Regis Philbin, a versatile U.S. television personality who hosted popular game shows and morning talk programs during a career that started in the 1950s, has died. He was 88.
Philbin died Friday of natural causes, a month shy of his 89th birthday, the Associated Press reported, citing a statement from his family.
Philbin was the most ubiquitous TV personality in U.S. history, with almost17,000 hours in front of the cameras, Guinness World Records announced in 2011. Much of it was unscripted, as host of morning talk shows “Live with Regis and Kathie Lee” and, beginning in 2001, a similar format with Kelly Ripa.
His onscreen persona ranged from bemused to personable to cantankerous, while his morning shows ran segments harking back to programs from TV’s early days: beauty secrets, celebrity interviews and cooking demonstrations.
President Donald Trump paid tribute to Philbin as “one of the greats in the history of television” as well as “a fantastic person.”
Philbin’s contributions to prime time were oddly traditional, too: “America’s Got Talent,” which he emceed in 2006, its first season, was an amped-up version of a classic format. “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” resembled prime-time game shows of the 1950s, such as “The $64,000 Question.”
One big difference for the new millennium in both shows was an inflated jackpot: $1 million. The other was Philbin, whose snarky edge added a postmodern gloss. His thundering ultimatum on “Millionaire,” “Is that your final answer?” became a cultural catchphrase.
Philbin himself dated from TV’s golden age, having moved to Los Angeles in the late 1950s to try his luck in show business after a hitch in the U.S. Navy. He worked as a page, TV news writer, local anchor and talk-show host.
In 1967, he became the announcer and sidekick for “The Joey Bishop Show,” ABC’s answer to Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show” on NBC. The Bishop show ended after three years and Philbin didn’t return to a national audience until 1988, with the syndication of “Live with Regis and Kathie Lee.”
The show paired Philbin with Kathie Lee Gifford as an adoring and tart-tongued co-host. It was less lurid than tabloid-style competitors such as Phil Donahue and Geraldo Rivera.
“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” was Philbin’s biggest hit. From a summer replacement on ABC in 1999, it expanded to four prime-time hours per week and was the top-rated show on television in 2000. It “single-handedly revived the network,” according to anarticle in the New York Times.
By 2001, “Millionaire” fever subsided and the show was canceled the following year. It continued in syndication with other hosts, though, and Philbin presented occasional specials. Profits from the initial run exceeded $1 billion, according to a 2002 article in the New York Times.
Regis Francis Xavier Philbin was born Aug. 25, 1931, in the Bronx, New York, according to Marquis Who’s Who. His father, Francis Philbin, was a corporate personnel manager and his mother, the former Florence Boscia, was a homemaker.
Philbin attended Catholic high school in New York and the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1953. While majoring in sociology Philbin dreamed of becoming a singer.
In his 2011 memoir “How I Got This Way,” he wrote about how, on the eve of his graduation, he sang “Pennies From Heaven” for his parents to demonstrate his ambition. When they demurred, he decided to try a job in the emerging medium of television instead.
Much later in his career, Philbin recorded albums, mostly standards delivered in the style of his idols, Bing Crosby and Dean Martin.
His record-setting TV host appearances didn’t prevent Philbin from pursuing a parallel career as a dramatic and voice actor in dozens of movies and television shows, often appearing as himself. He also held the record for most appearances — 136 in total — as a guest on David Letterman’s “Late Show,” according to CBS.
Philbin and the former Kay Faylin had two children, Amy and Danny, before their marriage ended in divorce. With his second wife, the former Joy Senese, he had two daughters, Joanna and Jennifer, a TV producer and screenwriter.
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