," Essany wrote). With Duggan a no-show, Philbin was asked to fill in.

A retrospective in the Metropolitan News-Enterprise quotes Philbin recounting in a book that he "was so nervous" he feared he would "have a heart attack right there on the air." According to Essany's book, Philbin was subsequently hired by his former employers at NBC, where he spent a brief stint as announcer for The Tonight Show.

Philbin was eventually hired to host his own talk show in San Diego, Calif. airing Saturday nights. The show's budget was negligible, reported ABC 10 News San Diego, with Philbin acting as host, writer, producer, and talent booker.

The surprising truth behind Regis Philbin's signature 'host chat'

It was while hosting The Regis Philbin Show in San Diego, Calif. that Regis Philbin first developed what would come to be known as his signature "host chat," in which he'd open each show by chatting off the cuff about whatever was on his mind at that moment, usually what he had done the night before. Philbin's "host chat" was partially a product of necessity — he didn't even have writers at the start of his chat show career. "It was only one person," Philbin told ABC 10 News San Diego, speaking in the third person of the lack of staff and resources. "Regis had no one."

Philbin expanded on the origins of "host chat" in a talk with the Television Academy, telling the organization that Tonight Show host Jack Paar's unscripted stream-of-consciousness monologues were also a key influence in developing the impromptu segments. "I thought, because he was making it so informal — he was just telling a story — I thought, 'Maybe I could do that,'" Philbin said. 

After a successful run hosting his own show, which he eventually took to Los Angeles, Calif., Philbin caught a big break when he was hired to be the sidekick on a new talk show competing with Tonight, starring comedian Joey Bishop, a member of Frank Sinatra's "Rat Pack."

A legendary live TV moment cemented Regis Philbin's fan appeal

ABC's The Joey Bishop Show trailed behind Johnny Carson's Tonight Show in the ratings. According to The Hollywood Reporter, "an ABC exec or two had been bum-rapping [Regis] and urging Joey to replace him 'for the good of the show.'" That led to one of television's most infamous moments when the miffed sidekick quit on the air, walking off the show mid-broadcast.

Philbin recalled the incident in a 2006 interview for the Television Academy. "Well, I was hearing things in the hallway that maybe I was to blame," he said. "Finally, I just decided I was going to just walk off the show... it was hurtful to hear that I'm holding this whole thing back." According to Philbin, ABC was flooded with viewer mail urging the network to rehire him. "I was gone for a week and then I came back," said Philbin.

Decades later, Bishop (above right) appeared to still hold a grudge. Speaking with Ed Bark of the Dallas Morning News, Bishop, then 80, called Philbin an "ingrate," claiming he left because of "a salary dispute." Philbin, he snarked, "gives lots of hope to people who have no talent."

Was there something more shady behind Regis Philbin's infamous on-air walkout?

In his 2011 memoir How I Got This Way, Philbin offered a very different account of his headline-grabbing on-air walkout from The Joey Bishop Show. In an excerpt (via NPR), Philbin laid the whole thing at Bishop's feet.

"Bishop said, 'You're going to walk off the show. You're going to be angry about what you heard in the hallway — that ABC doesn't like you and that you're not doing the job. But I'm going to bring you back because I think you're doing the job,'" wrote Philbin, insisting Bishop himself was responsible for the ruse. This, added Philbin, presented a win-win for Bishop. "In other words, Joey was making himself a hero and also getting some attention for the show [thinking], 'Maybe people would tune into see what happens,'" he wrote.

"But he did bring me back," added Philbin. "It's just a show business stunt to attract attention and build a rating." However, the stunt — if it actually went down as Philbin said it did — didn't improve the show's ratings, noted the The New York Times' obituary of Bishop; it was cancelled in 1969 after just two struggling seasons. 

Ed Bark of the Dallas Morning News later cited Philbin's "bad-mouthing [of] Bishop in a book" as the source of Bishop's lingering ire towards Philbin. So, does that mean Bishop was calling Philbin a liar, or was he just upset at the blown secret? 

Regis Philbin: The traveling TV host

After the cancellation of The Joey Bishop Show, Regis Philbin bounced around various regional television markets. Philbin told CNN's Larry King Live that at one point in the 1970s, he was hosting a show in Los Angeles, Calif. while simultaneously hosting another in St. Louis, Mo. That involved some serious logistics. 

"I would jump on a plane on Fridays and fly to St. Louis, do one show Friday night, one show Saturday afternoon, the live show Saturday night and then Sunday afternoon, one more show, and then fly back to L.A.," Philbin explained. He recalled that time in his life to be particularly hectic, and not conducive to his family life with his wife Joy Philbin and their children. "And so I did all those things, and I had the thing in St. Louis, too, so I was really whipping around the country trying to make a living," he told King, recalling how he was "flying to wherever I could get a job, and then flying home when I could."

That would change, noted NPR, when Philbin began partnering with Kathie Lee Gifford in 1985 on The Morning Show. Renamed Live! with Regis and Kathie Lee three years later, it returned him to national exposure — and, perhaps more importantly, a steady gig in a single zip code.

A star on the Walk of Fame was better late than never for Regis Philbin

The 1980s and 1990s saw Regis Philbin experience his greatest success yet thanks to Live! with Regis and Kathie Lee. The duo ruled the morning airwaves until Gifford exited the show in 2000, with Kelly Ripa brought in as Philbin's new co-host. In the midst of all this, Philbin was tapped to host a new ABC game show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, which became a ratings blockbuster and a pop-culture phenomenon. 

In 2003, Philbin was honored with his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. As the Midland Register-Telegram reported, such luminaries as Disney chairman Michael Eisner, talk show host Larry King and comedian Don Rickles were on hand to attend the ceremony. 

"I guess they've loosened up the rules lately to include people like me, but I'm grateful for it and it's a big thrill," quipped Philbin when he received the 2,222nd star on the Walk of Fame. "But I don't consider myself to be in their league." At age 71, Philbin had finally arrived.

Regis Philbin knows the highs and lows of being David Letterman's pal

During the first decade of the 2000s, septuagenarian Regis Philbin was busier than ever. In addition to Live! and Millionaire (which, noted Forbes, at its peak was airing five nights a week, each episode seen by 30 million viewers), Philbin had other irons in the fire. These ranged from music albums, to hosting the first season of America's Got Talent, to producing exercise videos.

Meanwhile, Philbin was also a frequent guest on The Late Show with David Letterman, continuing the regular appearances he made on David Letterman's previous NBC show, Late Night. When Letterman said goodbye to The Late Show in 2015, he was joined by Philbin during the monologue in his penultimate broadcast. As ABC News reported, Letterman told viewers Philbin had appeared on the show 150 times, more than anyone else in the show's history. "It actually seemed like more than 150, but we looked it up, and it was only 150," joked Letterman, who typically feigned annoyance at Philbin's antics.

The rapport between the pair was on display in a 2004 episode, featuring Letterman offering a backhanded apology after prank-calling Philbin and "making [him], yet again, the butt of a joke." However, the late night legend did let it slip that he held Philbin in "the highest regard ... as a human being and a broadcaster," even going so far as to say his old comedy punching bag was "the best." 

Was Kelly Ripa really miffed at Regis Philbin for leaving their show?

Kathie Lee Gifford left Live! in 2000, and in 2001 soap actress Kelly RIpa was tapped to be her replacement on the retitled Live! with Regis and Kelly. Regis Philbin and Ripa remained co-hosts for a decade until he left the show in 2011 at age 80.

Despite playfully bantering together each weekday morning for a decade, Philbin's departure appeared to strain his relationship with Ripa. In a 2017 interview, Larry King asked Philbin if he's kept in touch with Ripa, to which he replied, "Not really, no," with a somewhat pained expression on his face. "Never once did they ask me to go back," he continued, adding, "She got very offended when I left. She thought I was leaving because of her." But the real reason he left? "I was getting older and it wasn't right for me anymore," he said. 

Philbin shared that same opinion in an interview with The Insider. "I left and I think she resented that," he said. "I mean, that's how I feel about it, and I'm sorry, because I wasn't trying to dive from her, but I was a little tired."

A health scare caused Regis Philbin to overhaul his lifestyle

Regis Philbin proved to be a ubiquitous television personality during the 2000s. At the time he was enjoying the biggest success of his career, Philbin was in his 70s, an age at which most people are thinking about slowing down and retiring — if they haven't already. Philbin, however, displayed the energy of someone half his age, and although he appeared outwardly fit and energetic, health problems lurked beneath the surface.

As Philbin told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in 1992 he and then co-host Kathie Lee Gifford were shooting a TV commercial in Florida when he began experiencing chest pains. "I was shocked to learn I had a blocked artery and would need angioplasty right away," he said. Then, in 2007 he underwent triple bypass surgery. "I couldn't believe it," he said.

His heart issues, he said, led him to overhaul his lifestyle. "Before my experience with heart disease, I didn't have much discipline when it came to my diet," he said, revealing his meals were now primarily "chicken and vegetables." "I try to practice a little more moderation," he explained, adding that he also began exercising, hitting the gym three times a week.

Regis Philbin's comeback sports show was a bust

After his exit from Live! with Regis and Kelly, Regis Philbin returned to television in 2013 with a new sports-themed talk show, Crowd Goes Wild. Airing on the fledgling Fox Sports 1 network, the show featured Philbin and a panel of regulars, who hosted celebrity guests to discuss sports-related topics, more of a comedy-discussion show than a sports news broadcast. "We've got a nice little panel of people together, a lot of friends," Philbin told the New York Post. "I'm happy to be part of sports TV. If you look at the ratings, that's what's on top. Sports is the biggest hit TV has these days. It's all there on the field, pal."

Reviews were tepid, with Variety declaring that "the octogenarian host looked a trifle out of his element in this teeming morning-zoo environment." Ratings were abysmal, with The Bank reporting the show logged a "beyond terrible" 0.1 rating, with viewership dropping to as low as 29,000 — a far cry from the millions who tuned in for Millionaire.

Eight months later, Fox Sports 1 pulled the plug, with Sports Media Watch reporting that Crowd Goes Wild had been "quietly cancelled."

Regis Philbin holds a Guinness World Record

In 2004, Regis Philbin landed in the Guinness Book of World Records, having logged more time on television than any other human being. As the Associated Press reported at the time, Philbin had amassed a whopping 15,188 hours on television screens. During a telecast of Live! with Regis and Kelly, Philbin was presented with a plaque declaring him to be "the person with the most hours on TV" under his belt. Philbin, AP noted, handily beat out the previous record holder, ABC news anchor Hugh Downs, who could boast of 10,511 hours on the tube.

"Now it's all a big blur," Philbin, then just about to turn 73, told AP of his decades on television. "When you look back that's a lot of hours on TV."

Of all those hours over the years, Philbin said the ones that stuck out the most to him were when he interviewed fellow talk show hosts such as Steve Allen, Johnny Carson, and David Letterman, people "that do what I do," and "know what being a talk-show host is about."