Inside Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford's close friendship

Memories of television legend Regis Philbin — who died July 24, 2020 — rippled through the nation as tons of fans reflected on the iconic host's life. His tenure as the co-host of Live! was arguably the most memorable, greeting Americans each weekday morning from the New York City studio. In the hit show's early years, Philbin was joined by Kathie Lee Gifford and their smiles and upbeat personalities were broadcast across the country.

Philbin and Gifford spent 12 years co-hosting the talk show, starting with its debut in 1988. The duo split in 2000 when Gifford left Live!, but their friendship continued for 20 more years. "There are no words to fully express the love I have for my precious friend, Regis. I simply adored him and every day with him was a gift," Gifford wrote in an Instagram tribute. "We spent 15 years together bantering and bickering and laughing ourselves silly—a tradition and a friendship we shared up to this very day... There has never been anyone like him. And there never will be."

Let's see how their television partnership began and ended, as well as how they stayed in touch decades later.

Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford were known for their 'silly ribbings'

Before Live! debuted in New York in 1988, Regis Philbin already had a deep TV background. Starting in the 1960s, Philbin had many stints in New York and California before landing his short-lived hosting gig on The Regis Philbin Show, according to the Los Angeles Times. More flops would follow, but Philbin finally found success when transferring from Los Angeles to New York in 1983 to co-host The Morning Show with Cyndy Garvey.

Kathie Lee Gifford (then Johnson) became Philbin's co-host in 1985, and according to The Hollywood Reporter, the lineup led to higher ratings. By 1988, The Morning Show became Live! with Regis and Kathie Lee and was syndicated nationally. The opening banter between the hosts was part of the show's charm, offering the audience a window into their lives with anecdotes about their spouses and children.

"TV usually thinks those things are too insignificant to be interesting to anybody. But that's all I've got," Philbin told the Los Angeles Times in 1988. "And it may sound a little hokey, but people relate to that, and they find those small little stories so appealing that they want to tune in the next day to find out what happened last night." As for why they succeeded, Philbin once said (via Variety), "We kind of came across as diametric opposites, which seemed to give the audience as much of a kick as we got from our silly ribbings of each other."

Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford's on-air partnership lasted 15 years

Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford shared another 12 years on the air, following three years with The Morning Show. The duo was able to reach a national audience with Live!, and over the years, the two have been supportive of each other on and off the air. In Philbin's 1995 book I'm Only One Man, Gifford wrote the introduction. According to the Los Angeles Times, in the book, she described her co-host as "the same kid who got dumped after the prom. He's still the same young man from the Bronx whose mother used to tell him, 'The poorhouse is just around the corner, Mr. Big Shot.”

The two also published two books together in the 1990s: Entertaining With Regis & Kathie Lee and Cooking With Regis & Kathie Lee. "They're like army buddies," a source told Closer Weekly about Philbin and Gifford. "They went through a unique time together, pioneering the early-morning TV format. They genuinely like and love each other." Gifford left the talk show in 2000 and was replaced by Kelly Ripa after a six-month search.

Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford remained friends for decades

Despite Kathie Lee Gifford's departure from Live! With Regis & Kathie Lee, she remained friends with Regis Philbin for another 20 years. Gifford joined Today in 2008 to co-host the morning show's fourth hour with Hoda Kotb. Viewers, however, would sometimes be treated to a reunion when Philbin would serve as a guest co-host on the show.

When speaking to the media about life after the show, Gifford and Philbin had different reactions, but they were out of admiration. "I think it'd be nice!" Philbin told Closer Weekly in April 2015 of reuniting on-screen someday (via Fox News). "She's very funny, and she's a lot of fun... We had a great time – great feelings, and she's smart. We enjoy it." As for Gifford, she told the magazine, "I don't miss working with Regis, because I see him actually more now than I ever did." Gifford said that Philbin and his wife, Joy, joined her and husband, Frank, for double dates together. Frank Gifford died in August 2015.

In July 2015, Philbin joined Today as a special contributor, according to Good Housekeeping. On Gifford's last day on Today in April 2019, Philbin appeared via video to wish her luck. "Kathie Lee... the best part of my life, my TV life, was in the 15 years I spent with you from 1985 to 2000," he said. "We stayed friends through the entire game and it was a lot of fun."